Joan Didion: the (Involuntary) Public Intellectual

Nathan Heller at Vogue gets to the point quicker than I ever could: “Joan Didion…has tended to be both too easily admired and too rapidly dismissed.”

That sums up the response I get when someone sees me with one of her books: a mixture of “she’s so great” and “she’s so obvious.” And yet, while these opinions sound so polarized, Didion is a bit on an enigma. For all her prominence in English literature courses and Vogue lookbooks, she always feels just out of reach. She is not a product of the East Coast literary circuit (though she spent years as a New York City transplant) – she is a Western writer, specifically Californian at that, and therefore must be studied through a particular lens. Her prose is meticulously calculated and powerfully graphic, yet she maps her stories out at arms length; you can hardly empathize with Joan Didion the narrator, let alone Joan Didion the writer. Even a simple Google Image search highlights her particular aloofness – the precision in her hands, the conscientious cigarette, the defiant yet disinterested gaze. Her nose and chin are never upturned (she is not vain), but her posture is as frosty as her writing.

With a shade more name recognition than Susan Sontag or Don DeLillo, Didion has attained what few writers ever have; even as she approaches 82, she’s commanding fashion ad campaigns and Vanity Fair profiles a decade after her last publication (The Year of Magical Thinking in 2006). She’s undoubtedly a cultural icon, a celebrity. She’s a public intellectual, using her deftness of craft to make those lofty observations just palatable enough for a wide audience. “Airplane pilots speak of ‘angle of attack,’” writes Heller, “and, in Didion’s best nonfiction, the angle is precise both intellectually and emotionally.” That precision needles aspiring writers and ardent readers alike, spurring a legion of fans unseen in this modern literary era (unless you count J.K. Rowling).



Joan Didion for Céline. Juergen Teller. 2015


Didion was raised in Sacramento – the “true” California, she argues in one essay – and would end up splitting the rest of her adult life between Los Angeles and New York City. Armed with an English degree from Berkeley and a job offer from Vogue, she produced the bulk of her journalistic work in the ’60s and ’70s for Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review, a career dotted by five novels, eleven nonfiction collections and five screenplays. With a National Book Award for Nonfiction (for The Year of Magical Thinking) and a National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama, her celebrity status is not unsupported by literary decoration.

I was introduced to Didion through her first, and perhaps most acclaimed nonfiction collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem – in a college seminar, of course. Nestled amongst her “personals” and the Hollywood exposés is the titular essay, a startling portrait of Haight-Ashbury during the height of the hippie era, impressions of the counterculture center while “the center was not holding.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem pulls aside the beaded curtains on the carefree utopia we romanticize today, deflating the good-vibes narrative with aimless characters, aimless interactions and an aimless central message. When I think of Didion as a public intellectual, I think of this piece, and the haunting image of a preschooler on LSD. Dan Wakefield’s 1968 New York Times review highlights the mysterious authority Didion commands in the essay:

“The title piece…conveys the complexity and the ‘atomization’ of the hippie scene not as the latest fashionable trend, but as a serious advanced stage of society in which things are truly ‘falling apart’ as in Yeats’s poem. Compare this piece with Time magazine’s hapless cover story on the hippies last year, and you will see why ‘group journalism’ is usually inferior to a single, talented writer using the ‘method’ explained by Miss Didion: ‘When I went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around a while, and made a few friends.'” (Wakefield)

This detailed and sometimes accidental unearthing, of hidden irony or subtle injustice or a common narrative, is Didion’s ability to turn almost-news into forceful public commentary, with the passions of a writer but the mandate of a journalist. And of course, while her experiences are fiercely personal, you finish her stories with a clearer picture of yourself than of your narrator. It all builds on her brand, untouchable in both merit and persona.

But she is, by and large, a celebrity of her time. Now in the twilight of her career (or as one colleague put it, “is she dead yet?”) Didion is no longer putting out commentary in the time of “checking your privilege” and microaggressions. In a 2015 Atlantic profile, Meghan Daum considers how Didion might grapple with 21st century feminism as someone who’s “more than a little bit of a class snob.” This is a woman who did come of age under ‘50s conservatism, whose goal was not the intersectionality of my generation but the unapologetic feat of putting her writing before herself. The latter, Daum argues, may be troublesome in today’s identity-authoritated climate:

“As new generations of artists and tastemakers grow hungrier for voices from worlds where mothers do not give teas and closets are not full of organdy tablecloths on long rollers, it’s easy to imagine a writer of Didion’s tastes and sensibility being called out in the blogosphere and in social media as fundamentally gifted yet fundamentally “problematic” (to use a term of the moment that Didion might have great fun with) in her politics and tone. For all her brilliance, she might be deemed too haughty to tolerate, the ultimate white girl” (Daum).

