In the spring of 2006, shortly after the publication of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Slate assembled a panel of three young critics—Meghan O’Rourke, Katie Roiphe, and Stephen Metcalf—to discuss the book in an event broadcast online from the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York. The two women were staunch Didion fans and admirers of the new book, which they thought portrayed a mesmerizing marriage that had come to a heartbreaking end. Stephen Metcalf, however, considered the book at best an artistic failure, and at worst an example of unintentional high comedy; he described its principals as having “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”
The discussion, then, was a protracted game of Canadian doubles, although Metcalf easily got the better of his competitors, who crumbled under the nonstop assault of his blistering and often unbearably astute insights into the book (“There are some books that shouldn’t be written out of habit—the habit of writing. This was a book produced by habit,” he said).
Shaken, Roiphe defended the canon with the weirdest praise ever (admitting of her heroine that “her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés because we know them so well”). O’Rourke started talking gibberish, praising the book for something she called the “second iteration of the gestural,” and the entire Didion soufflé—which had been slowly collapsing for three long decades—was reduced, on the one hand, to a withering account of its biggest inadequacies, and on the other, to a collection of dubious compliments. But Roiphe tried a new tactic, and—for a brief, exciting moment—the women rallied. She challenged Metcalf to admit that there were certain Didion details so imperishable that any literary mistake she might commit was as nothing when held up against them. For example, Roiphe said, there was “the smell of jasmine—”