Telling Details

I read the new collection of old essays by Joan Didion. All the works were previously published but none of them had made it in to any previous compilation of her work. There is a Foreword by Hilton Als.

I wondered at first if it would turn out that these essays hadn’t been collected before simply because they weren’t good enough – they were only getting put out now in an attempt to get more from the JD brand-name, in the wake of her success with The Year Of Magical Thinking. That book and the stage adaptation dealt with the death of her husband. Blue Nights (2012) had brought some more grief out of the well of bereavement, relating the death of daughter Quintana that occurred when Magical Thinking was going in to publication. But this book is not simply “more product”, the collection seems to be Joan’s final statement on herself, and this is where these pieces belong together. They would not have fitted thematically in the earlier collections such as After Henry or Where I Was From.

The essays are arranged in chronological order, and the most recent is dated 2000. We can find her feelings on brands in general in that closing piece, “”. This examines the life of billionaire Martha Stewart, as it is filtered through the world of mock-serious websites and admitted parodies. The internet was still a new thing and so this is set in that early, naïve world, when people wrote things on-line for fun.

The creators and users of “The UNOFFICIAL Site!” clearly maintain a special relationship with the subject at hand, as do the creators and users of other unofficial or self-invented sites crafted in the same spirit: “My Martha Stewart Page”, say, or “Gothic Martha Stewart”, which advises teenagers living at home on how they can “goth up” their rooms without alarming their parents (“First of all, don’t paint everything black”) by taking their cues from Martha.

This nascent digital culture is just trying to catch after the special ingredient Martha had already bottled and sold in more conventional formats:

There is an unusual bonding here, a proprietary intimacy that eludes conventional precepts of merchandising to go to the very heart of the enterprise, the brand, what Martha prefers to call the “presence”: the two magazines (Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Weddings) the between them reach 10 million readers, the twenty-seven books that have sold 8.5 million copies, the weekday radio show carried on 270 stations, the syndicated “Ask Martha” column that appears in 233 newspapers, the televised show six days a week on CBS, the weekly slot on the CBS morning show, the cable-TV show (From Martha’s Kitchen, the Food Network’s top-rated weekly show among women aged twenty-five to fifty-four)…. These products are not inexpensive… A set of fifty Scalloped Tulle Rounds, eight-and-three-quarter-inch circles of tulle in which to tie up wedding favors, costs eighteen dollars… Since the amount of 108-inch tulle required to make fifty Scalloped Tulle Rounds would be slightly over a yard, the online buyer can be paying only for the imprimatur of “Martha”, whose genius it was to take the once-familiar notion of doing-it-yourself to previously uncharted territory: somewhere east of actually doing it yourself, somewhere west of paying Robert Isabell to do it.

…There is in a Martha Stewart recipe none of, say, Elizabeth David’s transforming logic and assurance, none of Julia Child’s mastery of technique. What there is instead is “Martha”, full focus, establishing “personal communication” with the viewer or reader, showing, telling, leading, teaching, “loving it” when the simplest possible shaken-in-a-jar vinaigrette emulsifies right there onscreen. She presents herself not as an authority but as the friend who has “figured it out”, the enterprising if occasionally manic neighbor who will waste no opportunity to share an educational footnote.

There’s no contempt for Martha or her fans here. If Joan is disdainful of anyone around this world, it would be the two varieties of critics she can find: on the one hand, the cheap gossip-chasing expose-biography written by hack Jerry Oppenheimer (“This lumping together of insignificant immaturities and economies for conversion into character flaws… continues for 414 pages”), on the other hand, the tiresome academic pursuit of Stewartiana, which also fails to contextualise the details into any sense of the material lives Martha influences.

The “cultural meaning” of Martha Stewart’s success… lies deep in the success itself, which is why even her troubles and strivings are part of the message, not detrimental but integral to the brand. She has branded herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, a distinction that seems to remain unclear to her critics. Martha herself gets it, and talks about herself in print as if catching up her oldest friend….

There is also contempt for the diminishing and dismissal of female achievement, which also occurs under the guise of enlightened opinion, and the explainers who are quick with an off-the-peg general theory that is careless with specific details. Joan herself is happy to admit that she has no inclination for that sort of thing, as she says in “Why I Write” (1976):

I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the Bevatron up the hill. While I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the Bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

Already by 2000, writers were becoming brands as well. Not just the mass-selling authors like Tom Clancy or James Paterson, subcontracting the typing to hired hands, but also the great names that have been added to the canon. Hemingway’s posthumous treatment is analysed in “Last Words” from 1998, and Joan examines how the final, unfinished manuscripts were rinsed for every possible edition beyond their author’s stated intentions for how they should be disposed of.

