Tag Archives: Joan Didion

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.

 

Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.

 

The Observer

One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal.

 

                                               Flickr

Netflix’s release of a new documentary looking at the life and work of writer Joan Didion (The Center Will Not Hold, 2017) is a reminder that we owe a great deal to gifted observers who can help us understand what is in plain sight. Didion is 82 and the author of several novels. But her defining works are her non-fiction essays that cast a laser-focused eye on social landscapes that range from the social to the personal.

To be sure, not every landscape. The Sacramento native clearly has a bi-coastal bias.  Her best work catches the turbulent 60s in California (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968) and the preoccupations of an earlier and more tumultuous New York.  Her style is the journalism of deep narrative, sometimes catching in language what a camera might miss. Over a long career she has been a writer for all seasons, once producing articles for magazines as diverse as Vogue and The New York Review of Books. She also wrote screenplays with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal.  The method is evident in her preference for the word “sentimental.”  With the term she means more than a simple nostalgia. Didion uses it to describe the American preferences for safer and less self-indicting accounts of our collective behavior. She then will then overlay a second and often more troubling narrative that stings by virtue of its greater veracity.

Of the works I know, an essay deceptively named “Sentimental Journeys” is a favorite. Its subject is the story and arrest of the Central Park Five, the African American youths arrested after an alleged “wilding” incident in which a  jogger was raped and left for dead in the Park’s northeast corner.  It became significant in understanding how the press initially covered the event that the victim was white and affluent. The tabloids, Mayor Koch and publicity hounds like Donald Trump had convicted the five youths tried within hours of their arrests and ostensible confession.  But Didion’s account doesn’t settle for self-satisfied judgments aligned against the boys, who were eventually acquitted after serving years in person.  In her contemporaneous reporting the event was a morality tale about two New Yorks and their very different sets of resentments.

In this city rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives, what people said when they talked about the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster. One vision shared by those who had seized upon the attack on the jogger as an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, was of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass. The opposing vision, shared by those who had seized upon the arrest of the defendants as an exact representation of their own victimization, was of a city in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.1

Years later the analysis still reads as exactly right.

Details are the stock and trade of journalism.  But they come from her as revealing packets of insight threaded into a narrative.  In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) they are offered to flesh out short scenes that foretell the approaching death of her husband and–within two years–her daughter, Quintana.  Both died from medical causes that she characterizes as “unlucky.”  A weak heart took her husband, and septic shock ended the life of her daughter.

Where others might find their minds emptied by the disappearance of their family, Didion recovers small moments that she now wants to notice. There’s a flood of impressions and fantasies that surface as she tries to fill out long days in her New York apartment.  Was there more to know in the suddenly still space?  Why do we expect the deceased to appear in a doorway? Did John leave a message to be discovered?

Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.  They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered on the hood of the car.  They live by symbols. The read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment of a decision to replace it. . . . One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk.  When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, and what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?  Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?2

In nearly every description Didion suppresses the rhetorical impulse to reach for a grand conclusion or a panoramic summary.  Her writing is like a good novel, revealing truths through action rather than as a “tell.”   Her gift has been to help a reader discover patterns revealed in the smallest moments. This kind of writing is inherently meaningful to us because it replicates levels of consciousness we struggle to notice.

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1“Sentimental Journeys,” in After Henry, 1992), p. 300.

2 The Year of Magical Thinking, (Knopf, 2005), p. 152-153.