Hilton Als and Emma Cline on the Late Joan Didion

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Joan Didion tried and failed, she said, “to think”; that is, to write about abstractions and symbols, and make grand arguments in the manner of the New York intellectuals of her time. Instead, the California native—who died in December, at the age of eighty-seven—built her work around close observation of American life as she saw it, withholding judgment. And while many of her intellectual contemporaries belong now to a bygone era, “for my generation,” Emma Cline notes, “her influence is so massive.” Cline’s best-selling novel “The Girls” is set in nineteen-sixties California, on the fringes of a cult—what we might think of as Didion country. “I almost can’t think of a writer who is more of a touchstone for every writer that I know.” In fact, younger writers need to “unlearn” her voice, Hilton Als tells David Remnick, in order to find their own. Als notes that Didion eventually rejected the persona of her early works, which was imbued with white female fragility; and she was prophetic, he notes, in placing race and gender at the center of America’s battles.

Since Joan Didion’s death, The New Yorker has published Postscripts by Als, Cline, Zadie Smith, and Nathan Heller. Some of Didion’s own contributions to The New Yorker can be found here.

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