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The money and privilege of Didion's life is a turnoff

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message 1: by christina (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

christina white I disagree with the folks out there who argue that the money and name - dropping of Didion's most recent book is pure snobbery, a turn - off, or even angering. Joan Didion is literary royalty, as well as was her husband, John Dunne. There are people who write for the New Yorker, and have been doing so for fifty years. As one critic I read put it, "They breathe some pretty rarified air." But that is just who they are! They are the jet set, friends with Otto Preminger, for God's sake! Good writing involves being specific. She could say, "We went to a hotel in Paris," or "There was John's robe on the sofa," but Didion is far too great a writer for generics. The details are what give you the full picture of her life. And I don't believe in disliking people just because their lives are their lives. Would you be offended if John Kennedy wrote the same kind of thing? Would you have him dumb himself down and talk about shopping at Sears when he clearly did not? The only time I would allow it is OK to be offended by the privileged is when they argue they are somehow better than someone else. Didion is not doing that here. She is just telling the tale of a life well - lived, a blessed life, and a great sadness. She is a great American treasure, and I find it interesting the people who criticize her for being wealthy have nothing negative to say about how she tells her tale, or even the tale itself.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

There's the chance that an upper-class autobiography about personal struggle won't resonate with the masses, maybe.


message 3: by Kathy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kathy I just loved the book for the fact that it reminded me of the feeling of grief. Not the part you think remember from when you last experienced it. But the crazy rationalizations you make with yourself. That somehow you can help overturn what has happened.

I think it is irrelevant what "class" Joan Didion lives in. I did not register her descriptions as something I envied, or even noted that much. I suspect that as a great writer who can edit and mold a story to her will, she engaged in just what I did when someone I loved died, attempt to wish them back to life. Dream that they still contact me. Live through all the "what ifs" that could have been.

Brilliant example of someone illustrating a feeling common to most of us humans... rich or poor.


message 4: by alison (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:31AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

alison I'm on the verge of reading this book as my second taste of Didion, having read Play It As It Lays in my late teens. So...I may be a little out of my element here, but I'm kind of excited about already having something to mull over as I read.

I remember being struck by the isolation and emptiness of her characters, and that the party-goer Hollywood lifestyle is depicted as painfully shallow, an uncrackable seal over anything meaningful, any actual connections. I left Play It As It Lays feeling equally sorry for and disgusted by Maria, but certainly not envious.

Self-portraits are, of course, the most difficult to paint and it seems that one could not be self-critical without being as honest as possible about the details. Of course, I won't know until I've finished it how it all comes across.

I'm curious: have you guys read any of her fiction, or just this one?


message 5: by christina (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

christina white I haven't read any of her fiction, but you have definitely inspired me. I am going to put Play It As It Lays on my "to read" list. Thanks!


message 6: by christina (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

christina white You're right. That is a very good point. However, I hope there are folks out there who read not just to be entertained, but also to expand their minds and experience new things.


message 7: by Chad (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:33AM) (new)

Chad This is all so interesteing. My book club just finished "Eat The Document" whose author was compared to Didion by the NYT. I complained that the simple fact that YOMT WAS non-fiction is what made Didion's book distasteful to me. I could not sympathize with Didion at all. I felt that her grief for her husband overshadowed concern for her daughter and that her priviledged lifestyle was just too prominent for me to be able to relate to her or her grief.

Ironically, I think if it was a work of fiction I might have been been more generous.


message 8: by Claire (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:36AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Claire I appreciate the alternative viewpoint on this subject. I also found the name-dropping and jet-setting distasteful as the book wore on, but thinking back on it, I was also really impacted by her extraordinarily humble and exposing reflections on grief. I think that the whole book was just really straightforward - she didn't try to make herself or her emotions out any differently than they really were, which made it true. It certainly made me contemplate the grief that no doubt awaits me in my life (having only experienced a little so far). However, I did start to wonder if Didion just thinks that everyone lives a life where flights to Hawaii and dinner out every night and houses in Malibu are routine - it seemed a bit excessive. Surely she could have still described her feelings and the sequence of events without the constant mention of all these places and people that makes the rest of us feel like we must be really missing out! And what's with the barrage of medical terminology?


message 9: by Margie (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Margie Like Claire I found Didion's writing to be straightforward and true to the point of being raw. And juxtaposition of grief with her privileged lifestyle made it all the more universal, to me. I recognize the antipathy some people feel toward her lifestyle depiction, but personally did not find it off-putting.