The question of what should be done with what a writer leaves unfinished goes back to, and is conventionally answered by, citing works we might have lost had the dying wishes of their authors been honored. Virgil’s Aeneid is mentioned. Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle are mentioned. In 1951, clearly shadowed by mortality, Hemingway judged that certain parts of a long four-part novel on which he had been working for a number of years were sufficiently “finished” to be published after his death, and specified his terms, which did not include the intrusion of any editorial hand and specifically excluded the publication of the unfinished first section.

If Hemingway’s wishes weren’t respected, what chance for anyone else who has become established as a sellable property? Best to clear the final reserves of material on your own terms.

Like Martha, Joan has her life in her work, and she’s also been as honest and open about it as we could expect. There’s an essay in After Henry about the properties she’d bought and sold over the year (no pretence at poverty), and Blue Nights had this moment of irritation against imagined critics that she could sense gathering nearby:

I was not unaware as I did so that a certain number of readers (more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged”.

I wanted to lay this on the table.

”Ordinary” childhoods in Los Angeles very often involve someone speaking Spanish, but I will not make that argument.

Nor will I even argue that she had an “ordinary” childhood, although I remain unsure about exactly who does.

”Privilege” is something else.

”Privilege” is a judgement.

”Privilege” is an opinion.

”Privilege” is an accusation.

”Privilege” remains an area to which – when I think what she endured, when I consider what came later – I will not easily cop.

Here Joan was talking a stand against imagined comments on her daughter, she doesn’t feel any darts aimed at herself. In Political Fictions she made clear that she was a “Goldwater Republican” in 1964 and over the years she didn’t move to the Left, rather the Right moved away from her. In “Alicia And The Underground Press” (1968) she said that the only US newspapers that interested her as a reader were the Wall Street Journal and the nascent “underground” papers such as the Los Angeles Free Press. The latter is where Harlan Ellison was writing his Glass Teat TV reviews, but it is not recorded whether Joan was a fan. “I tell you that not to make myself out an amusing eccentric, perverse and eclectic and, well, groovy in all her tastes”. What she sees in these papers (and the WSJ) is a sincerity missing elsewhere, where instead she only sees: “the inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to “get through”.”

What Joan says about journalism here is one part of the picture she gives of herself as a writer in “Why I Write” and also “Telling Stories”. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, who wrote 5 novels along with all her portraits and pictures of scenes and actions. It’s an alternative picture of changes in American writing that we get from another distinguished voice of her era: Tom Wolfe, and his introductory musings to The New Journalism in 1973 – the influential collection that included work by both Joan and her husband John Gregory Dunne.

Tom starts off gamely telling us the lot of the Feature Writer when he went in to the business in the early 60s. The feature writer didn’t chase after scoops like news hounds, or have great ideas like the opinion-writers. They had to tell stories, with skills that would be better employed simply telling stories.

Your novel! At this late date – partly due to the New Journalism itself – It’s hard to explain what an American dream the idea of writing a novel was in the 1940s, the 1950s, and right into the early 1960s. The Novel was no mere literary form. It was a psychological phenomenon. It was a cortical fever.

The innovation of NJ was the feature writers writing their features like short stories or fragments of those novels they should be heroically producing, to enter the world of acknowledged champions with dust-jacket lists of low-paid jobs worked whilst crafting their masterpieces in lonely vigils. They made their private dream part of their day jobs, by harvesting the leads available to them.

…Breslin made a revolutionary discovery. He made the discovery that it was feasible for a columnist to actually leave the building, go outside and do reporting on his own, genuine legwork….

Literary people were oblivious to this side of the New Journalism, because it was one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism that the raw material is simply ‘there’, It is the ‘given’. The idea is: Given such-and-such a body of material, what has the artist done with it? The crucial part that reporting plays in all story-telling, whether in novels, films, or non-fiction, is something that is not so much ignored as simply not comprehended. The modern notion of art is essentially religious or magical one in which the artist is viewed as a holy beast who in some way, big or small, receives flashes from the godhead, which is known as creativity. The material is merely his clay, his palette…

Rather than a fiction that is coy about the reporting that underlies it, let us now have a reporting that is honest that it is out to create a story – and also that a narrator has some relationship with the world that they claim knowledge of.

