Joan Didion
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Joan Didion

Past Event: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Joan Didion (b. 1934) was born and raised in Sacramento, California, a fifth generation Californian. Didion’s great-great-great grandmother traveled to the West with the infamous Donner-Reed party in 1846, but fortunately her group split off in Nevada, narrowly escaping the cannibalism that became synonymous with the Donners.

As an undergraduate English major at the University of California, Berkley, Didion won an essay prize sponsored by Vogue magazine. As a result, Vogue hired her, and for eight years she lived in New York City, eventually becoming an associate features editor at the magazine. She published her first novel, Run River, in 1963 and in the same year married the writer John Gregory Dunne. In 1964 the couple returned to California, where they remained for twenty-five years.

Didion has been hailed as one of the shrewdest observers of America’s political and cultural life. She gained this reputation through the success of her collections of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). Since then she has written several novels and collection of essays and has contributed to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

In her book Political Fictions Didion analyzes the American political process, examining developments which occurred between the 1988 and 2000 elections. In these eight essays, several of which have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Didion explores how a “handful of insiders” have come to dominate the American political scene. Political Fictions is Didion’s sixth work of nonfiction.

Among the many awards and nominations Didion has received are first prize in Vogue’s Prix de Paris, a National Book Award nomination, and an American Book Award nomination. Her works include Play It As It Lays (1970), Democracy (1984), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). She also has collaborated with her husband, John Gregory Dunn, on screenplays. Didion is currently a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt from Political Fictions (2001)
At a point quite soon during the dozen-some years that followed getting on that charter at Newark, it came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect. Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate’s “character” would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become our national River Lethe. It was clear for example in 1988 that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent. It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves, and by so doing to narrow the contested ground to a handful of selected “target” voters, had already imposed considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs. It was also clear in 1988 that the rhetorical manipulation of resentment and anger designed to attract these target voters had reduced the nation’s political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be pernicious nostalgia. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process. All of this was known. Yet by the time of the November 2000 presidential election and the onset of the thirty-six days that came to be known as “Florida,” every aspect of what had been known in 1988 would again need to be rediscovered, the stone pushed up the hill one more time.

Selected WorkPolitical Fictions (2001)The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)After Henry (1992)Miami (1987)Democracy (1984)The White Album (1979)Play It As It Lays (1970)Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968)Run River (1963) interviews Joan DidionReviews written by Joan Didion on The New York Review of Books