Why Do We Celebrate Joan Didion’s Personal Essays More Than Her Other Writing?

Today is Joan Didion’s 79th birthday and also a day closer to the end of a year that was characterized by the resurgence of a narrative that she gave birth to: the “Goodbye to All That” essay, the it’s-time-to-leave-New York story. The glut of these essays is as much a marker of Didion’s popular beatification as of the impossibility of living in New York. This is not to say that making a saint of Sacramento’s daughter is undeserved, but rather that in privileging a minute part of her oeuvre, we have forgotten the, often better, rest. The popular imagination holds Didion as an “I-writer,” one whose personal ruminations offer the rest of us prescriptions for our own lives.

What we love about Didion, I think, is the strength of a voice that finds fertile ground in the machinations of history. And so if there is a beauty in reading Didion on Didion, there should, if patterns of human behavior are any indication, be more beauty in reading Didion on us. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, for example, the collection of essays in which we find “Goodbye to All That,” there are other equally strong pieces that have as their focus not the writer herself but those who surround her — and, literally or figuratively, us.

The question, then, is: why do we privilege the personal in Didion’s writing? The answer may lie in what happened after her grieving memoir The Year of Magical Thinking was published in 2005 and Didion became a household name on top of just being a legend of literary journalism. What happened was tantamount to an exorcism; where almost a half century of political writing, cultural criticism, and fiction were suddenly supplanted by a single record of devastating personal experience. It is not surprising that we found that work moving. But to forget the rest would be remiss.

That we find in the melancholy of Didion’s prose a little bit of ourselves is clear. The incisions that she makes into her own narrative, excising herself of personal demons or, more precisely, giving those demons contours with which to grasp, is for the reader, surgery by proxy. We read “Goodbye to All That” to learn about ourselves. We read it for the catharsis that can be reached by finding, in another’s experiences, answers, or at least suggestions as to why we suffer the way we do.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading Didion and can concede to the criticisms of pith that plague her work. The way things seem to always register the same despondent note, a dull, ever-present feeling that can’t quite be shaken. If I favor that dejectedness, it’s probably because I sense the mirrored emotion in myself — and you, if you are reading this, probably do too. But it’s worthwhile to read beyond this identification, because on all those pages where Didion tackles politics and contemporary society is cultural criticism whose incisiveness is only bolstered by the elegance of the prose.

In the essay that starts off Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” we get the dissolution of a marriage by murder and the messy ways we often try to force good-byes. Or take After Henry’s “Sentimental Journeys,” about the frenzy surrounding the Central Park jogger rape case in the ’80s and the ways in which the media shaped a city-wide response tainted perniciously by racism. Or to truly explore new ground, read Didion’s fiction. Read Play It As It Lays and try not to relate to Maria’s endless drives on the highways of Southern California, her evocation of the uniquely American escape of driving to forget.

Didion — if we look past the sometimes self-serving self-reflexiveness — has as much to offer us about each other, about the world we have lived in and (because of its inevitable cycles) the world we will continue to live in, as she does about ourselves. When Didion makes herself the subject, her propensity towards series of vignettes that are revelatory of much broader emotions are pleasing to us, to readers whose minds yearn for things easily summed up. If we read the rest, though, if we read Joan Didion’s other pages, we might find what we have been looking for the whole time: each other.