Remembering Joan Didion’s reserved, masterful style

Joan Didion in her Upper East Side apartment in 2003. | Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

The power of Didion’s prose lay in what she didn’t say.

Joan Didion, the writer whose reporting on the California of the 1960s was a landmark of New Journalism, died on Thursday in her Manhattan home at 87 years old. With this death, America is losing one of its greatest prose stylists in living memory.

Didion wrote prose as clean and precise as a steel blade: It cut, but only what she meant to cut. As a child, she used to retype Hemingway’s chapters so that she could see how his sentences worked (Bret Easton Ellis later did the same thing with Didion’s work), but she had an austere elegance all her own. She was a master of argument through style; she rarely built out a formal thesis and supporting points, but would instead put her ideas across through a series of anecdotes, so carefully observed and beautifully rendered that the argument seemed to emerge from the negative space created by what Didion didn’t actually say. She didn’t need to say it.

One of the most striking examples of Didion’s sparse and evocative prose comes in her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” Didion begins characteristically, with an anecdote drawn from her notebook — a woman in a “dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper” complaining to a bored bartender about another woman named Estelle on an August morning in Wilmington. “Why did I write it down?” she asks. Why is she so compelled to keep a notebook, and why does she choose to write down the things that she does in it?

Didion swiftly dismisses the idea that she keeps her notebook to gather material for her work. While she sometimes allows herself to imagine that this might be the case, and that “some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest,” she concludes that this idea is merely a fantasy. She is not, she admits, really interested in the people she describes when she writes about them in her notebook. She is interested in herself, observing those other people.

This self-interest is the standard knock on Didion from her critics, who charge that she reports not on the world but on her own graceful sensibility. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison put it in 1980, “Her subject is always herself.”

“It is a difficult point to admit,” admits Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook”: that “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” But what makes Didion’s work so effective is that through her terse and allusive style, she is able to extrapolate out from her own implacable I into a mood, an aura, an emotional sense that everyone else’s I can recognize and latch onto. And that, in the end, seems to be what Didion is practicing in her notebooks: this extrapolation, this creation of tone from anecdote.

Didion herself concludes that she writes her notebooks in order to “keep on nodding terms” with the people she used to be, so that later she can go back to them and recognize herself at 17, at 23. But the way she stays on nodding terms is by jotting down observations that will jolt her back into the sense of how it felt for her to be a certain version of herself — and those anecdotes seem to have the same effect on the rest of us, too.

Didion denies the charge. “We are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you,” she writes. “‘So what’s new in the whiskey business?’ What could that possibly mean to you?” But then she tells us what it means to her:

To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a while. “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years – the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central – looked older than they once had.

So what’s new in the whiskey business means mortality. It means that we all get old and die, and that it’s awful to think about. Didion knows how to put that basic truth across, to evoke its grim horror, purely with the precision of her anecdotes. She doesn’t need to say it plainly. She put it into the negative space.