High life

The joylessness of Joan Didion

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

5 February 2022

9:00 AM



Joan Didion, who died last December, took herself extremely seriously. American writers tend to do that, especially those whose books are unreadable, the kind who win prizes and get reviewed by the Bagel Times. Pretension aside, however, Didion was a hell of a writer, a stylist who modelled her prose on Papa Hemingway’s. We never met, but I knew enough to stay away because of a joke I played on her.

Didion was godmother to David Mortimer’s and Shelley Wanger’s daughter, a young lady I have never met. Shelley is an editor at Knopf, and is the daughter of that beautiful and elegant actress of the 1940s Joan Bennett. David Mortimer is a scion of a grand old American family. I have always known them and like them, hence the joke. Joan Didion was being pushed in her wheelchair by an editor friend of mine, Steven Aronson, who is at present tasked with the Herculean labour of collecting Taki’s immortal writings of the past 50 years. Steven played along when I told him that although I have always been in love with Shelley, I was also going out with her daughter, whose name I don’t even know. He embellished a bit and told Didion that I was actually stepping out with the youngster. Upon hearing the false news, la Didion had a nervous breakdown right on Fifth Avenue.

How differently an English lady of letters would have taken it. The charming triviality of life escapes certain American types, and Joan was no exception. All writers are self-centred, but the recently departed gave the impression that she carried the weight of the world on her tiny frame. (Apparently her amphetamine intake was prodigious.) She also acted superior, especially with lesser mortals. Her 1960s novel Play It as It Lays was a hit. It captures the essence of Hollywood nothingness, the protagonist Maria driving the freeways aimlessly as her life and marriage fall apart. La Didion was a Goldwater Republican in 1964, a happy minority group that I belonged to. But she stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb due to her sheer joylessness. Her strengths were her style and when she wrote about things she knew —mainly the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore from 1960s California shipwrecks. She yearned for eastern literary-establishment approval and got it in spades.

After American society came apart during the late 1960s, and Play It as It Lays with its dark mood and doomsday vision, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking were both critical and commercial successes. All in all, 16 books and seven film scripts should have been enough to get Joan to smile a bit, but she was too precious and too full of herself for that. She made it to the top, along with three men who were buddies of mine, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, who is not only still with us but was impeccably dressed at my Christmas party.

Norman and Tom got into a literary scrap late in their life, but after Norman’s death I introduced his son Michael to Tom and they hit it off like gangbusters. The ghastly us-vs-them syndrome that seems to have irreparably split America did not, in general, apply to writers, at least in the past. No longer. As I write, the Bagel Times and the New Yorkerhave eschewed journalism in favour of partisanship; no white male writer, unless stamped with an approved label by #MeToo or BLM, is ever mentioned or, God forbid, employed. Sexual politics have done to literature what Bomber Command did to Dresden’s architecture. An editor by the name of Yanagihara at the Bagel Times writes the kind of garbage fiction that would have embarrassed Screw magazine, but bad writing seems to be a password for publication nowadays, as long as all the characters are gay. The Bagel Timesand the New Dentist (which is what I now call the New Yorker) have become unreadable due to their woke zeal and egregious political correctness.

Autofiction with a moral directive is a fraud, but what is inconvenient about us oldies is that we’ve been around and have had personal experience of certain subjects. There may be computer whizzes galore, but there is no substitute for having been there. Hacks will write anything to make their case, as one Michael Schulman did in the New Dentist when he tried to connect the Murdoch family to the freaks portrayed in the television series Succession. The actor who plays the role of Kendall Roy supposedly read Michael Wolff’s biography of Rupert and decided that James Murdoch tied his shoelaces tightly. The actor does the same thing, and endures torture during filming — not that anyone can see his legs, let alone his shoes. The New Dentist employs all sorts of fact checkers, but this is a crock, the hack trying to convince us that the actor is living the part. He should be so lucky to be Murdoch’s son.

There is a theory espoused by a female writer called Lili Anolik that the wind went out of the novel’s sails with the advent of women’s lib and the pill. After laughing out loud, however, I realised that she had one hell of a point. As she explains in her book Hollywood’s Eve, ‘the marriage plot is among the novel’s greatest plots’, certainly where female authors such as Austen and Eliot are concerned. She mentions Madame Bovary and Portrait of a Lady and how the tensions in those novels would never have existed if there had been prenups and the pill and all that. Mark one for the ladies.

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