re·port (rəˈpôrt) verb
1.give a spoken or written account of something that one has observed, heard, done, or investigated.
“the representative reported a decline in milk and meat production”
synonyms: announce, describe, give an account of, detail, outline, communicate, divulge, disclose, reveal, make public, publish, broadcast, proclaim, publicize
“the government reported a fall in inflation”
Dictionaries will tell you that by labeling herself as a reporter, Joan Didion is correct. She meets the standards because she uses real facts and real events when she describes the way people in the west coast were living and thinking in the 60s. But just because Didion can technically be defined as a reporter, does that necesarily mean it’s the most accurate way to characterize her writing? When we think of a report, we tend to think of things that we would normally hope to be unbiased sources of information; thorough analyzations of factual occurrences, provided to us with minimal disclosure. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t exactly line up with whatever Joan Didion does.
cri·tique (kriˈtēk) noun
1.a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
synonyms: analysis, evaluation, assessment, appraisal, appreciation, criticism, review, study, commentary, exposition, exegesis
“a critique of North American culture”
The difference between Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and an article you would cut out of a newspaper is that Didion is exploring a theory, an idea. As said in an article, Up Close and Personal with Joan Didion, Didion’s essays “explore the dualities of the west coast as well as those of her own mind”. She is intentional with her use of subjectivity and is sure to be completely upfront about it in her preface, very blatantly stating that “people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interest” and then emphasizing that “writers are always selling somebody out”.
But what does it mean to sell somebody out? The nature of Didion’s style of writing unavoidably creates a sense of distrust between the reader and the writer. The sly way in which personal viewpoints are expressed can give the negative connotation that sometimes accompanies the idea of lying. However, I find that selling somebody out in nonfiction to be much more passive than it would be in other genres. If Joan Didion is selling somebody out (which she undoubtably does countless times) it tends to be pretty passive, even at its most aggressive moments. And at least she’s not making anything up.
The difference between Didion and some other more “conventional” reporter would be the extent to which they emphasize certain aspects of true things, disclose certain information, and manipulate facts in order to display an idea through their own perspective. By saying that “writers are always selling somebody out” Didion acknowledges that writing will always be somewhat subjective simply due to the existence of point-of-view. It’s only natural that, even though the same situation, 10 different people will have 10 different accounts of what actually occurred. This doesn’t make any one account more right than any other. “Selling people out” is really just a result of peoples brains working differently, and in turn results in different thoughts and opinions that turn into different theories and ideas.