I like this discussion; good points, all!


message 10: by Kristine (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kristine Chad wrote:
"I complained that the simple fact that YOMT WAS non-fiction is what made Didion's book distasteful to me. I could not sympathize with Didion at all. I felt that her grief for her husband overshadowed concern for her daughter and that her priviledged lifestyle was just too prominent for me to be able to relate to her or her grief.
Ironically, I think if it was a work of fiction I might have been been more generous."

I do agree that it was a bit odd that her concern for her daughter was not a part of the book. But I'm sure Didion had her reasons for that; maybe her daughter had requested privacy.

I don't understand though, why you would have been more forgiving of her had the book been fiction. Memoirs, or any type of writing in which a person acknowledges their true feelings, are... well, I admire people who let others in. Like people in this thread said, even wealthy people are allowed to write memoirs, and though I am ragingly jealous of her lifestyle, I don't begrudge her what she has, and I didn't find reading about it to be a turnoff.

It seems like you're saying, people in fiction are allowed to be imperfect, and real people should have to hide the truth of their lives to make it more palatable to others.


message 11: by Matt (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:19PM) (new)

Matt The only reason I stopped reading this memoir after the first 10 pages was that Didion either doesn't know anything about punctuation or doesn't care that it usually serves a necessary function: to separate and clarify thinking. She's a run-on addict. Someone please lend her some semi-colons, conjunctions and/or periods. Don't defend her by calling it "style." It's just sloppy and unnerving.


message 12: by Benjamin (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:11PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Benjamin get over yourself. seriously. find the place in your life when this book may strike you and then read it again.


message 13: by Benjamin (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:11PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Benjamin whoops. to be clear, my post was meant for christina. and christina, i'm not at all trying to be mean here. but really, your review was way too harsh for a real person who lost her real husband and also her real daughter (quintana, in 2005, after the book was written). your sweep away of this book was just way too comfortable to be real.


message 14: by christina (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:41PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

christina white I don't think you read what I wrote. The discussion topic was just that: a topic title. If you read what I wrote, I LOVED the book and was very impressed by it. I was trying to say I don't think it's fair to judge the literary merits of any work based on the author's social class.


message 15: by Benjamin (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Benjamin you're right - i absolutely meant my response to be sent to someone else. sorry about that, christina. i actually like and agree with your original review. thanks!


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm normally pretty sensitive to the idea of classism--it's why I won't read Eat Pray Love (I don't need to read about how this woman travels around the world to "find herself" after a painful divorce. Most people who get divorced immediately have to get back to real life.) But in this case, it didn't occur to me that Didion was so privileged. It really did just seem like the life she and her husband set up for herself by working for it--they are both very well-known writers so I don't begrudge them that as if they were Paris Hilton.


message 17: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa McKenzie I had to work really hard to feel any compassion for a woman who displays none. As she describes it, she neither touches nor talks to her husband as he lies dying right before her eyes. Nice. She orchestrates her dying daughter's care with equal emotional distance. I think class is relevant here; the only way I could understand her being so underdeveloped emotionally was to imagine that, up until those two deaths, everything had gone her way. Her husband and her daughter got the best medical care that social connections and money can buy; the overall impression I got was that she wants her money back. The emotional connections were utterly lacking; I can only hope that they existed in life, even if they never made it to the page.
Sorry to rant; reading this book sucked me dry. I would not recommend it to anyone dealing with death or bereavement.


message 18: by Alan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alan I know someone whose boyfriend killed himself recently. 3 different people gave him the year of magical thinking. He read it and said to me, "Oh, so if I am rich, then a certain kind of suffering is also a luxury. I have to go to work instead. So, I still want to die."

The take-away of this being that if a book addresses itself to a real, urgent and specific need in people, in culture, this merely means that the writer has identified a need, not that she has met it well.

But the reason some rich people still find this book problematic indicates the real problem with the book. She wrote it too soon. She was still in the iron-clad control phase. The book was a sterile bandage over a horrific wound. I don't think Joan Didion is an empty tactician without feelings, and I don't think that wealth makes people this way. I think that she was still stunned, and that on top of seeming to be a person with control issues, she, like anyone, needed to do something to ascribe order to the inorderable. Sarah Manguso: "Narratives in which one thing follows from another are usually imaginary." So: magical thinking, the phenomenon and the book (what is more imaginary than a book?).

Which leads to a counter-example. The Two Kinds of Decay, from which the quotes here are taken:
"I waited seven years to forget just enough..."

