I wrote a post about how inspiring I found Joan Didion while I was in the middle of reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem last month, but have been putting off a review because I’m not sure what else to say. I loved the book when I finished it, started to dislike it while we discussed it in class, but now have come back to loving it again.
Didion is a strange author to read. Her writing style is very distanced, and she is almost painfully self-aware of her own motivations and biases. When you first read, this self-awareness is charming and disarming. Once I was disarmed, I stopped thinking about how Didion was manipulating the story because I started to trust her. And ultimately, I think that’s the biggest mistake Didion’s readers and Didion’s subjects can make because as soon as you let your guard down Didion strikes.
As a reader, she strikes through the way she interjects herself in the story. You stop paying attention to what she’s doing as a journalist to get these stories and allow yourself to get swept up in her message. You stop thinking as critically about what you’re reading and just sort of go along with it because the prose is elegant and Didion is a great storyteller.
I think Didion also uses these personality features to disarm her subjects, allowing them to open up to her without feeling threatened. It’s a mistake for her subjects to let their guard down because, as Didion writes in her own introduction, “writers are always selling somebody out.” Once a subject opens up to her, Didion has no problem making them look foolish or selfish or like a bad person in order to further her story. It’s really strange to spend time reflecting on the book because it takes time to really understand what Didion is doing.
I did really love this book. It’s an incredible look at 1960s counter-culture, and a much more accessible piece of New Journalism than books by Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe. With Didion, you don’t get bogged down by crazy writing or goofy prose, you just get swept along for a good story. The trick is staying aware enough to see what she is doing because that, for me, is the coolest part.