(At the end of her piece, Daum also touches on a parallel elitism in Didion’s followers, perhaps including me. When I talk to friends who haven’t studied English since high school or don’t read considerably on their own, her ambiguous sophistication is usually enough to garner me some legitimacy (Joan Didion as a favorite author tends to sound more impressive than F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jane Austen). On the other end of the spectrum, she’s too much on the periphery of the public’s literary consciousness for my more snobbish peers to respect, and her unsolicited celebrity status becomes her Achille’s heel. Although, what’s more elitist than scorning her for her works’ accessibility?)

Daum is correct in that these are exactly what today’s critics would take issue with. Why does this white, privileged celebrity get to speak for everyone? Where is the diversity in her subjects? As an outsider by nature, how can she comment on every issue in every community? All these are valid questions, but they point towards a larger problem – how can these intellectuals critique and call out the world around them without alienating people who take offense?

Too many today are caught up in “the qualifications for getting and keeping the title” of the public intellectual, according to Stephen Mack of The New Democratic Review. Both those already in the club and those shaking their fists at the doors are uneasy about the influence at stake; Mack argues for a redefinition of these authorities as a “function” of society, rather than a “categor[y] or class.” In that sense, people ought to be less concerned as to whether Didion writes from a more pretentious outcropping, but rather if what she’s writing feels true.

Mack examines this supposed conflict in a recent blog post, one between public intellectuals and a less-receptive public – the number of people who are taking offense is growing. “Conflict,” however, is absolutely the wrong word for Mack, who doesn’t believe in the American anti-intellectualism some of his peers like to cite:

“Any argument for the public intellectual that…rests the assumption that common citizens are forever childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous” (Mack)

This issue he raises, while it doesn’t begin as a battle, does dissolve into that dreaded conflict if those common citizens feel that they’re being patronized. We see it in this 2016 election cycle, where an anti-establishment faction has turned its back on an aristocratic mass media and politicians who dismiss their constituents’ concerns as extraneous. We saw it in the ’60s, where an entire generation declined to listen closely to their lost children – except those like Didion.

Maybe that’s why Slouching Toward Bethlehem resonates with more readers than a Time magazine cover story; Didion doesn’t expose the counterculture movement as part of an elitist oversight, but closer to a peer. You can’t question the objectivity of her vignettes – she weaves her facts so tightly that there’s little room to poke holes, let alone unravel the piece. I’m not saying she can’t be condescending, discrediting or discriminating (sometimes she is all three), but she rarely presents an unsupported argument. Her tone can be sharply critical, but her opinion is often left floating in the paragraph breaks. She doesn’t treat her readers or her subjects as “childlike,” and she doesn’t hide behind a team of staff writers and their “experts.”

Mack’s threshold for who constitutes a public intellectual is not unreasonable, then. If you put their identity second to their ideas, the formula is pretty simple:

“…if public intellectuals have any role to play in a democracy—and they do—it’s simply to keep the pot boiling. The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about” (Mack).

Joan Didion doesn’t particularly care whether you like her work, or agree with each of conclusions. She is not part of her own equation: not her background, not her gender, and not her feelings. To her, these essays are simply the truth – “things worth talking about.”


Anolik, Lili. “How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend.” Vanity Fair. 2 Feb. 2016. Web.
Daum, Meghan. “The Elitist Allure of Joan Didion.” The Atlantic. 10 Aug. 2015. Web.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.
Heller, Nathan. “Why Joan Didion Matters More Than Ever.” Vogue. 12 Nov. 2014. Web.

Mack, Stephen. “The “Decline” of Public Intellectuals?”, 14 Aug. 2007. Web.

One thought on “Joan Didion: the (Involuntary) Public Intellectual

  1. Morgan Buckley, University of Southern California says:

    I think it’s interesting you talk about Joan Didion as a public intellectual. She isn’t the first person I think of when I hear “public intellectual.” As I read your piece, however, it grew to become an obvious conclusion. I would have been interested to hear your thoughts about Didion’s actual social commentary. You talk a lot in broad strokes about her impact. But in what intellectual spheres? I think she’s a brilliant writer, and she changed the way I see youth and beauty. But that’s just me 🙂


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