Joan Didion: California’s Literary Legacy


Illustration by Alexa Druyanoff

Daphne Davies

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking”. On the morning of Dec. 23, The New York Times broke the news of Didion’s passing at age 87 because of complications of Parkinson’s disease. An hour after seeing the bolded headline appear across the top of their website, Fiona Gillearn ’23 leafed through the pages of her own copy of the 2005 book, reading her own notes and reflections scribbled throughout the margins. Gillearn said Didion’s words on grief comforted her as she mourned Didion’s passing.

“She’s my favorite author and has made me see life in a different way,” Gillearn said. “I will miss her literary voice.”

Didion, an acclaimed journalist, essayist, novelist and screenwriter, launched her career after her essay “On Self-Respect” won a Vogue Magazine contest in 1961. In her other nonfiction works, Didion wrote extensively on the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, lending her distinctive voice to incisive commentary on societal and psychological unrest, according to the New York Times.

Self-proclaimed feminist author and journalist Katie Roiphe said Didion had an aptitude for writing insightfully and accurately about current events.

“Her talent was for writing about the mood of the culture,” Roiphe told the New York Times. “She managed to channel the spirit of the 1960s and ’70s through her own highly idiosyncratic and personal—that is, seemingly personal—writing.”

Gillearn said she admires the way Didion’s essays combine personal narration with journalistic nonfiction. She also said she appreciates Didion’s candid portrayal of the countercultural movement, a reaction to the conservatism of the 1950s that brought together groups of antiwar “hippies” who sought to promote free speech, equality and opposition to the mainstream media.

“I’ve never read journalism that reads like hers because it almost reads like fiction, and I appreciate the way she effortlessly inserts her own opinion and personal views,” Gillearn said. “I think hippie culture, counterculture and the free generation can be so idealized, but her lens on it is such a unique and honest take.”

Didion added fiction writing to her literary repertoire with several short novels. “Play It As It Lays” (1970), a depiction of abuse, abortion and the loneliness of the Hollywood film industry in the 1960s, was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Didion also wrote screenplays with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, including the Golden Globe- winning “A Star is Born” and adaptations of several of her own novels.

Dunne’s death in 2003 laid the groundwork for the Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Two years after her husband’s passing, Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, a member of Westlake School’s class of 1984, died of septic shock at age 39. Didion mourned her loss in her 2011 memoir “Blue Nights.”

Sophia Lindus ’22 said she feels Didion’s experiences with loss help to bring her writing to life in an honest and sincere way.

“Joan’s battles with grief allowed her to fully connect [with] her female characters, and [her] books have a really authentic tone to them,” Lindus said. “She is introspective and mature in her conclusions.”

Throughout her career, Didion received recognition from other writers, literary critics and national figures. Former President Obama honored her with the National Humanities Medal in 2012.

Brandon Aghnatios ’23 said Didion achieved both broader cultural influence and personal impact through her writing, and he said her distinctive writing informs his own.

“I’m a big fan of [Didion], and my favorite quote of hers is ‘innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself,’” Aghnatios said. “I think about that all the time, especially when I’m writing. She has a style that I just seek to emulate.”

Didion’s home state of California was central to her literary identity and influenced much of her work. Born in Sacramento, Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956 and was a longtime resident of Malibu and Brentwood.

“California belongs to Joan Didion,” New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote. “Not the California where everyone wears aviator sunglasses, owns a Jacuzzi and buys his clothes on Rodeo Drive. But California in the sense of the West. The old West where Manifest Destiny was an almost palpable notion that was somehow tied to the land and the climate and one’s own family.”

Lindus said the less romanticized reality of Californian life and culture characterizes Didion’s writing.

“I finished [Didion’s first novel] “Run River” a few weeks ago, and the way Joan writes about life in California draws on the more cynical side of the ‘golden state,'” Lindus said.

Gillearn said she is impressed with the timelessness of Didion’s writing and its truthful depiction of her home state.

“As a Californian, I love all of [Didion’s] work, but ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ is my favorite of her books because you can see how it is still relevant today,” Gillearn said.

English Teacher Jocelyn Medawar said she appreciates the regionality of Didion’s essays and continues to feel her enduring literary presence.

“As someone who grew up in Southern California, Didion helped me see my hometown in a whole new way,” Medawar said. “Whenever the Santa Ana winds come, I think of her.”