As Evelyn McDonnell’s recent biography of pioneering journalist and sharp social critic Joan Didion comes to a close, she likens the author to a Rorschach test, where “everyone sees in her what they want to see; she is a screen on which we project ourselves.” When I began designing a new college literature course (an introduction to nonfiction prose), no matter how many times I culled and configured potential readings, Didion emerged as a perpetual anchor.
I have no problem centralizing Didion, as I devote 2024 to a personal, chronological expedition through her oeuvre. Besides, as a writer and critic whose own Didion-Rorschach test reveals desires for literary innovation and mentorship, I want to witness firsthand what two dozen undergraduates, largely unfamiliar with her work, would make of the cool woman behind the cigarette smoke and oversized sunglasses. How would their projections – their attempts at coming to know the seemingly unknowable as Joan Didion recedes into the past – differ from mine? Answering these questions is the subject of a future essay.
Meanwhile, I wanted to supplement our memoir, personal essay, and obituary genre studies with a companion biography. Reviewed (albeit a bit harshly) by Diane Leach for PopMatters, Tracy Daugherty’s 2015 biography The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion proved too lengthy for the purpose of an introductory-level course, and I did not want to bear the critical or ethical responsibility of curating a selective or piecemealed, much less reductive, version of Didion’s biography. McDonnell’s recent release was timed perfectly with my course, and its generic hybridity, melding biography and criticism with personal history, seemed to possess some pedagogical potential.
Above all, I wanted to introduce another voice into the room that did not belong to me nor my students: a well-researched yet critical perspective that could further illuminate the contexts in which Joan Didion lived and worked while providing another case study of how one career writer has projected herself onto “Saint Joan”. Ultimately, though, I don’t feel that my desires as either a reader or a course designer have been fulfilled.
Under 250 pages, The World According to Joan Didion does not pretend to be an exhaustive survey of Didion’s life and career. Rather, McDonnell frames it as a notebook in which she considers Didion’s legacy and status as a “chronicler of empire”, interrogates her writerly rhythms, and “occasionally… insert[s] [her]self into the narrative.” If My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014) is exemplary of the bibliomemoir genre that merges contexts and confessions, reportage with reader response, then McDonnell’s work might pale for many readers in comparison.
McDonnell may very well be “stalking the memory” of Didion, but she often seems to hold back, preferring to float at the surface rather than diving in and laying herself bare as a reader and writer in pursuit of her subject in the ways that Didion remains so famous for doing. As such, The World According to Joan Didion often feels repetitive and sometimes clichéd; the author even goes so far as to be candid about her “conscious gimmicks” or attempts to mimic Didion’s unique voice and style, despite recognizing her (and most others’) inability to “imitate Joan Didion’s gait.”
Readers who have for so long sought out the secrets of Didion’s magic are likely left unsatisfied. And those who have long been enamored with the writer’s chicness may be frustrated with McDonnell’s sometimes superficial criticism of Didion’s aesthetic. The passages regarding the auctioning off of the literary superstar’s belongings in the chapter titled “Stingray” after Didion’s iconic canary yellow Corvette reads like a lesser imitation of Yona Zeldis McDonough’s “Reliquary”, an essay in 2002’s All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader, in which the author contemplates the faithful crowds who flocked to Christie’s auction of the dead blonde’s belongings in hopes of possessing the relics she left behind.
What some might deem poignant criticisms of The World According to Joan Didion are, in fact, where its potential in the classroom emerges. McDonnell’s reckoning with Didion’s style and its musicality, as well as the value of learning via imitating masters of a craft, may be useful for young writers who wish to hone their skills but lack strategies for getting started. McDonnell’s prose also warns of what happens when you try to emulate your idol too closely. Even though she only skims the surface and sometimes makes troubling, unsupported claims (about topics such as Didion’s infertility), McDonnell nevertheless provides a sweeping survey of Didion’s life and, with it, invites productive critical conversations about the forms and ethics of criticism and life writing.
McDonnell makes the following observation four pages into the biography, revealing a sentiment familiar to the Didion-obsessed: “Her writings were windows into her world, but she kept the doors locked. When she died, it felt like she took the keys with her.” As I came to the end of The World According to Joan Didion, I didn’t feel like I had come into possession of any new keys. Maybe the cobwebs and California dust have been dislodged in some spots. But the doors remain locked, and perhaps they always will.