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Writers are always selling somebody out.
January 11, 2012 5:13 PM   Subscribe

"To really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female. … Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. … Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore."
posted by Houyhnhnm (45 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
You don't have to love the smell of Jasmine to love Joan Didion. You can also come to love her through your disgust for Reagan.
posted by clarknova at 5:36 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Salvador was powerful.

These bodies he photographs are often broken into unnatural positions, and the faces to which the bodies are attached (when they are attached) are equally unnatural, sometimes unrecognizable as human faces, obliterated by acid or beaten to a mash of misplaced ears and teeth or slashed ear to ear and invaded by insects.
posted by Trurl at 5:44 PM on January 11, 2012


That "old" thing happened to Hunter, too, but while he was still young.
posted by issue #1 at 5:45 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


lolcaitlinflanagan
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:51 PM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


But I like quarts of tequila and quiet days in Malibu!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:54 PM on January 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


I mean the thing is, Didion's perspective (like many other writers) always only appealed to a certain type. It just happens that that type is maybe no longer the one setting the cultural agenda or whatever you want to call it.

And I guess I've never been into Caitlin Flanagan's bag of tricks--something I've never been able to get past when I try to read her.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:55 PM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]



Salvador was powerful.


I was going to say that I've never read a book of hers, but I just realized that I read Salvador as a child. I was perhaps too young, but I remember being entranced.
posted by Forktine at 5:58 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Slouching toward Bethlehem and The White Album are still insightful and memorable.

Lately Didion's been writing about her life rather than her culture, and it's not as interesting. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if Joan Didion wrote another great book, which is more than I can say for the nasty author of this premature obituary.
posted by nixt at 6:07 PM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Interesting is so subjective. She's been writing forthrightly and honestly about the experience of aging and watching your loved ones die. That may not be the sort of thing that that primarily appeals to people who share those experiences. As it happens, there are a lot of those people.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:14 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I become Kahn and host my own Celebrity Mildly-well-known-to-leather-elbow-patch-types Death Match Tournaments, I shall call Maureen Dowd and Caitlin Flanegan into the ring first. Either outcome's a win and if the thunder god smiles on the mighty Kahn we may get mutual destruction.
posted by Diablevert at 6:21 PM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.

I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.”

Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.


"Only clothing-obsessed women like Joan Didion. As evidence, I present a man who knows fuck-all about clothing who likes Joan Didion. What a freak he must have been, am I right?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:24 PM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well... (leanin' back in the armchair)... there ain't nuthin' like a good ole-style literary hatchet-job...

(puffs on pipe, strokes cat, something, etc.)
posted by ovvl at 6:46 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joan Didion and Noam Chomsky, I wish, might cancel each other out. But they don't seem to, which is unfortunate.
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:55 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I completely agree with Caitlin's dad about the Sun Valley Mall.

It is built out of pink slime.
posted by bukvich at 6:56 PM on January 11, 2012


This article has already got my circle of friends worked up into snarling rage, so I'll just gracefully exit now, before I start yelling. But before I do, I'll just quote my friend Elaine, who summed up some of the problems with this review (aside from the part about how she pretty much killed her daughter through systematic neglect and psychological near-torture, that is): "Even the most seemingly cerebral and intellectually rigorous female writer can't escape having her work critically reduced to a thinly-disguised allegory of her marriage, motherhood and emotional and mental health issues."
posted by jokeefe at 7:20 PM on January 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Is there anything on this earth that Caitlin Flanagan doesn't think women do like this, and men like that?
posted by escabeche at 7:24 PM on January 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


Isn’t this every woman’s dream of marriage—where our sulks will be rewarded with trips to better climates, where our husbands will catch sharks and leave us alone to read books about deep water until it’s time for drinks?

I can't tell if she's being serious.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:00 PM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I need Caitlin Flanagan's opinion on Joan Didion like I need Snooki's opinion on Katherine Hepburn.
posted by Rangeboy at 8:05 PM on January 11, 2012 [30 favorites]


I don’t really know anything about Joan Didion, or who she is really, but I read "The Year of Magical Thinking" and enjoyed it. I tend to read books more than gossip about writers. I don’t have any idea who Caitlin Flanagan is either but I stopped reading the article when I realized it was just someone trying to meet a deadline and pay the rent by tearing someone else down.
posted by bongo_x at 8:33 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read this essay couple of days ago and have been thinking about it on and off since. I guess I didn't see it as a hatchet job exactly, because Flanagan (whom I don't know anything about) seems to love Didion at the same time she criticizes her. In fact, she says as much in the middle of the essay, if you read it through.

Is it wrong to see the faults in tho writers you love, or to see that they've become--in your opinion--lesser than you once thought they were? I don't know. Is it wrong to expose those faults, meticulously and at length, to a wider public? That's a finer line. But I don't know the answer to that, either.
posted by Ms. Informed at 8:55 PM on January 11, 2012


Is it wrong to expose those faults, meticulously and at length, to a wider public?