The voice of the narrator, in fact was one of the great problems in non-fiction writing. Most non-fiction writers, without knowing it, wrote in a century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration… a ‘neutral background’ against which bits of color would stand out. Understatement was the thing.

And so new kinds of writing prosper in the marketplace, and a new kind of bestseller breaks through to inspire even more of it.

People of all sorts read In Cold Blood, people at every level of taste. Everybody was absorbed in it. Capote himself didn’t call it journalism; far from it; he said he had invented a new literary genre, ‘the nonfiction novel’. Nevertheless, his success gave the New Journalism, as it would soon be called, an overwhelming momentum.

I think we’ve heard enough from Tom for now, let’s get back to Joan… here she is getting a quick reference at the bottom of the page, after a long paragraph about Truman and some other guys, and then on to another guy.

At about the same time, 1966 and 1967, Joan Didion was writing those strange Gothic articles of hers about California that were eventually collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

In her uncollected item about the underground press from that time:

It is the genius of these papers that they talk directly to their readers. They assume that the reader is a friend, that he is disturbed about something, and that he will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style… These papers ignore the conventional newspaper code, they say what they mean. They are strident and brash, but they do not irritate; they have the faults of a friend, not of a monolith. (“Monolith”, of course, is a favorite underground press word, one of the few with three syllables). Their point of view is clear to the densest reader. In the best of the traditional press there exist very strong unspoken attitudes indeed, and the fact that those attitudes remain unspoken, unadmitted, comes between the page and the reader like so much marsh gas… [T]he problem is not so much whether one trusts the news as whether one finds it…. It is a comment on our press conventions that we are considered “well-informed” to precisely the extent that we know “the real story”, the story not in the newspaper. We have come to expect newspapers to reflect the official ethic, to do the “responsible” thing… And then, heavy with responsibility, to file their coded reports.

This vision of the “responsible” media may have coincided with Tom’s recollection of “the heavy lumber on the editorial page” and its “paralyzing snoremongers like Walter Lippmann”. But there’s no indication that Joan found the New feature writing as having the raw sincerity she admired. There’s no reason why it should, since in the end the New feature narrators are going out and telling a story they want to write, according to their own lights. Whether we find a shared language or common ethic with them depends on whether we have one. If the writer, like Tom or Truman, is still hoping to write ‘The Novel’, then they may not even be trying to find it. The avoidance of understatement is to turn up the volume on self-expression, but that does not ensure that the narrative is closer to anyone else’s life, or any elusive idea of “what’s really going on”.

Style doesn’t impress Joan so much if it’s simply the loudest voice in the room making itself heard. The genius of Hemingway lay in his “deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information”, but the details of his biography are neither admirable nor useful in understanding how the passages work or don’t work so well.

We have observed the celebrated author’s survivors, read his letters, deplored or found lessons in his excesses, in his striking of attitudes, in the humiliations of his claim to personal machismo, in the degradations both derived from and revealed by his apparent tolerance for his own celebrity.

… The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source. If we bought into those sentences, we would see the troops marching along the road, but we would not necessarily march with them. We would report, but not join.

There are 2 pieces of simple “reporting” in the new collection: “Pretty Nancy”, and “Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles”, both from 1968. In the first of these, Joan visits “Pretty Nancy Reagan, the wife of the governor of California”.

Nancy Reagan is a very attentive listener. The television crew wanted to watch her, the newsman said, while she was doing precisely what she would ordinarily be doing on a Tuesday morning at home. Since I was also there to watch her doing precisely what she would ordinarily be doing on a Tuesday morning at home, we seemed to be on the verge of exploring new media frontiers: the television newsman and the two cameramen could watch Nancy Reagan being watched by me.

In the second, she attends the 23rd Annual Reunion of the 101st Airborne Division Association, over a weekend in Las Vegas. Veterans of World War Two gather to share memories and pictures of their boys, some of whom are now out in Vietnam.

And of course there were speeches. Maxwell Taylor came to point out the similarities between the Battle of the Bulge and the Tet Offensive. “By the way these things were reported, many of the people at home had the impression that we were losing the Bulge, just as they now have the impression that…” A colonel from Vietnam came, flown in to assure the guests that operations there were characterized by high esprit, rugged determination, that “the men in Vietnam are exactly like you were, and I was, twenty, twenty-five years ago.”

