When the French critic Louis Leroy visited the renegade exhibition of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne that the French Academy had rejected, he entitled his scathing and dismissive essay “The Exhibition of the Impressionists” (“Wallpaper in its embryonic state” he wrote “is more finished than that seascape”). It was his attempt to saddle these artists with a sobriquet insulting enough to make their works of deep emotional and intellectual vigor, appear instead superficial, frivolous and not a little trivial.
This is precisely the effect that the expression “master prose stylist” has every time it is attached to the name of one of our greatest living writers. Was ever someone of Joan Didion’s genius damned with fainter praise? “Master Prose Stylist”? What is that? Someone to delight a salon of antimacassar-adjusting grammarians as they discuss the merits of her use of chiasmus and synecdoche?
As if her work could only be appreciated by the small circle of people who care about form and structure, nuance and rhythm, echo and rhyme; who understand what inordinate skill it takes for someone to, not only know how to put a sentence together, but know how to put it together in a way that is mesmerizingly appropriate to the story she is telling, and that, while it may reflect the manners and modes of other writers, is blindingly original and distinct and unique.
Joan Didion is a master writer. Full stop. And “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, her first volume of collected non-fiction which appeared in 1968, reveals her to be at the top of her game almost from the beginning, a position she has not relinquished since.
Not because of her language, or not only because of her language. But because of what her language is communicating. Ms. Didion writes with the genius of a first rate mind that was steeped in an era when the conversation about an artist was not “how much did he make?” but “did he have anything to say?” Ms. Didion always has something to say, a message, a meaning, that will meander up deceptively from her deadpan prose, and that will catch you with your guard down, cutting you to your core.
Born and raised in the central valley of California (which she discusses in her 2003 memoir “Where I Was From”), Didion was graduated from Berkeley with a BA in English in 1956, won an essay contest, and moved to New York City to collect her prize – a job as a copywriter at Vogue Magazine. While there she completed her first novel, Run, River, and then began writing for magazines when such a thing could support a writer and wasn’t done purely for “exposure”.
Emerging when she did, in the mid-1960s, Didion is – was? – part of that generation of writers who were labeled “The New Journalism” and her place in that school is partly what makes it one of ideas and not just adjectives. For at their best the new journalists were journalists first and foremost, doing the legwork, finding the sources, climbing the stairs, breathing the dust, to get the story first hand, through their own eyes and ears. And then they went further. Telling not simply the story that the people within it knew, but telling the story that the people within it could not see. The story that sometimes required the outrageous behavior of Thompson to elicit, or the orotund prose of Wolfe to capture, or the deceptively elementary formulations of Didion to articulate, to discover, to disperse.
And about here is where one would pull quotations from the book to illustrate what one means. But time and again one discovers that Didion’s essays are as interwoven as fine cloth and that pulling one line begins to unravel the entire construction. That’s what we call fine writing.
Speaking of her arrival in Manhattan fresh out of college, Miss Didion explains that during the first few days the only thing she did was “talk long distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring. I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough and I stayed for eight years.”
If there are any readers who do not appreciate that last sentence, this reviewer is powerless to save them.
This reviewer too. Because that’s not just style. That’s substance.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion was originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1968 and reissued by them on 10/28/2008 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).