Definitely not. Authors sometimes keep on producing work well past their expiration date, and because of how publishing works (they are long-standing friends of the agent and publisher; they have a loyal fan base developed over decades; the entire apparatus of reviewers and NYTimes Sunday Magazine excerpts and everything else stands ready to play a part), they can keep getting books published long past their actual prime. I appreciate reviews that, correctly or not, try and describe the overall arc of a writer's career, even if there is a sadness to it.

I can remember how inescapable The Year of Magical Thinking was when it came out -- review after review, excerpts, etc -- and how important many people seemed to be taking it. And Flanagan's affection for Didion's earlier work comes through very strongly.

That said, though, her parallel trope of women are like this, men are like that seems a lot harder to support. Didion very much did have a strong female readership, but I doubt it was it ever as uniformly female as someone like Jackie Collins. As with Flanagan's other articles I've read (and seen discussed here), she is writing first about herself, second to provoke, and only third about her purported subject.
posted by Forktine at 9:11 PM on January 11, 2012


I guess I didn't see it as a hatchet job exactly, because Flanagan (whom I don't know anything about) seems to love Didion at the same time she criticizes her. In fact, she says as much in the middle of the essay, if you read it through.

And a more back-handed "love" you will not often find. Genuine criticism of Didion would focus on her work; would someone who had never read her be able to tell, after reading this article, what Didion's writing was like, aside from it involving flowers and curtains and weepy femaleness? This was not genuine criticism; it's a shallow promenade that erases Didion the artist and puts in her place a dissection of neuroses (and some of those on display are Flanagan's).
posted by jokeefe at 9:20 PM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


"To really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female."

What an obnoxious thing to say.
posted by tunewell at 9:54 PM on January 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


"She's given you thousand of hours of entertainment for free- if anything you owe her!"

"Worst. Memoirist. Ever."
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:41 PM on January 11, 2012


I'm a man, and I love Joan Didion. It's her prose--it's cold, and precise, and technical, and smart--self aware without being self absorsbed, with a perfect notice of detail. She is the only writer I know who does not fall into sentiment or melodrama when she is working on that which would reward it: her own madness, the death of her child, of course; but also Manson (even John Waters worked towards sentiment in his essay on Leslie in prison), El Salvador (as mentioned above), the environmental disasters of California...sometimes she is best when she works towards the middle--how the domestic feeds into the political, that Schivao essay in the nyrb a few months after she died.

It's like she believes that glacial prose will allow her to be redeemed.

Flanngan depends on sentiment to be productive, she is often a good critic, but one who is incapable of the distance Didion provides.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:50 PM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Flanagan's entire schtick is "My issues about my mother -- let me show you them."

Anything she writes about anyone is filtered through the prism of whether or not they'll live up to the maternal idée fixe that throbs through Flanagan's discourse. (That idée fixe having sprung from the adolescent pique Flanagan felt when her mother decided to go back to work, thereby disabusing the middle-school-aged Flanagan that she was the reason for her mother's existence.) And every assertion Flanagan makes about what "women" as a monolithic group supposedly care about -- nurturing men, nesting in their houses, craving the caretaking of a brilliant man who knows what they need better than themselves -- is really a wounded little sixth grader angrily telling her mother, "You don't count, normal women don't want to work, I bet you're not my real mom."
posted by sobell at 11:16 PM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Isn’t this every woman’s dream of marriage—where our sulks will be rewarded with trips to better climates

You know, I'm pretty sure my wife would just end up leaving me if I was either (a) that much of a pushover and/or (b) tried to buy my way out of whatever problem provoked the sulk.
posted by rodgerd at 11:53 PM on January 11, 2012


I prefer Terry Castle's memoir of Susan Sontag.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:23 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don’t have any idea who Caitlin Flanagan is either

She's the current enforcer of upper middle class morals for (white) women telling all you ladies in her oh so reasonable but oddly enraging writing style how y'all are doing it wrong and your heroes are all wrong and everything you like is wrong.

No offence.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:25 AM on January 12, 2012


I guess I didn't see it as a hatchet job exactly, because Flanagan (whom I don't know anything about) seems to love Didion at the same time she criticizes her.

That's Flanagan's whole schtick, putting the knife in while pretending to love whatever she's writing about, but sadly it did not live up to her expectations. It's about as honest as a three dollar bill.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:27 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


...y'all are doing it wrong and your heroes are all wrong and everything you like is wrong.