If enough hasn't been forgotten in writing about trauma, the book will be something else. A book is always something else. But it will participate in the wound in a way that makes unsatisfactory reading. And real horror itself is only a subject for a book, not a book. The Two Kinds of Decay, with class issues of its own, and also about real horror in the author's life, is the kind of memoir Didion meant to write. It is the perfect control to this discussion.


Jlhuyser Well, it seems that I was not alone in being unimpressed. I got it for the title, didn't know it was awarded anything, didn't recognize the author when I picked it up.

BUT -- I thought it was fiction at first. Then I thought, well, maybe it's just mellow-dramatic. Then I thought, it was contrived and pretentious. And I just can't relate.

Some of the women I know from her generation would love to have lived her kind of life -- many would like to have pined after their man in just this sort of way -- and many can identify even if their experience is nothing like hers.

As for me, a child of a subsequent generation, I just can't see it. I can't fault her for the pretentions that she finds so important -- many of her contemporaries have exactly the same values.

I just hope that my grieving for my man (it's been 33 years so far) will be something less magical and far more human.


Christina christina wrote: "I disagree with the folks out there who argue that the money and name - dropping of Didion's most recent book is pure snobbery, a turn - off, or even angering. Joan Didion is literary royalty, as ..."
Somebody needed to say this, I'm glad you said it


Barbara I admit to being surprised by this thread - somehow, when I read this book, I missed all of Didion's self-glamorizing references. What I drew from it was her unflinching honesty and the admissions of her most private thoughts as she struggled with her loss. Grief is universal, and does not discriminate on the basis of class. And how many would admit to "magical thinking" - the desperate, irrational belief that somehow we can alter the physical world by sheer mental energy? Or illustrate, so poignantly, the gradual acceptance that moving forward is not the same as defeat, and does no disservice to the one lost? Would Didion's grief be legitimized if she worked the nightshift scrubbing hospital floors?

Perhaps it is best to accept this work for what it is - someone saying, "This is what happened, this is how it felt, this is how I got through it." It's like group therapy with the world.


Jan C I'm with you Barbara.

I read this on the heels of my father's death. It was brutal. But I think it helped me get through it to some extent.

Grief is universal. But the way people show it is different.


Kressel Housman Barbara wrote: "I admit to being surprised by this thread - somehow, when I read this book, I missed all of Didion's self-glamorizing references. What I drew from it was her unflinching honesty ..."

I agree with you, too, in that I felt for her in the book, but I couldn't see it as therapeutic. If I were going to recommend a book as group therapy to another mourner, I'd choose a much lesser known book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart by Sherri Mandel.


Barbara @Kressel - I was thinking that a person involved in group therapy may gain and heal from personal sharing; i.e., I thought it was perhaps therapeutic for Didion, not necessarily the reader. (Though, of course, mutual benefit is intended in that setting.) I may not have expressed it clearly. I did find that there were "a-ha" moments for me as I read the book, times when I thought, "Yes, I know exactly what she's talking about". I'm not familiar with the other book you mentioned, but it sounds interesting - I'll look it up. Thanks for the suggestion....


Kressel Housman The Blessing of a Broken Heart is about a Jewish mother whose teenage son was the victim of Arab terrorism. Today she is running an outreach group to other mothers in the same circumstance. I imagine she's been in touch with Leiby Klatzky's family, though it's not exactly the same thing.


William Torgerson christina wrote: "I disagree with the folks out there who argue that the money and name - dropping of Didion's most recent book is pure snobbery, a turn - off, or even angering. Joan Didion is literary royalty, as ..."

When I read Didion's "Magical," I didn't even think of the $ and name dropping. I think I'm so out of all that stuff that I didn't really recognize famous names and restaurants. I was caught up in the story and the ways in which Didion was able to bring what she was learning about grief to the page.


message 27: by Hiba (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hiba This is one of the best personal accounts, with honest self-appraisal, I have ever read. I was only mildly aware of her wealth and connections. It was there but in the background. As someone said, "it's who she is." Let those of us who are not "privileged" not be snobs!


Kressel Housman Her daughter recently passed away. All the money in the world can't replace those two losses.


Joanne I'm a widow, my husband died of acute leukemia at age 50. I thought the book was well written, but I did shake my head a time or two. Like when it never occurred to her to wash a few dishes by hand. Money can make hard times easier, but not less painful.


Nicole Kressel wrote: "Her daughter recently passed away. All the money in the world can't replace those two losses."

