Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s collection of essays contained in Slouching Towards Bethlehem was all “written for magazines during 1965, 1966, and 1967” and most were “[her] idea.” She notes, “thirteen of the twenty pieces were published in The Saturday Evening Post.” Didion writes about Joan Baez’s school, John Wayne, people getting married in Vegas, the lifestyle around Haight Street, etc. To be forthcoming, I did not finish this collection of essays, stopping on page 141 out of 238 pages.

My biggest issue was the distance between Didion, who is acting as an investigative journalist, and her subject matter. Oftentimes, her presence is so absent that I assumed several pieces were written based on research from other sources, though she explains that she visited these places herself. The first piece, one I found interesting, was about a death that didn’t add up, one that had to be murder, and why police thought so. Didion’s distance reads as if she’s put court transcripts and video clips in order to make a narrative.

That’s the other problem, though. Most of these pieces don’t have a narrative arc. Why did write about John Wayne? In the preface, she points out, “I think I was asked to write about John Wayne.” This hesitant assertion does not clarify if it was her idea to to write the piece, or even if she spoke to The Duke himself. The bits included are confusing, though I did get that it was the actor’s last movie and that he was suffering from cancer. I read and read for 134 pages before I highlighted anything after the preface because I couldn’t figure out what was actually meaningful.

slouching towards

I finally quit when I read Didion’s piece called “On Self-Respect.” She’s not researching anything, just writing her thoughts. Perhaps this essay did not make it into a newspaper? Basically, I had to quit because I couldn’t stand her writing style anymore. Here is an example:

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes.

Let me puzzle through this: when Didion realized she didn’t like herself, she continued to write down everything she did wrong, but is now ashamed that she did? I’m working too hard on this. Many people worry what they’re missing out on when they don’t finish a book. I’m tired of trying to weave the tapestry when Didion was simply showing me some threads and a sketch of her final product. She needed to do her job as a journalist and write cohesive articles, avoid giving her opinions on the subjects, and help readers come to their own conclusions.

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23 comments

  1. Life is too short, and there are too many fine books out there, to go on with a book when it’s not working for you. And writing style can certainly have that impact. As you say, if you have to work that hard to understand the author’s point, that’s a problem.

  2. I agree that I want more from an article than just pieced together research, unless of course the bits of research when combined make something original. But even so it is the author’s take or opinion I would be most interested in reading.

    • I kept wondering if I wanted too much from Didion, for her to get too personal, maybe, but then I reminded myself that the introduction impled that these are all investigative journalism–meaning she’s in the story and thus should be part of it.

  3. I’ve never read this but I did read her memoir about her husband’s death, Year of Magical Thinking. I thought it was outstanding, though of course, very sad. And it was written a long time after these pieces. I don’t blame you at all for not finishing, though. I agree with Margot, life is too short to waste time with books that just aren’t working for you!

    • I’ve heard that her fiction and personal nonfiction are fantastic. In the introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she admits that she is not good at journalism because it’s too hard and takes her too long.

  4. Haha – that quote is superb! It takes the prize for Most Big Words Strung Together in a Way that Renders Them Meaningless. Well done for sticking it out as long as you did… 😉

  5. That quote is quite something. I tried reading one of Didion’s novels years ago – I think, anyway, though for the life of me I can’t remember which – and gave it up as not for me at all. I do still want to try The Year of Magical Thinking, because I am fascinated by the different ways that people write about grief – but I think I will give this one a miss!

    • I’ve heard a variety of responses to her work. One guy on Goodreads told me that he couldn’t stand her fiction, but didn’t often admit it because Didion is this sort of American treasure. Some people love her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. I just didn’t click with her, but away I go on to the next book!

  6. Yikes. This essay collection seems like proper work to read and understand. That quote?! I read it twice, then read your interpretation paragraph below, and then I read the quote again. I still feel like I’m missing something… Sometimes, I feel like writers are too deep in their own heads to connect with their reader. This investigative journalism sounds dry and detached. What made you pick up this collection in the first place?

    • I think The Year of Magical Thinking was all the rage when I saw it in a used book store. Then, there’s also the pervasive notion that Didion is a “must read” of American culture.

      • Okay, since I’ve read this review I’ve seen Didion’s name in a few places. Mostly around “must read memoirs for women” lists (I’ve been on a powerful woman binge lately), but there isn’t a lot about the books synoposis I find captivating. Who knows. Maybe I’ll try her works some day… maybe I won’t.

  7. She is a gap in my reading experience too. There is a documentary that I was thinking of watching first, before reading anything (breaking my usual “book first” rule) and your experience makes me think that might work well for me. So many women writers cite her as a major influence, that I do want to give her a try too…

    • Since Didion mentioned that journalism was so hard for her, causing her to spend a ridiculous amount of time on each piece, I’m wondering if it’s not her genre. Try her fiction, perhaps?

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