But, my favourite band. What about my favourite band?
posted by bicyclefish at 1:44 AM on January 12, 2012


Katie Roiphe wrote a similarly dismissive and kinda sexist review of Didion something like 10 years ago; I think it was called "Didion's Daughters." Would search but on the mobile.
posted by ifjuly at 2:35 AM on January 12, 2012


You wouldn't catch Didion, unlike this writer, using 'valedictory' as a noun, I suspect.
posted by Mocata at 5:14 AM on January 12, 2012


"Joan Didion's Evasions" (2003) by Katie Roiphe.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 5:41 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I sense that, at the root of the displeasure of Flanagan and Roiphe, is a sense of political betrayal -- that they can't really love Didion because she seems to have fled to the other side, if you will. I think they are dumbfounded because Didion's writing grew to transcend politics and the uselessness of side-taking.

For this, they are small-minded idiots.
posted by gsh at 6:38 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is a bunch of goofy stuff in that article, and also a few gems. There is only one thing that really needs to be corrected.

Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore.

'Year of Magical Thinking' won the National Book Award so her old bag of tricks seems to have worked very well at least one more time. I have not read the last one yet, but I had another listen to the Terri Gross interview from 2005 and that is an amazing and beautiful thing. Do not listen to that interview if you have lost a loved one in the last couple weeks.
posted by bukvich at 7:55 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Since Didion's Blue Nights ended up on a lot of best-of-2011 lists, I can kind of take Flanagan's "her bag of tricks didn't work anymore," etc., with a huge silo of salt. Didion's one of those semi-celeb writers who you either love or hate, like Janet Malcolm or Joyce Carol Oates or Don DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen. It's fascinating that in order to tear down Didion, Flanagan apes her style. It's kind of amusing that she airily dismisses survivors of the "Hollywood childhood of the ’60s/’70s variety" as "the usual mess," although she's also very careful to let us know that she "runs into" them "all the time."
posted by blucevalo at 8:47 AM on January 12, 2012


I love this .
posted by surfer127 at 9:01 AM on January 12, 2012


The Atlantic seems to have a big line in the rage business, running stuff that will poke its readers in the eye. Flanagan is maybe the mascot for that tendency.

But (even after reading this thread, the essay, etc.) I don't particularly understand why she makes people so angry.
posted by grobstein at 9:02 AM on January 12, 2012


But (even after reading this thread, the essay, etc.) I don't particularly understand why she makes people so angry.

I thank you for raising this inquiry, because it forced me to examine why I hold a middlebrow, middling critic in a contempt all out of proportion to her actual work. The best answer I can give you, as a reader: Because Flanagan is the worst kind of critic, the one who is too lazy and cowardly to examine the context in which her critical preferences and arguments are formed. Therefore, all her work hangs in a bubble of self-referential assumptions. It's worse than intellectual masturbation -- it's know-nothing solipsism. A good critic is one who can use their specific perspective to illuminate or interpret something in the human condition; they are aware of the necessary observer's distance that characterizes competent nonfiction writers. Flanagan is exactly the opposite of this.

My second reason for my seething contempt: This is a woman who grew up marinated in privilege & attained her gig at The Atlantic solely on the strength of her social connections. So not only does the Atlantic have a completely blinkered social "critic" on the masthead, they have one who hopped on courtesy of her ability to talk pretty at dinner parties.

On good days, I find it darkly amusing that the house organ for America's anxious career classes has basically invalidated the premise of having a career every time they run a Flanagan piece. On bad days, I wish Anne Helen Peterson would invade the back pages, because her work on the loop between popular entertainment and contemporary culture is far more illuminating than anything Flanagan has to say.
posted by sobell at 9:29 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Flanagan:
"My father has never set foot in the mall, and he thinks my attraction to it, and to all that it stands for, is either the kind of charming foible that younger daughters are encouraged to nurture, or else evidence of some serious deficit of intellect and taste that is going to add up to something bad in me" - add that to sobell's nice critique of infantilism.

-off to hunt sharks with my bare hands -
posted by doctornemo at 9:42 AM on January 12, 2012


Sadly, that Slate piece isn't what I'm thinking of; the article I read was earlier, in print, The Atlantic or something similar (I remember because the photo of Didion entranced me, and the pull quote underneath it about her sentences being long and gangly, awkward but beautiful "like teenagers"). Maybe it wasn't by Roiphe because Google is coming up barren but I could've sworn it was...hm...
posted by ifjuly at 10:03 AM on January 12, 2012


Ah ha! Found a cite of it, but not the content online, and I was right: Roiphe, Katie. "Didion's Daughters". Brill's Content Sept. 2000: 100-103, 136-137.
posted by ifjuly at 10:08 AM on January 12, 2012


I know a little more about who Caitlin Flanagan is since I just read the NYT review which trashes her new book.
posted by bongo_x at 12:17 PM on January 13, 2012


Some more interesting, less one-dimensional reads, courtesy a friend: Salon, NY Magazine.
posted by ifjuly at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2012


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