Joan Didion as the poster girl for French fashion brand Celine
Joan Didion as the poster girl for French fashion brand Celine

A frail, taciturn and shy woman who hated interviewing people, abhorred the use of telephones and let her husband finish her sentences, Joan Didion, who died December 23 aged 87, made herself illustrious, voluble, durable and stylish on the printed page.

She grew into her true self only when she sat before her typewriter. To the typewriter, she committed her authentic persona, which reached readers through the printed page. And the readers, in turn, loved the person they met on paper.

Didion’s craftwork has been credited with “expanding the landscape of the printed page.” A standout and singular woman among the male crowd of the New Journalism school of thought, such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, she excelled at the art of narrative reporting, infused with a deeply personal stamp in a way that eclipsed others.

She influenced a generation of writers and journalists. Many have confessed to stealing liberally from her and emulating her syntax; others feel continually refreshed by the resonance of her polished sentences in their writing and minds. The depth and breadth of her influence can be gauged from the flood of tributes that have come pouring in from a spectrum of film critics, novelists, essayists, journalists and, also, the fashion world.

Her writing craft — originating when, as a student, she used to copy out passages from Ernest Hemingway — was honed in the editorial offices of Vogue, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Life magazines. Her analysis of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms in The New Yorker shows how deeply indebted she was to him. Joseph Conrad is reported to be another of her early influences.

Joan Didion, who passed away December 23, always kept faith with the written word. Her attention to the craft of writing and narratorial voice influenced a generation of writers and journalists

Didion believed that, to think correctly, one needed to acquire complete mastery of language. She explained in the article on Hemingway that “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching.” What informed her craft was an unflagging and granite determination to infuse her reportorially stylish essays with a precise voice, syntax and “a certain way of looking at the world.”

Born a fifth-generation Californian in 1934, she was shaped, in her own words, “by the landscape she grew up in.” Her first novel — 1961’s Run, River — and first non-fiction book — 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem — focused on California and her birthplace Sacramento. The publication of the latter established her reputation as an exceptional and most talented writer of her generation.

She also ascribed her staying power to having something to do with where she came from. In her early 20s, she landed a job at Vogue upon winning an essay contest soon after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where she had studied English literature. Her stint at Vogue clued her into magazine journalism, which afforded her time and space for her stylish, essay-length ruminations on any reporting subject she chose, or which was assigned to her.

Didion forged a unique New Journalism-influenced style of writing, the essence of which lay in the narratorial voice and stylish prose strongly influencing the perception of events and analysis. This was to become her lifelong forte and attracted her a cultish following among writers and journalists.

Whether asked to write on politics, culture or films, she brought her distinctive stamp to them all. Her x-ray clarity, precise voice and polished and lingering syntax remain vivid, adulated and emulated by new generations of writers and journalists. Didion’s nearly decade-long stay at Vogue also formed her refined sense of fashion, which marked her as a symbol of cool — as late as the age of 80, she was adopted as the face of French fashion house Celine.

In the 1960s, she wrote about the seismic cultural and political fractures blighting the United States. Her cool detachment, but great penetration and insight, was shaped by her high-strung alertness to the dark undercurrents and subterranean forces driving the turbulent decade.

Though a Goldwater Republican with a conservative take on the Black Panther, civil rights and feminist movements, what she wrote about these big-picture issues with deep stakes for the future of the societal whole, is still resonant today. When Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, engaged her to write on US politics, she brought her immense knowledge and incomparable literary style to bear upon her essays. In the 1980s, she coined the term “the permanent political class” to describe the unholy trinity of media, politicians and strategists, which was instrumental in shaping the self-image of the US.

In 1964, Didion married fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. This union was to prove one of the most successful literary partnerships, with John and Joan finishing each other’s sentences at parties and editing each other’s articles and books while co-writing screenplays and films as a lucrative side-line.

Despite difficulties in a marriage publicly written about by Didion with editing help from Dunne, they stayed together in a fruitful partnership. The most glamorous bi-coastal couple in America at the time, the duo lived between California and New York, socialising with the high, the mighty and the famous of the literary, cultural and film worlds.

The couple adopted a daughter, naming her Quintana Roo, after a Mexican town. Despite suffering personal tragedies, with Dunne and Quintana dying within two years of each other in 2003 and 2005 respectively, Didion kept her faith with the written word, producing two great grief memoirs: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

The first was dedicated to Dunne’s memory, the second to Quintana’s. The Year of Magical Thinking was later made into a successful Broadway play, with British actress Vanessa Redgrave playing the lead role.

In 2012, in belated recognition of her services to literature and journalism, Didion was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal by then American president Barack Obama. In 2017, she was the subject of a celebrated Netflix documentary, Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold, directedand produced by her nephew Griffin Dunne.

Didion’s works are required reading on first-person writing courses taught at many American universities and elsewhere. In her famous 1976 essay ‘Why I Write’, published in The New York Times, she is clear-eyed about the purpose of writing: it was, for her, a way of imposing a narrative on disparate images and making sense of things around her. She once told an interviewer that, “Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.”

In one of her book reviews, Didion wrote that “Human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.” Yet hers is one that is decidedly not likely to fade out, or trail off, as long as literature, magazine journalism and films continue to inspire, shape and improve humankind.

The writer is the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21st Century. He tweets @arifazad5

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 9th, 2022

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