Robin Black’s New York Times commentary, What’s so Great About Young Writers?, struck a huge chord with me. Far more than European or Asian cultures, Americans embrace the cult of youth, likely because we still are a fledgling nation ourselves and equate energy, innovation, freedom and individualism, all prized American values, with being young.
I am among those lucky enough to have grown up in the relative safety of middle-class America, where there was always healthy food on the table, a place to rest my head at night, money enough for ballet classes or piano lessons, and parents who strongly believed in the importance of education and cultural and social awareness of the larger world. I also am a product of a childhood in which of series of tragic deaths and illnesses resulted in a chaotic family life permanently scarred by trauma, loss and embitterment. When I was a child, novels, and to a lesser extent, movies and live theater, served both as my escape from that traumatic chaos and also as a way to help me make sense of it. As such, books were these miraculous gifts created by mysterious, sentient beings known as authors, who were as remote as they were omnipotent.
Those of you who follow American literary culture carefully may recently have heard that a documentary about Joan Didion’s life and writings is slated to be released in Fall 2015. The documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is being produced by Susanne Rostock and noted actor/director Griffin Dunne (Dunne is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne, who was both Didion’s husband and screen writing partner for more than 30 years, and about whose death she wrote so eloquently in The Year of Magical Thinking).
As part of the Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to complete the film, Didion supporters, including yours truly, received a hand-written list of Didion’s favorite books as a thank you. Didion’s essays and political writings are heavily influenced by many of her contemporaries of the 60s and 70s, particularly other New Journalists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. When it came to fiction, though, she largely draws on authors writing one or two generations before her, including Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, James Baldwin and Ford Madox Ford. Didion is particularly noted for first mastering, then outshining, Hemingway when it comes to his “iceberg” theory of writing, which posits that what is deliberately left off the page resonates more deeply than what does appear (i.e., how the author’s use of specific words, syntax, repetition, rhythm and cadence enables readers to implicitly understand what lies beneath the surface of the text itself, or what we today call “the emotional subtext”).
Here then are the favorite books and authors that Didion turns to time and time again:
A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway
Victory (1914) by Joseph Conrad
Guerrillas (1975) by VS Naipaul
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
Wonderland (1971) by Joyce Carol Oates
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Crime & Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Appointment in Samarra (1934) by John O’Hara
The Executioner’s Song (1979) by Norman Mailer
Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw all by Henry James (1843-1916)
Speedboat (1976) by Renata Adler
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) by James Baldwin
The Berlin Stories (1945) by Christopher Isherwood
Poetry of Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens
Just as she was influenced by these writers and others, so too has Didion influenced writers of my generation. Indeed, I read my first Didion novel, The Book of Common Prayer, the summer I graduated from Mount Holyoke–and then went on to devour everything she has ever published. If any of my own fiction or essays resonate at all with readers, it is thanks to her.
If you haven’t yet had occasion to read her work or only know her more recent books (she is well into her eighties now and rather frail), the best place to start would be with her brilliant series of essays, Slouching Into Bethelehem, or the novel Democracy, both of which are readily available from your local library or independent bookstore.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Founder & Managing Editor
The Lyon Review
Alice Ruvane ’86 makes her way in the world as a promotional writer. She served on the Editorial Board of The Lyon Review during its inception and her first published personal essay, Creating a Life appeared in The Lyon Review in May 2011. Alice’s other works can be found online and in a yellowing copy of the New York Times Magazine (letter to the Editor and www.poetsagainstthewar.org, Truth & Justice.) Alice lives in Maine where she delights in spoiling her dog and her husband rotten (in that order). When she’s not spending time outdoors, on her yoga mat, on stage or with friends, she can be found at her desk writing. It’s no wonder she’s still at work on her first novel.
I didn’t tell my boy where we were headed the morning I threw his duffle bag in the way back and drove him to rehab. I lied. I waved the plane ticket I’d bought to Canada in front of his dazed eyes, “Maybe your father can straighten you out.” I’d had enough. Even if my boy hadn’t reached his “bottom,” I’d sure reached mine.
I packed his things the night before. Four pairs of tube socks, two pairs of jeans, an assortment of T-shirts and a sweatshirt. It wasn’t much, but it was clean. I picked the clothes off his floor and did the washing, drying and folding. He wasn’t home, but that wasn’t news. For the last two years he only came home to sleep, or really, to sleep it off.