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Inspired by Joan Didion

I spent a lot of time yesterday reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Didion was one of the major authors during the New Journalism movement of the 1960s, and actually one of the few women that gets remembered widely from the era. More recently, Didion wrote the memoir A Year of Magical Thinking that chronicles the year after her husband’s death. I haven’t read that book, but after Slouching Towards Bethlehem it’s move up to a priority book on my to-read list (once I get a copy of it).

I love Slouching Towards Bethlehem so far, and have a couple of passages that were really inspiring. The first part of the book I can’t get out of my head is the last part of the introduction. I’ve looked all over trying to find a text of the intro online, but I can’t. So, you’ll just have to suffice with the parts I can type and go find the book yourself to read more.

What else is there to tell? I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone’s press agent. (This precludes doing pieces on most actors, a bonus in itself.) I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, to temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that I presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

I love this section because it is entirely self-aware (we don’t see Didion in the collection much), and because it almost perfectly describes some of the things I feel about journalism. It’s ok that I don’t like to make phone calls or agonize over interviews–Joan Didion hated it too and she turned out just fine.

The second amazing quote is the opening section of the title essay of the collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy seige. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some people we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because not else seemed to relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.

The essay goes on to chronicle Didion’s time in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where she got to know a series of street kids and their mentors and activists in the community, all sort of not knowing where they were going or what they were doing.

Although this passage doesn’t really show it, the thing I like about the essay is that Didion is masterful at being an artful observer. As theexile from Exile on Ninth Street put it in comments yesterday, “Didion’s style is caught somewhere between detached and very involved.” That seems odd, but I think it’s a good way of describing how she doesn’t judge what she sees, just reports it in a way that makes you want to read more. It’s so good; reading this affirms to me that Didion deserves to be one of the most well-respected journalists to come out of the 1960s New Journalism era.

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  • theexile October 13, 2008, 4:48 pm

    That second excerpt is very chilling, as if she wrote it today: that’s the power of great writing, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, it never seems to lose its timeliness.

    Detachment is essential to writing:

    “It seemed for a long time that the problem had been detachment: I hadn’t had any, hadn’t even known it was a thing to be prized; that, in fact, without detachment there can be no story; description and response, yes, but no story.” — Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

  • Rebecca Reid October 13, 2008, 6:26 pm

    I’ve read an essay or two by her, but I should revisit her essays. Sounds great. I appreciate those excerpts.

  • Kim October 14, 2008, 2:41 am

    theexile: I know, I read that passage and couldn’t believe how relevant it felt to the financial mess we find ourselves in.

    Rebecca: Yes, I think she’s been great so far. I found some essays online by searching for “Joan Didion,” so you may be able to find some.