My, what a venomous love letter Caitlin Flanagan has written about Joan Didion. While lauding her as a hero to women, a truly insightful writer who has inspired a generation, Flanagan also manages to zing Didion as a narcissist and a neglectful mother whose knowledge of back issues of Vogue was vital to her career.
I have some of the same mixed emotions about Ms. Flanagan. I seem to find her compulsively readable, despite the fact that she too seems terribly self-involved, and often deeply wrong and facilely sexist. Yet the honesty and directness of her prose is nevertheless fascinating. Ironic, isn’t it?
Grass Valley, Calif.
Parts of this essay are lovely. But the flat gender baiting is a tired Atlantic trope. Some of us girls got through adolescence with Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas side by side, and they jointly guided us through the melancholy and mania of California. Pitting Didion and Hunter against each other is outrageous.
It seems to me that Joan Didion’s crime is not that “she got old.” Rather, it is that she has not grown up. We read many elderly authors and benefit from the wisdom they have gained as they mature and develop. Didion has not matured; she has remained an adolescent her entire adult life, and like an adolescent, she’s been focused inwardly, unable to conceive of others’ needs, or even to be empathic enough to consider that her own child had needs.
New York, N.Y.
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
My essay stated that “a cursory [emphasis added] reading of the Didion-Dunne canon” would reveal potential explanations for Quintana’s feelings of abandonment. It was a subject I didn’t want to explore at length, but Shirley Streshinsky forces my hand. Quintana was adopted in 1966. Both her parents wrote extensively about their lives during the crucial first decade of her life, including candid descriptions of their regular discussions of divorce, kicked-down-door fights, sullen silences, nervous breakdowns, psychiatric treatment, psychotic episodes, heavy drinking, and amphetamine-taking. So even when both parents were around, this was hardly an ideal environment in which to raise an emotionally stable and secure child.
To cast John Gregory Dunne as some sort of Diaper Genie modern dad who could keep the household smoothly running while his wife was out of town working is to misunderstand the man—a person of protean talent, ambition, and machismo—entirely. Indeed, in the early 1970s, suffering an acute bout of writer’s block and general domestic frustration, he left the family altogether and moved into a residential apartment in Las Vegas for a year and a half.
For more information on Didion’s understandable anxiety about joining her former professors in the Berkeley English Department, Streshinsky should see her essay on the subject, published in After Henry.
In January/February’s “Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things),” Robert D. Kaplan posited that the political scientist’s infamous views on Israel—most recently expressed in a blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s controversial book The Wandering Who?—shouldn’t distract from the importance of his “offensive realism” doctrine, and how it can address China’s rising power.