Agreed. Loss is loss no matter one's social status. I was just thinking of reading her most recent book about the loss of her daughter but am not sure I am ready to read about that kind of pain.


William Torgerson Nelly wrote: "Kressel wrote: "Her daughter recently passed away. All the money in the world can't replace those two losses."

Agreed. Loss is loss no matter one's social status. I was just thinking of reading he..."


Didion's Magical book ended up with me because my mother in law and my wife didn't want to read a book about the death of a husband. There just wasn't anything else around to read one day and I ended up reading it all in two sittings. I'm looking forward to this next one. You've all inspired me to check it off on my "to read" list. :)


message 32: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Wow. I guess I'm with Barbara and the others who have agreed with her. I had never heard of this book until I got into a masters course in writing memoir. I was totally taken by the way she articulated her grief as well as the details of transferring from a life of marriage to that of widow.

I did however have some of the feelings I've read above about class distinction while reading Nora Effron's, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Don't Remember Anything. I wonder if one of the subtle themes of Didion's book is that money, social status, and prestige, don't matter in the grand scheme. Is it possible that readers who hang up on her social standing reveal a dissatisfaction with their own? Can we not feel the pain of the most wealthy simply because they are so?

Of course, it's possible that the thing most off-putting is not Didion's wealth and luxurious lifestyle but rather the way she told her story. I personally found it a gripping tale of loss.

Mike

Shade Tree Writings


message 33: by Cateline (new) - added it

Cateline Wow, I must be the only one that Didion's grief didn't register with. It's been a while since I read it, but at the time, I felt it was rather dry and unemotional. She told of the grief, but didn't show the grief. At least that was my impression.

Not for one minute am I implying she didn't feel anything, I am simply giving my impression of her telling.

As far as the social/prestige nonsense, frankly it didn't make any difference to me.


Margie Cateline, I agree that it seemed a bit dry and unemotional. To me, that was an expression of the shock and emptiness she was feeling, as well as the aspect of grief that we are required to go on living - we can't succumb to the falling down, tearing one's hair out grief. We find ourselves plodding through the mundane aspects of life, completely numb.


message 35: by Cateline (new) - added it

Cateline Margie wrote: "Cateline, I agree that it seemed a bit dry and unemotional. To me, that was an expression of the shock and emptiness she was feeling, as well as the aspect of grief that we are required to go on l..."


I have to suppose you are right, although that is not the way it struck me at the time. I was going through something at the time, and remember thinking something to the effect of...'you think you've got problems?!'.
Not an entirely fair POV I realize now. As with any novel/book/memoir, context is everything.


Schawn schoepke Snobbery pure and simple. Not to mention her pain is a selfish pain which seemed to give me a feeling of shallowness from someone told they are deep. I simply dont get her and the world she comes from. She can keep it for all the comfort it did not afford her.....


Nicole I read this book awhile ago, but I do remember how I felt afterwards and am surprised by the strong negative reactions. What I remember is the disbelief she kept feeling--how it all didn't seem real. I was not at all put off by references to her literary milieu. In fact, I don't even remember them. I just remember the way she described her attempts or lack of attempt to grapple with mind-numbing loss. I can't even imagine how that loss was probably magnified tenfold by the loss of her daughter.


message 38: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike That's me too Nelly; I don't even remember them.


message 39: by Tara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tara I don't understand this either. She is portraying her life and it is/was. The book is about the passing of a time as much as it is a person. Joan Didion isn't an everyday person but so what? Her book speaks to something universal in the context of what is/was her life. There are other things I didn't like about this book but snobbery was not one of them.


Nicole Agreed. There was a distant quality to her storytelling that might be perceived as aloofness, but many people convey that quality, no matter their background.


Jan C I did, too, Tara. I had recently lost my Dad. I think this really helped me. It was not, however, what my mother needed. She needed the book by Bob Greene's mother. I don't know either her name or the name of her book. She also went to grief counseling.


William Torgerson Jan C wrote: "I did, too, Tara. I had recently lost my Dad. I think this really helped me. It was not, however, what my mother needed. She needed the book by Bob Greene's mother. I don't know either her name ..."

Magical Thinking found its way to me after several people (mother in law / wife) couldn't read it because of the personal chords the text struck for them. I read it as the story of one person's grief. I think everyone's got their own way of grieving and I thought it was great the way Didion layered research on grieving into her story.

