The Persona of Joan Didion
I’m wrapping up Play It As It Lays, but I wanted to take a minute to post about the novel’s author, Joan Didion.
Every author has some form of persona–the exterior he or she presents to the world. Hemingway was the gruff, manly world traveler. Kerouac was the “I don’t give a F” degenerate. And Joan Didion?
According to Megan Reynolds, who wrote a profile of Didion for Gawker, the author has constructed a persona of delicate fragility:
We admire Didion for her fragility, her sensitivity, her ability to persevere against the adversity of great loss. The writing—terse, detached, distant—telegraphs a carefully constructed weakness that she relishes in as a strength. This is where the problem lies. The work is inextricably linked with the author. Before personal branding was a concern that anyone thought to trouble themselves with explicitly, Didion literally wrote the book on how to do it well. In any public figure, it’s hard to separate the brand from the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Conflating a person’s public-facing self with the private is dangerous.
To some critics, like Reynolds, Didion herself is represented in her writing:
There are constant references to her body and the space, however tiny, it takes up in a room. Her thoughts are so overwhelming that they threaten to consume her. The persona she’s created in her writing leaps off the page and latches on to her thin frame like a succubus. It’s an entity that requires constant and careful preservation, the precursor to filtered Instagram selfies and carefully curated tweets. As readers, we want to believe that Didion isn’t the person she wrote into her stories, but the more you read her, the harder it is to separate the two.
Authors were thinking about branding, even when it’s a perceived negative brand, decades ago.
Whatever you think about Didion and her persona, there’s no mistaking she’s a talented writer. Her style is detached, slightly dark. She’s very much like Hemingway in that she writes short, sparse sentences. Every word has a purpose.
Play It As It Lays is a very good novel, and I’ll review it next week. One more post about Didion on Friday about an unthinkable series of tragedies that struck her in 2003.
(Image: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)