When Joan Didion says “writers are always selling somebody out,” she is correct to an extent. Journalists and writers have an agenda of their own that may or may not run parallel to the agenda of the subjects they write about. That said, I don’t see myself volunteering to be interviewed by Joan Didion in the near future. She is particularly incisive and has a keen ability to sneak into the more desperate sides of everyone she writes about. But more than that, all of her essays are deeply critical. Didion approaches her writing as an opportunity to show the insanity of the world she lives in, and has no interest in showing the sunnier sides of her subjects. Didion even leans a little too hard into this. Parts of her essays read as dated today. When she paints the absurdity of the culture she lives in, you can also spot where she is shaped by it.
It’s hard to argue with Didion’s writing. Her deadpan voice can in the same paragraph be both funny and deeply disturbing. Didion can conjure images of cherubic beauty and innocence- Joan Baez and her students eating potato salad like gentle children, and also of some of the most hellish things imaginable- a five year olds acid trip. She has an uncanny knack for putting herself in absurd places. Joan Baez’s school for nonviolence, the basement of a condemned building in Haight-Ashbury, the patio of a multimillion dollar institution for blowhards. But her choice of subject matter is informed by a more mainstream thread of culture blown out of an old mans mouth on the six o clock news, or read, like most of Didion’s essays, on the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s a tragic irony that when Didion exposes the hopeless idiocy of American culture, there are few voices that enforce adherence to it more than hers.
The cover of The Saturday Evening Post is literally a Norman Rockwell painting. The scenes depict the kitschy scenes of an idyllic white middle class life that must have seemed absolutely foreign to the clueless, disaffected people Didion punches down at. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s title essay, is an incredibly rich and well written snapshot of the messy fringes of what readers of the Saturday Evening Post might call the “Hippy Movement”. Didion speaks with runaways, trust-fund acid fiends, radical mimes, and groupies hanging out after a Grateful Dead show. They are usually a little dopey, but also disaffected and disillusioned. Inarticulate children and stoned misfits are flattened out onto the pages of a pop magazine and fed to the middle class homes that they ran away from. Didion is aware enough to know that the people she is writing about are deeply misunderstood, “the signals are jammed”, but still she chooses to focus on the more radical and idiotic people in the scene she is covering. Subjects more easily chewed and digested by her readers.
Between writing about militant street performers and kids hopelessly drowning in drugs, how many student activists passing out leaflets and organizing anti-war protests did Didion pass by? Why was the man housing and taking care of junkies in extreme distress, all while lobbying for progressive social policies, somehow portrayed as doing something silly? Why does the woman who wants to stay at home ridiculed and then categorized with the culture she is rebelling against? When Didion draws a line between anonymous people collecting welfare with a hopeless communist collecting an arsenal of guns in the back of a bookstore, and then publishes this in the Saturday Evening Post, what culture does that make her a part of?