Kerr on Didion

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books includes a lovely review by Sarah Kerr of Joan Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. (This latest collection includes all Didion’s non-fiction books published between 1968 and 2003.) After quoting a brief passage from Run, River, Kerr comments on Didion’s rhythm and approach to detail:

Writing here seems to function like a kind of insurance, keeping the record for later, in case familiar things suddenly up and disappear. And notice a striking phrase: “There was the sense that…” Soon enough, declarations in this vein would become a signature move in Didion’s work as a journalist. Boldly, she would mix authority and impressionism, the objective-sounding “there was” with the far more elusive “sense”—a transient perception, usually attributable to one perceiving mind. And in so doing, she would come up against one of the key problems in American nonfiction prose in the last half-century. She herself would help to formulate the problem, in fact, and she has never stopped trying—not to solve it, for there may be no solution, but to stay in its challenging presence.

The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?

Read this excellent piece here.