East Coastians would likely balk at the term “California literature” as being an oxymoron. And yet, that’s precisely what Joan Didion carved out for herself as a genre. Yes, there were others who had written about California before her—John Steinbeck and Nathanael West come to mind (even Raymond Chandler, for the less hoity-toity)—and all just as negatively through the guise of “poetic darkness.” But none of them with such artful jadedness about the state. Unlike a lot of writers who gravitated toward California in the days before the Manson murders (the very event at the center of Didion’s essay, “The White Album”) drew back the curtain fully on its sinisterness, Didion was, instead, from the state. The capital, to be precise. In fact, she’s one of the few things that Sacramento can proudly claim as its own, and yet, for whatever reason, they still won’t create a goddamn museum dedicated to her.
Wanting to experience the exact opposite of the environment one grows up in is probably a key reason for why she opted to flee to New York, traitorously abandoning California in the long run despite a stint in L.A. during the Eve Babitz heyday. And, speaking of Babitz, the yin and yang connection between these two women—both originally from the state and both writing with opposing viewpoints of it—has reached a new apex in Didion apparently needing to do Babitz one better by waiting to die until six days later (87 to Eve’s inverted 78) so her headlines could fully eclipse the far fewer that Babitz got to begin with.
In contrast, the headlines for Didion have poured in across major news outlets. “Author Joan Didion has died at 87. Her novels and essays explored the agitated, fractured state of the nation’s psyche,” read The Washington Post. The Hollywood Reporter kept it simpler with, “Joan Didion, screenwriter and iconic American author, dies at 87.” And yes, leave it to the California-based rag to glitz up Didion’s title with “screenwriter.” Which she was, even if she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, downplayed that form of writing for the sake of appearances to their East Coast friends.
Nathanael West did the same. In fact, Babitz once said of West, “I think [he] was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. [His work] is a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” The author who brings up this quote, Lili Anolik (the sole “biographer” of Babitz), uses this to lead into the idea of Didion and her husband’s own screenwriting machinations. For Anolik, this was a couple that “the charitably disposed might term ‘careerist,’ the uncharitably ‘two-faced.’” Anolik adds, “They always let it be known that they were only writing scripts so they could afford to write books, were East Coast intellectuals slumming, basically. They’d cash the studio checks while simultaneously distracting themselves from the resulting crummy movie—one or the other of them often writing a piece for a classy New York publication about the experience after it was over that struck an arch, insiderish tone—even reveling in the resulting crummy movie, as if the crumminess were further evidence of their superiority, proof that they’d sold nothing when they sold out.”
In this regard, it’s easy to see why Didion sold out her own state. Essentially shitting on it while making most of her profit from it. While everyone classifies her, even to this day, as the quintessential “California writer,” no one seems to remark upon the dark pall she cast over it all the way from her perch on the East Coast, where she committed further betrayal by opting to die in New York City. Even though everyone knows you’re supposed to die in California. It was once very literally where East Coast people went to die… when they found out they had a terminal illness. Something about “all that sunshine” doing wonders for one’s health. No one seems to remark upon the extreme damage she wrought upon “the brand.” And even despite writing a famed essay about how New York becomes just as boring as every other place in “Goodbye to All That,” her commentary on NYC was never even remotely as scathing. Or maybe it was, since she said so little about it.
As though it was supposed to be some big, profound statement, Didion once famously noted, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Didion was far more calculated than that, though. She knew the end was coming. And that’s arguably why we saw the release of a new collection of previously unread essays this year, entitled Let Me Tell You What I Mean (featuring only work from 1968 to 2000, which leads us to believe she hasn’t got much else lying around to posthumously share from more recent years). As well as an additional Library of America compendium of her work called The 1980s & 90s. Didion was bracing for this moment; it would be hard not to when you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Yet maybe even she couldn’t fully envision the end. Let alone the end of her being the “Queen of California” on the literary front. If such title-stripping is even a real possibility for her. Death can tend to make people more monumental in the fields they had already taken up space in.
In a 1979 New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani, she declared, “California belongs to Joan Didion.” Mainly because: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” With her death, we have to wonder if Didion will still be able to haunt the hills and highways of California in this way, or if there is finally, at long last, room for a new voice to rise from the ashes of the fires Didion was only too happy to spotlight on her way out the door to New York. Where I Was From being an entire essay collection on how the romanticization of California ought to be shattered, that it was time for the myth surrounding it to be “debunked.” And Didion ought to be the one to do it. But she was wrong about a few things, including her insistence—every sparse sentence always rife with overdramatization—“Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another.”
And yet, Didion ironically became the very thing that encouraged “its children” to see themselves as connected. Only to end up causing more division with the all-too-common present-day complaint about how myopic and exclusionary her vision of the state was. Or are those two descriptors, ultimately, a true assessment of this Promised Land? That, one supposes, depends on a Californian’s mood toward Didion’s work on any given day.