Neither of these, nor anything in Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, attempt the NJ style of feature-as-short-story. The answer to that is easy to find here: Joan admits she couldn’t write them. Or rather she couldn’t write ones that could sell to the journals that would take them. “Telling Stories” (1978) gives the saga of promises and rejections given and received from her agent that went on, and in it we find out what the author felt about the very peculiar style of modern short story that Tom saw as energising the feature pages. She dislikes it for its artificiality, relying on rules and conventions that are still rules and conventions even if the master-craftsmen like Hemingway invented them comparatively recently. Her distaste comes out when she recalls overhearing a couple arguing on a jet, which seems ripe material for conversion to a narrative of “telling” details.

…I realised what I disliked most about this incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those “little epiphany” or “window on the world” stories, one of those stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger’s life – a woman weeping in a tea room, quite often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, “tea rooms” and “trains” still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life – and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. Again, my dislike was a case of needing room in which to play with what I did not understand. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do.

Instead of working in features or news, Joan did her post-college apprenticeship in a level of the writing trade too low for Tom to consider: the women’s work of women’s magazines like Vogue.

It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing” and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.

Creating a structure on the page is the immediate goal of her writing fiction, and the detail is settled as the form settles in place.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It As It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident”. I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told me no “story”, suggested no situation.

She succeeded in writing the novel she wanted to write. She succeeded in all her later novels: A Book Of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing He Wanted, in which the narrator wonders about the limits to how far they can reconstruct a purportedly accurate narrative of recent political unrest and intrigues – in South America, Vietnam, and Central America respectively. All of those novels fed from her experience travelling and reporting, captured also in books like Salvador and Miami.

What these novels look like is Capote’s “nonfiction novel”… as fiction. The narrator investigates, interviews, records, considers the testimony, constructing as much as is constructible. The characters speak for themselves in tones and accents that are recognisable as the political or media class as they appear on TV, and their disaffected modern offspring, who sometimes speak like Alicia of the underground press.

This doesn’t fit the world that Tom was telling us about, in that literary academic style he lapses in to when he forgets himself. He told us he went to graduate school but maybe he doesn’t realise how much it affected him.

The similarity between the early days of the novel and the early days of the New Journalism is not merely coincidental. In both cases we are watching the same process. We are watching a group of writers coming along, working in a genre regarded as Lower Class (the novel before the 1850s, slick magazine journalism before the 1960s), who discover the joys of detailed realism and its strange powers. Many of them seem to be in love with realism for its own sake; and never mind the “sacred callings” of literature…. As I hardly have to tell you, that is not exactly the way that serious novelists regard the task of the novel today.

Apparently the only “serious” novels in the early 70s were written by a bunch of guys trying to imitate Borges and others. But what makes those the “serious” and important books of the year? That they were approved by the same sources of critical authority that preferred Tom’s idea of “realism”, and so that imprimatur makes them the latest incarnation of The Novel, rather than just novels. It did not occur to Tom that these “fabulous” characters were presaging a weightless, dehistoricised consciousness amongst generations raised on TV culture; maybe the trouble was the highbrows were just too far ahead of the game for an ageing trendy of late 1950s vintage.

Now I’m near the end of the typing, it’s only just occurred to me to wonder whether Tom and Joan exchanged views later about The Novel. I found this: “TOM WOLFE, JOAN DIDION OFFER VIEWS ON WRITING”. From the description it sounds as though Joan was using much of the material that appears here as “Why I Write”. Tom had delivered the first of his own brick-sized Realist Novels. I have a copy of it amongst a set of Modern Novels I won in a competition 20 years ago and I’ve never wanted to read it. I think the Introduction to The New Journalism is all the Tom Wolfe anyone needs.

There are other things in this new book I haven’t mentioned: her memories of Tony Richardson and Robert Mapplethorpe, amongst others. The picture at the top is of course an Oldsmobile Olds 88. In Blue Nights Joan mentions finding on YouTube a video of an advert for the car, starring Diana Lynn, an actress she knew and who was cast in the 1971 film adaptation of Play It As It Lays but collapsed and died of a brain haemorrhage suddenly after a wardrobe fitting.

Since there has been a lot of New Journalism in this, I suppose I better give my own Telling Details of my involvement in the topic. When I was going in to hospital to have my bone marrow transplant, I knew it would not be like the previous cycles of chemotherapy, I might not be coming out again. I knew my brother would be staying in my flat when he was down to visit me. Our parents were dead, our last grandparent had died a few weeks earlier. So I left my copy of The Year Of Magical Thinking on the desk, with no note and no comment. The explanation omitted in case it wasn’t needed. Just Joan’s words in her white book, in the white space, something to be found and fit differently into different endings to the story.

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