Joan Didion, the beloved American writer known for her brilliant short stories, essays, command of language, and cultural critiques, has passed away at age 87 after battling Parkinson’s disease.
“Didion was one of the country’s most trenchant writers and astute observers. Her best-selling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honors and are considered modern classics,” Didion’s publisher Penguin Random House said in a statement on Wednesday.
Didion was the author of 19 books and was perhaps most well known for her collection of essays titled, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
“My only advantage as a reporter,” Didion once wrote in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
The Los Angeles Times noted that Didion had fans who crossed the political spectrum and generations:
Readers of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” or “The White Album,” her most acclaimed nonfiction collections, “could well follow one of her paragraphs into hell,” an admiring critic once noted. She deployed trenchant facts like surgical bombs, telling us, for example, that seemingly placid San Bernardino in the mid-1960s was the kind of place where it was “easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book,” where the future always looks good “because no one remembers the past.”
“Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion,” critic John Leonard once wrote. “Try to rearrange one of her sentences, and you’ve realized that the sentence was inevitable, a hologram.”
President Obama called her “one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture” when he presented her with the National Humanities Medal in 2012. But some critics wanted more from Didion than cool-eyed observations: They wanted to be told what it all meant. “Didion,” Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote in The Nation in 1979, “makes it a point of honor not to struggle for meaning.”
The California paper also reported that Didion’s success in writing began after winning a writing contest in college:
In 1956 she entered a writing competition for college seniors and won the top prize — a job writing promotional copy at Vogue magazine in New York. Fashion wasn’t a personal priority — she wore tennis shoes to the office and sometimes came in with her hair still wet. Under the tutelage of a demanding editor, she learned to compress her writing by producing eight-line photo captions. “Everything had to work, every word, every comma,” Didion told Paris Review in 2006.
Regarding why she writes, Didion once said that, “The impulse to write things down is a particularly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” she said at another time. “What I want and what I fear.”
Didion was married to John Gregory Dunne in 1964 until his death in 2003. The two had one daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who passed away in 2005.