Nancy Reagan once claimed that she couldn’t get fair press coverage from the women sent to write about her. Perhaps, she speculated, these journalists were jealous of her, “a woman who wears size four” and who has “no trouble staying slim.” Her theory was put to the test when The Saturday Evening Post sent Joan Didion to profile her in 1968, the year that Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, would lose the Republican presidential primary to Richard Nixon. If not a competition of looks or a comparison of waistbands, then what could have accounted for the resulting article? “Pretty Nancy” followed the style that was then becoming distinctive of Didion’s journalistic prose: a blunt, self-assured series of descriptions and observations that lead the reader to believe she was just writing down what she saw. Here is Nancy pretending to pluck a rhododendron blossom. Here is Nancy finding her light. Here is Nancy wearing “the smile of a woman who seems to be playing out some middle-class American woman’s daydream, circa 1948.”
Nancy, of course, did not like Didion’s profile. She found it sardonic and judgmental and accused Didion of having written the piece before they even met. She couldn’t understand it, she said later. She thought they were having a nice time.
What is it about Joan Didion that seduces and then betrays? In her writing she promises little, and in her public life she offers even less. The title of Didion’s new essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, almost seems like the kind of cruel joke one might find in one of her pieces. Has a writer ever been less likely to say just what she means? Across the 12 works included—which span Didion’s entire career from her column in The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1960s and ’70s to one-off essays and reports for The New Yorker to speeches given at her alma mater, as well as introductions to other people’s books—the impression one gets is that of reading a magazine made up of all ledes and kickers. This is the case with “Pretty Nancy,” too. It contains many of Didion’s trademarks. Her sentences often exist as aphorisms, all the more brutal for being brief; her choice of weapon tends to be the direct quote. These tendencies capture something true about her writing in general: Her essays show a writer who attempts a close reading of the powerful people and strange circumstances she encounters but then, when understanding proves difficult, draws back to look at them from a great, flat distance.
In Blue Nights, her 2011 memoir about grief, family, and work, Didion said that when she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, worked on dialogue for their screenplays, they would mark the time a character spent speaking before coming up with the words themselves: What was said was not as important as the rhythm and length of the speech. Her essays also have this novelistic approach. As Hilton Als notes in his foreword to Let Me Tell You What I Mean, “a peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction.” This appears to be the case, however, not because Didion is too imaginative in her journalistic renderings but rather because of her sense of control over the material and her certainty of its meaning, as though nothing happens without her permission.
One finds echoes of this approach in the way Didion circles around the California governor’s wife, the tension hovering in the sharp point she holds back from making. There are inferences into what kind of person Nancy is, what kind of mother her teenage son might see her as, what kind of sycophantic circle a political family might live within. In many ways, Didion casts Nancy in a film of her own making. The writing could serve as cues for a character in a screenplay rather than as descriptions of a real-life woman in a magazine profile.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean includes a kind of corollary to “Pretty Nancy,” Didion’s 2000 profile of Martha Stewart (or, more to the point, of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC), another story of a woman in the business of promising domestic harmony. “This is getting out of the house with a vengeance, and on your own terms,” Didion writes, “the secret dream of any woman who has ever made a success of a PTA cake sale.” Didion’s sentences have a way of taking a person at face value and seeing the way subtle truths lie under glossy surfaces.
Other profiles are of groups, like her essay on a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, in which she writes that she had to leave as soon as she heard the people there speak of “serenity,” because it is a word she associates with death. There is a profile of a building, too—San Simeon, the castle William Randolph Hearst built with his newspaper fortune. Here, Didion’s classic cruelties are put to good use, showing her disdain for the wealthy who never had to learn how to use their money wisely: “San Simeon was…exactly the castle a child would build, if a child had $220 million and could spend $40 million of it on a castle.”
When writing about what she likes, Didion finds herself drawn to her subjects with an intimate approach; she writes about them as if she is sharing their secret. In “Alicia and the Underground Press,” the subject is alternative newspapers, but the essay is really about the purportedly objective mainstream press and Didion’s fatigue in the face of it—she much prefers a journalistic tone that mimics a conversation between friends. “These papers ignore the conventional newspaper code,” she explains in what, for her, can be read as praise, and instead “say what they mean.” When a writer at an underground newspaper has a thought, Didion adds, they say so, and best of all “quite often in lieu of who, what, where, when, how.”
But as the reader continues through the essays in this collection, her writing can also take on the feeling of being alone in someone else’s living room: She is going through their homes in search of a secret. In her article about the Hearst castle, she critiques the childishness of grown men, and in “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” she critiques the overgrown precociousness in children. As with a face in profile, the angles are everything.
Didion loves other people’s words, to turn them over and examine them from all sides. This does not necessarily mean that she is faithful to what they said: “Why I Write,” a speech she gave at UC Berkeley and included here, is now frequently quoted in essays about Didion for its unrelenting admission that she considers writing a hostile act. She also returns in the speech to the cinematographer’s lens:
Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.
The questions such a collection of essays demands—for example, why these pieces, and why now?—invite a cynical answer that is then attached, inextricably so, to the thought itself: Because these are the pieces that haven’t been recently collected; because these are the pieces that can be sold either to the completist or to the casual reader. If this book does have a theme, it is one indistinguishable from what many readers already know about Didion: that all of this writing is less about the topic than about how Didion feels about it. This unanswerable approach can almost lead the reader to the point of hypnosis—no matter the subject, her preferred subtext is what she won’t tell and we can’t know. Nancy Reagan probably had many reasons to feel betrayed by Didion’s article, but the reason she was insulted had nothing to do with Didion’s insincerity: She evades, but she does not lie. In her writing, she may not tell us what she means, but we can certainly sense how she feels.
