Which contemporary authors are overrated? I got into a conversation about this with a couple other writers at a recent Pen Center USA event. Joan Didion’s name came up — and though I haven’t read enough of her oeuvre to come down on a side on this question, I do very much feel the heft of her reputation weigh on me whenever I pick up one of her books.
Meaning: When I read a book by Joan Didion, I find I’m less interested in diving into the subject matter of the book than into the thoughts and impressions of Joan Didion on said subject. I care less about what IS important and interesting — than what Joan found important and interesting.
Of course, the two can’t really be separated. This is especially true when it comes to a book like South and West: From a Notebook, described on the book jacket as “two excerpts from one of her never-before-seen notebooks” — a phrase that promises a peek at Joan’s heretofore private thoughts more than anything else. Composed of edited notes from two occasions — Joan’s month-long trip to the Gulf South in 1970 and her efforts to cover the Patty Hearst trial of 1976 in San Francisco — the slim volume purports to be less a fully-formed book than a behind-the-scenes look at Joan’s writing process.
That’s not to say we don’t learn about the South or the West of the 70s. Joan’s description of the South is especially thick, palpable: The dirty mattresses and empty lots, the sullen girl at the gas-station cafe, the slow heat and sluggish time, the ubiquitous graveyards. The overall mood of that section is one of ominous boredom. And throughout, the prose is punctuated by keen observations of race, class, and gender: “To be a white middle-class child in a small southern town must be on certain levels the most golden way for a child to live in the United States.”
One gets the clear, intimate sense of living in a place and just how much doing so can shape the trajectory of a life. Reading South and West made me curious to visit the Gulf South — to see how much it is today as Joan described then — and also eminently grateful not to have grown up there, with its stagnant traditions and possibilities. “It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken,” Joan writes. “Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?” The brief California section, in contrast, mostly explores Joan’s keen sense of her own privilege growing up well-to-do in Sacramento, in a house with beloved gold silk organza curtains from 1907.
But the aspects of South and West that really grabbed me were the parts that, in subtle ways, struggle with what it means to write, to be a writer. The fact that Joan went to the South without a clear sense of topic in mind, simply to explore the possibility that she might find something to write about the place, is in itself intriguing:
“I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
This sense she goes in with is never fully explored, certainly not enough so to hint at a sort of thesis. After all, Joan never completed this essay — just published her notes forty years after the fact. Interesting as they are, I doubt Knopf would have published these notes were Joan Didion not already Joan Didion.
Which is to say: Reading Joan’s not-quite-organized thoughts brought up a lot of writerly questions for me. What must writing accomplish to be called complete, to be worth publishing, to be worth reading? There’s a sudden, telling page in South and West where Joan seems to grapple with this: “At the center of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure.”
It’s unclear which story Joan’s referring to here — the story of Patty Hearst she was ostensibly covering, or her own story of growing up in California that occupied her thoughts. Perhaps she meant both. The passage goes on to describe things about the world that go on regardless of us (“The snow still falls in the Sierra. The Pacific still trembles in its bowl.”), yet the secret remains. None of the stories figure.
“I never wrote the piece.” That’s the short sentence with which Joan ends her notes on the South. Yet, she did write the piece. I just read the whole of it, in book form. It felt incomplete, and unmoored me. And it made me think.