As I said in my last review: I love autobiographical writing. To continue the theme, I recently listened to Joan Didion’s Books: The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of an especially tumultuous year in her life. After the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of her daughter, Didion finds herself detached from reality and has to claw herself back to reason. There is a certain sharpness in the way she puts things, a certain breathlessness in the intelligence with which she follows the paths of her own thoughts while mourning the loss of a writing partner and spouse (a parallel to Hampl’s book).

We see here a woman who is smart, quick and in control of her faculties wanting to fight and having to accept, that there is no real shortcut, no swift way to skip the all too human need to just feel shitty for a while, to be scared, to be upset, to not know, to maybe not even understand why your own seemingly better argument, the pointed question or educated guess doesn’t cut it. To be clear, what Didion focusses on is not this desire to skip the lowly emotions and loss of control that are part of the human condition. But, to me, she exemplifies how hard it is to accept the necessity of being a passenger, not the driver, for a while after an event like this.

One strength of Didion’s writing is that she can put a finger on the power of slightly changed emphases. Like in her text “Everywoman.com” about Martha Stewart and her empire from the second book of her’s I have listened to: Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays from 1968 to 2000.

In Everywoman.com she turns the critique on Martha Stewart, a home maker turned CEO of a billion dollar company, inside out. The critique goes something like this: Martha Stewart is a fraud, because she pretends to be a simple homemaker, like her fans, even though in reality she is a driven business woman who created merely an artifice of being a homemaker. Didion is directing her more empathetic read of Stewart mainly against Jerry Oppenheimer’s unauthorized investigative Book on her: Just Desserts. Opposed to Oppenheimer, Didion concludes that Stewart’s success, Artifice and all, are inspirational to US-American women because Stewart managed to create her own rags to riches story: from homemaker to CEO.

One thing I picked up and that is eerily related to her empathy for Stewart is her own success. I stumbled upon the following review of The Year of Magical Thinking on Amazon that is an example of what I mean:

She certainly went through losses that would make anyone stagger. I just found that I couldn’t identify with her experiences. She describes months of folks making sure she was taken care of. Can’t relate. She recounts good times in a long marriage that involves luxurious travels and freedom gained through wealth. Can’t relate. Am I jealous? Probably.

Didion is well off, that much is clear. She has been a successful writer for a long time and coming up in a much more socially mobile era, she ended up being wealthy. The question is: Does this take away from her writing? And the answer is: Yes, a little bit. I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that I can’t relate or that what she has to say is not interesting, quiet the opposite, but because Didion’s voice is one of careful reexamination (it reminds of the idiom “show me, I’m from Missouri”) and her reputation is one of popularizing counter culture, of problematizing the American Dream I can’t deny that the success, although earned, subverts a little bit her persona, her self-conception or the frame from which I read her (so maybe, probably, this is on me). It complicates the relationship between me, the reader (or listener in my case), and her, the counter culture writer. Now, I am not owed an uncomplicated relationship. But I do have to admit that the contrast of a now wealthy writer that came from a place of socially conscious reporting - and still has those instincts but lives a totally different life - lead to some cognitive dissonance. It totally makes sense that lives like this exist. She is not the first, nor the last that will have had also monetary success from writing empathetically about various social issues. I still enjoyed the books, I just wish there was a way to ask the question: How do you integrate your being well off with writing so empathetically? How do you try to juggle not being perceived as patronizing?

  • You can find her Essay on Martha Stewart on the New Yorker’s website: Everywoman.com.