July 10, 2017
Joan Didion or the esque best thing
by Ryan Harrington
The publishing industry has a tendency to melt its most sacred proper nouns down into tiny silver adjectival balls, put a quarter in the machine, pull the spring, and just let ’em bounce around.
Franz Kafka—who is best known for having written works that are Kafkaesque—provides the most famous example. The adjective form of the canonical Czech modernist’s name has been applied to so many novels and everyday situations that it has lost all of its bite (and most of its meaning).
Joan Didion, according to Rafia Zakaria writing for the Guardian, provides the most current and fashionable example: Didionesque. Didion, now at eighty-two an all-but-canonical Great Old One of American letters, is best known for her immersive “new journalism” and shrewd critical eye. So indeed, a whole crop of talented young life-writers such as Alana Massey and Emily Witt have recently had “Didionesque” applied to their work, a signifier of their canny ability to blur the divide between an insider and an outsider, ethnographer and participant.
Yes, some of this is just book marketing. But Zakaria also points a sad truth about who is allowed to be Didionesque
Flirtation with the insider-outsider dichotomy is simply not possible without whiteness; nor is non-white self-exposition possible without the risk and baggage of representing all blackness, all Muslim-ness or all Latino-ness. Assumptions, fears and stereotypes exist in the space between the non-white would-be Didion and her subject. The non-white “I” can never situate herself in that “middle ground”, the sexy limbo between subjective and objective that Didion so masterfully inhabited in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Joan Didion is a true hero-writer, yes. But Zakaria warns us against celebrating the idea of a literary lineage that only a very specific type of writer can access. Let’s build a monument to Didion, but let’s not cement an entire set of social factors associated with Didion as a precondition to greatness.
And let’s take a moment to appreciate this argument on a different scale: James Madison is satisfactorily enstatued around this great land, but some of the institutions of the Madisonian Model are feeling ossified at best, and oppressive at worst.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.