Voices of Spring: Joan Didion

Voices of Spring: Joan Didion

Voices of Spring: Joan Didion

A literary legend and Hollywood's newest star are the voices shaping culture this season. 

A literary legend and Hollywood's newest star are the voices shaping culture this season. 

Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG

A new collection from the poet laureate of America’s disaffections takes on subjects from Robert Mapplethorpe to Martha Stewart. It has become easy to forget why the U.S. was once international dream fodder—Las Vegas’s artificial grandeur, New York’s skyscrapers, Los Angeles’s movie stars. But national treasures like Joan Didion, whose essays and books about American counterculture made her a literary household name since the ‘60s, serve as a reminder. Her new book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, comes out this January, continuing her plight of poetically skewering and questioning her country while simultaneously admiring it. Many of these 12 essays detail her firsthand experiences and distinctively Didion ruminations on the country’s dark underbelly: gambling addicts, lives of war veterans, rampant drug use. The stories here span a 1968 exploration of the underground presses to 2000’s “Everywoman.com,” and serve as powerful reminders of where we’ve been.

© Julian Wasser. Courtesy Danziger Gallery.

At times, they delve into the mythologies and realities of Americana. At other times, she places her finger directly on the human pulse of desire and vulnerability—American or not—interprets it, and explains it to the world, illustrating universal themes with delicate poignancy. Moreover, we learn that these themes, which are also found in Didion’s more popular and later works, were topics that compelled her innately, long before she became the Joan Didion that, for example, received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

Didion’s warmth stems from the fact that she herself is of this country, has greatly impacted this country, and is continuing to do so by resurfacing vintage material. She has written some of the most groundbreaking journalism and most heart-wrenching fiction of the past century, by means of being (in her own words), a “secret bully.” By this, she means her writing’s inherent force to push the reader in a certain direction. “In many ways, writing is the act of saying I,” she states in the book’s essay “Why I Write,” of “imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” But with Didion in particular, we should be thankful for the aggression.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean is out January 26 via Knopf.

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