The Life & Legacy of Joan Didion

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Joan Didion was an American writer, known for her emphatic literary style and contributions to Journalism and the modern literary genre. Label volunteer, Rebecca Pearson, explores Didion’s life and legacy upon her recent passing. 

 

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

I remember reading those words from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), finding them imprinted in my brain. The book is a powerful meditation on grief, the associations with lost loved-ones that appear in everyday life, and retracing life in an attempt to find signs and foreshadowing of a calamitous event. As a mother and wife, Joan had lost both her husband and daughter in quick succession. Her writing is filled with pragmatism, the unflowery aspects of life, and the cynicism of her characters. She was a pioneer of realism in all of its screaming colour.

Joan Didion was an American writer, beginning her career in the 1950s upon winning an essay competition sponsored by Vogue magazine. This would later lead to her securing a position within Vogue, working her way up from promotional copywriter to associate features editor. Primarily, Didion was the master of writing about counterculture, exploring the Hollywood lifestyle and the world’s realities. Her writing was uncomfortable, Play It As It Lays (1970) portraying Hollywood culture and viewing life as a desolate game. Her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) was also considered under the term “New Journalism,” paving the way for writing that offered new perspectives on modern life, challenging social and cultural norms, and documenting human experience in all of its vertigo and nausea.

Her manner of writing is laconic and unindulgent. An interview conducted by Time Magazine in January of last year sums this up most. Ever unconcerned with keeping up appearances, Didion strayed from the heavily constructed persona of a celebrity, answering questions with amusing and perfect disinterest, and never accepting credit for her impacts on modern literary culture and genre.

Didion’s writing spanned decades, most recently publishing a memoir entitled Blue Nights (2011) on aging and her relationship with her late daughter, as well as publishing a collection of essays written between 1968 and 2000 entitled Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021). Her mixing of genres, from her knowledge of journalism to literary criticism and  autobiography, as well as her varying narrative voices from the indirect to Joan herself, made Didion a fascinating writer and author. Her undressing of language is emphatic and frank, straying from the gleams of falsity and fabrication, and her narrative voices are direct – there is an honesty in her work that remoulds what literature is capable of.

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Label Culture Editor 2021-2022

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