Writer Wednesday: Joan Didion

For me, books can be like hard candy. You get a bag of Jolly Ranchers,  you rip it open and maybe you immediately eat one of your favorite flavors first, as a sort of opening-the-bag celebration.  But, then if you’re like me, you start eating all your least favorite flavors, so that what’s left in the bag – eventually – is a big pile of watermelon and sour apple. Heaven.

There are probably more moody black and white portraits of Joan Didion than of any other writer. If you print them all out and staple them together in a flip book, you can actually watch her age.

That’s how I’ve been treating the work of Joan Didion. I’ve loved Didion since a newspaper editor gave me The White Album as part of a newsroom Secret Santa gift exchange. I was 23, loved my job, and Didion’s essays sang to me. I’d never read prose like that before. I spent months on that book. I pored over each essay, reading each word twice, but I was stingy with myself, squirreling the essays away like sour apple Jolly Ranchers, and savoring that wonderful first-read feeling.

I have not read Slouching Toward Bethlehem yet. I know I will love it, so I am saving it for later.

Joan D.  is a two-edged sword, however. On the one hand, her work is heartbreakingly beautiful. On the other hand, it’s also just heartbreaking. I read Play it As it Lays this past spring and emerged from the novel feeling like I’d gotten drunk and then had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend who makes bad choices.

Below the page break is the craft essay I wrote about point of view in that novel.

Joan Didion’s struggle with point of view in Play it As It Lays

Writers are often cautioned to choose a point of view and stay with it. Josip Novakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, pronounces a switch in point of view to be the hallmark of a beginner. He tells us that such switches are irritants to readers, and to editors, and  — if a writer absolutely must jump between points of view in one story — Novakovich begs that writer to please establish a pattern early in the narrative, so that readers know what to expect.

“Consistency is one guideline. If you plan to use multiple POVs, make this clear as early as possible. After chapter (or paragraph) one, in which your POV focuses on Jim, open chapter (or paragraph) two with Julie’s POV. Then you can shift back and forth with each new chapter (or paragraph), if necessary. You have prepared the reader for these shifts.” (p. 100)

In light of that advice, it’s hard to know what to make of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, which jumps between points of view 10 times in 214 pages. The reader is first presented with a short chapter in first person, from the point of view of protagonist Maria Wyeth. Then we are given a first person chapter from the point of view of another character, Helene. Then another first person chapter from the point of view of Carter, Maria’s ex-husband. After that, the majority of the novel is in third person, except for some very short, italicized chapters at the end.  This use of point of view is inconsistent at best and, at worst, erratic. We never hear from Helene or Carter again, and I can think of no reason why Maria’s first person narration at the end should be italicized.

This appears to be the sort of writing that Novakovich attributes to amateurs, but in the context of this novel, I think the point of view shifts are necessary to the story.  Didion has created a character — Maria — who is deeply unstable. Her husband is divorcing her, her young daughter is living in a hospital, her career as an actress is in shambles and she is being forced to abort her lover’s baby. Maria is heading for a nervous breakdown, which makes her unreliable as a narrator, because we see the world around her in sharp relief. Either we are so deep in her head that we can only see her surroundings from far away, or she is so focused on something— the sound of an air conditioner, for example — that she can barely focus on anything else. By giving us a close third person for the bulk of the narrative, Didion is allowing the readers some psychic distance from Maria, and that distance allows the story to move along without becoming mired in the protagonist’s mental state.

There are limitations to a close, or subjective third person narrative, which John Gardener points out in The Art of Fiction. His complaint is that such a point of view “Locks the reader in the character’s mind…so that when the character’s judgments are mistaken or inadequate, the reader’s more correct judgments must come from a cool withdrawal.” (p. 156)

By giving us a look at Maria through the eyes of Helene and Carter, Didion is showing us Maria as we never could have seen her in a first person or close third person point of view.

Novakovich does make some allowances for shifts in point of view; he quotes E.M. Forster, who say that shifting points of view is fine “if it comes off” and notes that Dickens and Tolstoy were able to make shifts between first and third work.  Switching points of view, says Novakovich, can establish a source of knowledge. (p. 101.)

The point-of-view shifts in Play It As It Lays caused Didion herself some consternation. David Thomson’s introduction to the 2005 edition of the novel quotes a 1977 Paris Review interview with the author, which touches on her unexpected shifts in point of view. Didion, he says, wanted to write the novel in first person, but said she “wasn’t good enough.”  Intrigued, I dug up the interview. Here are Didion’s own words about point of view in Play It As It Lays:

“I wanted to make it all first person, but I wasn’t good enough to maintain at first. There were tricks I didn’t know. So I began playing with a close third person, just to get something down. By a “close third” I mean not an omniscient third but a third very close to the mind of the character. Suddenly one night I realized that I had some first person and some third person and that I was going to have to go with both, or just not write a book at all. I was scared. Actually, I don’t mind the way it worked out. The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing.”

Didion went on to say that although she probably wouldn’t do it again, it worked for the novel because it solved her storytelling problems at the time.

“There is a point,” she concluded, “when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.”


4 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Joan Didion

    • Her nonfiction made me want to be a better writer. Her fiction made me want to send her characters to a really good counselor.

  1. A.J., thanks for this reflection. I loved this sentence, “I read Play it As it Lays this past spring and emerged from the novel feeling like I’d gotten drunk and then had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend who makes bad choices.”

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