Sarah Kerr on Joan Didion

Sarah Kerr has a very toughtful consideration of Joan Didion’s nonfiction work in the April 26, 2007, issue of the New York Review of Books. The highlights:

The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?
. . . .
“Style is character”: at several points in her career, Didion has offered this sentence as one of her core beliefs. But what does it mean? Not that you are what you look like, or that what you look like is what counts. Style is the writer’s site of decision-making—literally, the site of actions whose integrity can be measured. It is the place where the self meets the world. And so Didion felt a need to do what for her was, by her own admission, extremely difficult: go out and meet the world.
. . . .
Because Didion’s later reporting on politics, often for this magazine, took a turn generally more critical of a reawakened American conservatism— and critical, also, of paralyzed Democratic accommodation—it’s sometimes been said that at some point in the decades after these first two books she was radicalized, or at least nudged toward something more like traditional liberalism. To argue this is to ignore how much the writing life has always been her central concern, and how much politics has always been a secondary, if all too gift-giving, subject. All along her aimed-for target has been behavior that is in error, above all behavior that resists—and therefore demands from the observing writer—irony.

My favorite line from the piece, and the one with which I identify most, comes from Didion herself in one of Kerr’s epigraphs: “to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.” She’s talking, in “Notes from a Native Daughter” about the fate of those in the Sacramento Valley, but also, as usual, about everyone.

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