James Wolcott, whose sharp literary criticism is at least as devastating as Dale Peck’s (but agreeably — at least 25% — less ad hominem), contends that Joan Didion has been “coasting on a pinched air of superiority for decades.”
If one were to read her books in reverse order — beginning with her most recent and working backwards — one would be mystified by her reputation and the residual awe attached to her byline. Where I Was From, Political Fictions, Miami, Salvador… it’s a long arid trek with no oasis in view, a joyless stretch (Didion has no humor whatsoever) of preciously guarded insights and uninflected prose amounting to a body of work with a barely detectable pulse. OK, some of the essays in After Henry are interesting — readable, if not keepable — but Didion’s reputation has been drawing upon the early critical popular success of Slouching Toward Bethelem, Play It as It Lays, and The White Album for so long that she’s really depleted the reserves. I’m not sure how well even those early works would hold up to unnostalgic scrutiny, recalling Pauline Kael’s unpeeling of the sanitarium chic of Didion’s sensibility back then as she seemed to be decorating her cell — “the sparse words placed in the white pages.”
I’m mad for much of Didion’s work — Miami particularly. More than any I know, that book captures the heat, mania, and racial conflict that characterized the South Florida of my youth. Other Miamians in the Maud household, however, beg to differ.