The Strange Defensiveness in Joan Didion’s New Book

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 3 2011 9:48 AM

Joan Didion Addresses “Privilege”

Joan Didion in 2010

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, is about her daughter, Quintana Roo, who died in 2005 at the age of 39, just weeks before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s bestselling memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

In the course of describing her daughter’s childhood, Didion mentions a housekeeper she and her husband employed; she also refers to 60 dresses that were given to Quintana by family friends. Then she steps out of her narrative to address her readers directly, to tell us there “was a reason” she mentioned these things:

I was not unaware as I did so that a certain number of readers (more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information ... as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged.”
I wanted to lay this on the table.

Having laid the matter of privilege on that proverbial table, Didion proceeds to dissect it. “Privilege,” she says, is “a judgement,” “an opinion,” “an accusation,” and, finally, privilege is something “to which”—given her daughter’s tremendous health problems and early death—“I will not easily cop.”

Christian Lorentzen in the Observer calls the pasage “strange to read.” Lawrence Frascella, writing for, calls it “defensive.” Most notably, Matthew Specktor, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, uses the moment as a springboard for a smart, sensitive essay about the “conspicuous glamour” not only in Blue Nights, but in much of Didion’s work. Another LARB essay (the site ran one each day last week), by Meghan Daum, also explores the subject (Didion “seems to have aged out of high/low and landed comfortably in high/high,” Daum writes).

Indeed, part of what makes the moment odd is that Didion has waited this long to address a charge that is hardly new. Two of the best-known pans of Didion’s work, by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison and John Lahr, both suggested that Didion was oblivious to her privilege. And as Evan Hughes detailed this week in a piece for the Awl, Pauline Kael thought so, too:

For Kael, Didion’s work suggested a familiarity with the high life that pushed all the wrong buttons. Kael was raised partly on a chicken farm and worked a string of bad jobs as a single mother before getting her feet set. She harbored a lot of bitterness toward people she thought had it easy... To be “swank” was to risk her enduring disdain.

Didion has never seemed worried about appearing “swank” in her writing before. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she describes the life she and her husband divided between Malibu and Manhattan, dining out frequently at “celebrity-oriented” restaurants, without apology. In an interview just before the book was published, Didion even suggested to New York Magazine that one source of “suspicion and irritation” about her was that she has led a “very conventional life.” (She also, in the course of that discussion, said, “I’m not rich.”)

So why address the charge—and preemptively, with hypothetical readers in mind—now? Perhaps writing about child-rearing makes the subject of privilege unavoidable. Or perhaps the economic difficulties of the last few years put the matter on Didion’s mind. For some of her fans, the glamour of Didion’s life has always been part of the appeal of her work. But now, it seems, that glamour has created a distance that needs, in some fashion, to be crossed.


Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

How the First Benghazi Committee Hearing Humbled the Hillary Clinton State Department

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 18 2014 11:25 AM Gays on TV: From National Freakout to Modern Family Fun
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Sept. 18 2014 8:53 AM The Other Huxtable Effect Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?