Betrayal, of course, is possible only when a loyalty has been broken. Who, readers might ask, does Didion stand with? What is she for or against? In a 1972 essay, “Seduction and Betrayal,” Elizabeth Hardwick said that these two illicit actions have become a question more of psychology than of ethics. “We ask ourselves how the delinquent ones feel about their seductions, adulteries, betrayals, and it is by the quality of their feelings that our moral judgments are formed…. In novelistic relations, where the pain inflicted is only upon the feelings of another person, everything is blurred.”
When New York Review Books reissued this essay along with some of Hardwick’s other essays in 2001, Didion made the following observation in her introduction:
At the time Seduction and Betrayal was first published, a reviewer in The New York Times complained that if the book had a fault, it was that its author failed to “make sufficient distinctions between the real and the literary.” That there are no such distinctions to be made, that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are, is in many ways the point of this passionate book.
This fuzziness that both Hardwick and Didion describe—of novels that seem like biographies, of news reports that read like fiction—is perhaps the only way to read Didion’s work. Every profile is of a character; every article invents a story. As she told a student reporter for Berkeley’s Daily Californian in 2001:
The whole way I think about politics came out of the English Department. They taught a form of literary criticism which was based on analyzing texts in a very close way. If you start analyzing the text of a newspaper or a political commentator on CNN using the same approach of close textual analysis, you come to understand it in a different way. It’s not any different from reading Henry James.
For Didion, politics, like a novel, pulls from life but also can exists as fantasy, and can therefore be read like literature.
With this, a key is handed to those inclined to read Didion like code. A woman can accept her fate or she cannot, Didion seems to say again and again; she can play heroine, or she can escape the narrative altogether. The future awaits us either way. A woman with no loyalties is a Madame Bovary. A woman who cannot help her loyalties is an Anna Karenina. A woman who is the last to discover her own loyalties is an Isabel Archer. And a woman who will write book after book and essay upon essay without ever claiming her own loyalties is a Joan Didion.
In novels by Henry James and his contemporaries, being a journalist is something of a punishment to the journalist and to those around the journalist: Reporters, editors, and critics are a necessary burden on the social circles of much more interesting characters and a quiet threat to good manners. Like Henrietta Stackpole, the feminist journalist who acts as a comic foil for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, their presence signals someone who knows a secret is currency. We wait in suspense to see if they try to cash it in.
The curious thing about reading Didion is finding her agree with this literary assessment. In “Alicia and the Underground Press,” and in other essay collections like Political Fictions and nonfiction books like Miami, we often find Didion describing a certain kind of journalist as a marginal figure, at the boundaries of an event. Their access—and their determination to keep it—often is a central theme in her descriptions of her peers.
Perhaps that’s why Didion has also so frequently become a subject for other writers, and a subject of such strong critiques. The many roles she occupies—journalist, novelist, and screenwriter—has made her an idol of publishing, and with that vaunted status comes an ever-rotating inquiry into who she is and what she believes. I’m sure some people read Didion and think she’s just fine, but given her style, fame, and other forms of capital and cachet, it is also hard not to notice the extremes of love and hate. Readers and subjects alike often report the same mistaken expectations, the same hurt feelings, as they periodically look to excavate some meaning or matter from the extensive collection of writing that exists by or about Didion.
When critics go looking for signs or theories about Didion, they often turn to her politics. Writing for Popula, Maria Bustillos argued that she was “the First Lady of Neoliberalism” and that the fandom around Didion misses the politics at the center of so much of her writing. “The weirdest thing about it,” Bustillos writes, “is this dyed-in-the-wool conservative woman…somehow became the irreproachable darling of New York media and stayed that way for decades, all on the strength of a dry, self-regarding prose style and a ‘glamor shot’ with a Corvette.”
Reading Didion’s latest collection is enough to convince anyone that her writing is often more evocative than empathetic, more interested in style than in meaning. For some this might be primarily a literary feature of her writing, but for Bustillos this has made her journalism often read like “an unrelenting exercise in class superiority.” And it is true that Didion’s politics, while often contradictory and strange, were not all that inscrutable or indiscernible. She was a woman who loved Barry Goldwater, who told her friends that Nixon was too liberal, who unironically embraced a gently nostalgic interpretation of Americana and never missed an opportunity to cite a Hemingway sentence or a John Wayne scene. Her ideology is right there for the reader—laid out on the page, waiting for your interpretation.
But a reader is not a voyeur, and an audience has its own autonomy. Didion’s calculated vanity turns other people into a reflection that somehow manages to show nothing; this does indeed look, to a certain type of romantic, like seduction. She puts herself in view and then shuts the blinds. This may frustrate some readers, but it is hardly an act of “betrayal.” I often think about a line in Robert McKee’s popular and frequently skewered screenwriting manual, Story, in which he says that he is always surprised to see audiences who want to know everything possible about a character over the span of one film. You couldn’t know everything about a person in an entire lifetime, he reminds us. What makes you think you can get it all in a 90-minute movie?
There was a time when reading Didion made me feel like I had swallowed something that burned—that I could taste what it might be like to make someone sick with desire—and she retains that sense of being both divisive and adored; she will remain a powerful observer of our times and someone whose style people are quick to turn into metaphor. You could read every Joan Didion book ever released, study every sentence, look for her name in the margins of other biographies and in the bylines of archived clippings, in the credits rolling past on the screen, and still, you might know nothing.