For the last few years, I've assigned something to my students called a Scholarly Personal Narrative. I point to Didion's book as the sort of text I imagine.


alison I'm revisiting this thread after a very long absence! Having lived through more in my life than I had when I'd originally read this book, I think I find it a great deal more relevant now. This is a good book to read if you're currently losing someone or if you've recently lost someone — simply because of Didion's poignant ability to articulate the multitude of simultaneous feelings that occur during the grieving process. And the emptiness. And the longevity.

In terms of her privilege, I do think there are certain points where it is hard to relate to the wealth of time she has to grieve. When you don't have the money that affords you time to stop your life for more than a few days, it can be hard to find enough little pockets of time to deal with the overwhelming emotional devastation that you're going through. So I think there is a disconnect that exists there. Not having to worry about paying rent and putting food on the table in addition to everything else is a luxury that few people have. That being said, I don't know if it's better or worse to have that kind of time and lack of distraction on your hands.

I think that Didion wrote the most honest and raw account of her own experiences as she possibly could have. She didn't set out to write a universal explanation of mourning. Her way of dealing is to write, so she wrote. And I commend her for it, even though there are parts I can't directly relate to.


message 44: by Erin (last edited Jan 26, 2012 10:49AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Erin WV I didn't need to read about her sobbing and pain. I appreciated her analysis.
Well said, Patrice. I had the same reaction. She is not a demonstrative woman; she relates to things in an intellectual way, and that is how she approached her grief. As a similarly reserved person, I related to her experience immensely.

Some posters mentioned above--several years ago--that YOMT didn't spend enough time on Quintana. I think the writing of that book coincided with her death; it may have even been sent to print already by the time she died. Since that time, Didion has written another memoir, this one all about her daughter. Blue Nights


Joanne Wonderful post Alison, also Erin. I don't feel brave enough to tackle Blue Nights...maybe someday.


Jan C I'm currently reading her Where I Was Fromand then will move on to Blue Nights. Also reading her friend Sara Davidson's Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion. And she talks about Joan isn't that outgoing a person and does work things out in her writings.

I know Blue Nights will be sad. How could it not be? But she is a good writer and it is hard to pass up any of her works.


message 47: by [deleted user] (new)

I just finished both "Blue Nights" and "YOMT" as it's being called. I was curious what people were saying about the author's class position. And I think this is a very rich discussion, with mostly thoughtful comments.

I am surprised that readers were so naive about the wealth and lifestyle of people connected with Hollywood films, with best-sellers, with the NYRB and NYT and NY venues for writing. Imagine the biographies of Jackie Kennedy, John Kennedy, Princess Diana, George Clooney, etc. How could they write except to talk about private jets and yachts and exclusive hotels and multiple apartments? Think about the lifestyle, the money, the celebrities in just the current presidential candidates. How many of our congress representatives are millionaires.

I absolutely honor the discomfort people feel when face to face with that kind of privilege which doesn't even see itself as privilege because death and illness can intrude.

But I also honor the tenacious attempt made by Joan Didion to write a book that would be of some meaning for other people suffering great personal losses. She tries to witness the facts of great grief, not to draw people into sympathy, but in a way to prepare the reader to understannd.

The play YOMT is even more explicit: it begins with the lines: "This happened on December 30,2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you."

Perhaps she "wrote too soon" to write the book some people would prefer. But she's a writer, and that's what she knew how to do.


Jan C Well said, Juanita.

She writes because that is what she does. And she has been fairly successful at it over the years.


Heather Anderson I love her writing and it makes no difference to me how much money she has or from what class of society she comes from. She does great work. She didn't just sit around and take what was given to her. Go check out Where I Was From, it's at your local public library. At least...it's at ours.


Kathy Disanto I read both Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking. For me, both books had much to offer.

Yes, Ms. Didion comes from money and privilege, but as her books so eloquently testify, neither of those things protect her (or anyone else) from the vagaries of life. We're all human, all inhabiting this spinning globe together, all vulnerable. No matter who we are, we can identify with one another as sentient, suffering beings. We can have compassion on one another. To revisit the most painful moments of one's life, to stare unflinchingly into the face of one's own failures and weaknesses, then to bare those things to the wide, watching world takes, in my opinion, great courage and a deep sense of our common humanity.

The books were not, I think, meant to be analytic or completely logical. These are not how-tos on grief. They are intensely personal renderings of one woman's experiences. She lived what she lived. Far be it from me to critique how she tells it.

The books won't speak to everyone. No book does. It's enough that they speak to some.


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