‘a superb evaluator of American culture’ but because she is a quintessential embodiment of it” (Carton within Felton 36).Didion herself represents the dichotomous debate on self-respect she discusses.There aren’t many writers who hate books and recoil at the thought of reading an essay.
Novelist, essayist, journalist, and screenwriter Joan Didion turns 80 on Friday, and as one of the greatest American writers alive, it’s safe to say she’s an elder stateswoman of letters, a patron saint of writing, and a voice of her — and our — generation.
Didion was born on December 5, 1934 in Sacramento, California, and she got her start as a staff writer at Vogue right after she graduated from UC Berkeley.
In 1970 Lore Segal at The New York Times wrote, “A new novel by Joan Didion is something of an event.” Four decades later, the novels might not be new, but reading them still feels like an event.
If, as Cheryl Strayed proclaimed a few months back, “Essayists who happen to be women are having a banner year,” then those essayists owe a lot to Joan Didion.
Her essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power,” from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, was first published in Vogue in 1961, and became a touchstone for women at the time.
Her novels Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing He Wanted were, and still are, celebrated.Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album blended journalistic observations and personal confessions — but she never got too personal, which is why her work resonates.Her writing has never been self-indulgent, even when it’s at its most intimate.No matter what has happened in her life, Didion has never sought pity in her writing. It’ll help.“I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. She’s tiny but mighty, she’s tough, resilient, and strong. Within this essay, and in all of her work, the thing that holds the center is Didion herself.As Evan Carton puts it in his analysis of , “Didion is not ‘at the center’ because she is…“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves--there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.If one is to take interest in writing about America, one takes interest in Joan Didion.One of Didion’s most quoted lines is, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If you’re in need of a little reminder about why you write and what in the world you’re thinking trying to become an essayist or a poet, reading her work might just rekindle your passion.“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.