December 24, 2021
The American author was not only brilliant but also generous and kind to younger writers, writes Emma Brockes
Remembering Joan Didion: ‘Her ability to operate outside of herself was unparalleled’
There is that famous photo of Joan Didion, taken in Malibu in 1976, in which she leans on a deck overlooking the beach, cigarette in hand, scotch glass at her elbow, and regards her family – John Dunne, her husband, and their then 10-year-old daughter, Quintana – through lowered, side-long eyes. Like other iconic photos of Didion from the period, she is at one remove from the group, off to the side and in this case, looking not at the camera but at her family as they look at the camera. It’s the pose Didion perfected, in life as in art, and when news of her death at the age of 87 broke on Thursday, it was a shock to see another frame from that sequence surface online. In it, Didion, eyes fixed forward, smiles broadly at the camera in the conventional style – a rare glimpse behind the persona.
The paradox of Didion was not unusual among writers, whose confidence is often born of a million anxieties. But her ability to operate outside herself – to measure the gap between inside and out and slyly mock any effort to conceal it – was unparalleled. She was, famously and by her own account, diffident, brittle, runtish, prone to migraines, afraid of the telephone, and as she wrote in the preface to her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “bad at interviewing people”, apparent deficits that, in Didion’s hands, were of course precisely what permitted her entry to places her rivals – particularly the blow-hard men of 1960s journalism – couldn’t reach.
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