The White Album

I recently finished Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album.  I surely have read some Didion essays before this, but I can’t remember any, and this is definitely the first book-length work of hers I’ve read.  It was one of those books that had been sitting around on my shelves for ages, since before I began blogging even, and I finally decided it was time.

I’m glad I did get around to it, and I’m glad I read it around the time I was reading Jenny Diski, because the two have some similarities in their writing style.  I’ve decided that I haven’t found enough female nonfiction writers like these two; perhaps this is my fault, and I simply haven’t found them, but it seems to me that I don’t often come across women writing nonfiction in their style — aggressive, blunt, prickly, scrupulously honest, and not out to please.  I put Mary McCarthy in this category too.  Virginia Woolf can write like this as well, except that she often does seem like she is out to please, that she could be much harsher if she wanted to, but she chooses to try to woo readers over to her side.  I suppose, though, that all these writers are out to please in one way or another, whether it’s obvious that they are or not.  At any rate, there is something about this style I find immensely appealing, and I have felt this way for a long time.

Does anybody else come to mind who might fit in this category?

The White Album is very much a book about the mood of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in California.  After the lengthy title essay, there are sections called “California Republic,” “Women,” “Sojourns,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties.” The essays in these sections take up a whole range of subjects, from Doris Lessing (Didion doesn’t like her fiction but admires her tenacity as a writer and thinker) to migraines, Hollywood, Los Angeles traffic control, Georgia O’Keefe, the Hoover Dam, and mall construction.  The range of topics is wide, but her style is similar throughout — direct and straightforward with relatively simple and short sentences, and brilliant at creating a mood and setting up a scene.  She tends to work by juxtaposition; in several essays she tells a series of stories not directly related but getting at a similar theme and leaving the reader to piece together all the meanings and implications.  She likes to let her stories do their own work — she lets them speak for themselves rather than rushing in to spell out the meaning herself.

The title essay works in just this way; in it, she tells a range of stories, each one working to capture the feeling of the time.  Among these stories is a personal one of her struggle with depression.  She tells part of the story herself, but she leaves some of the storytelling to a doctor’s report, which she quotes as length.  She introduces it with the words “another flash cut,” and follows it with this commentary:

The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.  The tests mentioned — the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index — were administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the “attack of vertigo and nausea” mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.

Then she moves on to tell stories about her neighborhood, about the arrest of Huey Newton, about watching The Doors recording an album, about student unrest at San Francisco State.  It’s a powerful picture, but Didion refuses to draw any conclusions about it or to bring the essay to any real closure.  In fact, the essay ends with this phrase, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”  There are no pat answers or easy lessons to be drawn — instead what we have is a series of vignettes that capture a mood but don’t cohere into any overarching idea or argument.  I came away from the book remembering most of all Didion’s distinctive voice.

I recently finished Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, which is an entirely different book from Didion’s, but which left me with a powerful sense of voice as well.  I’ll write about that book soon.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

11 responses to “The White Album

  1. I read the White Album in graduate school, and it really changed the way I look at nonfiction. Her essay on migraines, I think, is an excellent examination of the way our conscience relates to our physicality. And I will always remember her description of million dollar mansions on half-acre lots….
    I think I tried imitating her in my MFA manuscript – the greatest form of flattery but I doubt she would think so if she read it!


  2. Must. Read. Didion! She’s been on my radar for a while but I haven’t got around to her. I know what you mean about the paucity of sharp, no-nonsense, non-compliant women, and couldn’t have named you two! But I do like the thought of reading that kind of voice. I wonder whether Siri Hustvedt’s essays fall into this category? (not having read them yet)


  3. I’ve meant to read this book for ages after someone, a college professor maybe, told me how great it is. I won’t say how many ages ago that was. It does sound like a great book. As for other women non-fiction writers who fit in the style category you describe, I can only think of Adrienne Rich, though hers nonfiction tends toward the poetic at times and that sort of blunts its aggressiveness, but she is always brutally honest.


  4. I read this a long time ago, and have always meant to read more of Didion’s essays. As a matter of fact reading your many posts this year on essay writing or other NF works (not biographies which it seems like is the only NF I read lately) I think it is something I will concentrate on more next year. I wonder if Susan Sontag would fit into the category of women NF writers you talk about. I’ve not read much of her work, but she strikes me as having a very strong voice. I need to read Jenny Diski, too!


  5. I love Joan Didion. She’s probably one of my all-time favorite female writers. If you haven’t read any Sarah Vowell, you’d probably like her, too. Mary Roach is also fun, but she’s very bizarre (for instance, _Stiff_ is definitely not for those with weak stomachs).


  6. zhiv

    Nice work as always, D. Danielle’s mention of Sontag seems on the money, and I remember reading about McCarthy’s reaction to the advent of Sontag, but nothing about Didion, who must be part of the same conversation. I feel like I read a lot of Didion essays a long time ago, in anthologies more than anywhere else. I just got a copy of Play It As It Lays because I’m planning to read some Hollywood novels–Mailer’s The Deer Park, Nathaniel West, something else I’m not remembering. And Didion had a strong presence at Berkeley, where she was an undergrad and something of a fully-formed writer. I’ve heard that people love Year of Magical Thinking. Lots of good, highly readable stuff out there, and interesting to think about in the McCarthy context.


  7. Dorothy, isn’t Didion endlessly fascinating? I highly recommend her Year of Magical Thinking. It was a profoundly moving read.


  8. Courtney — I can see that The White Album would have a big impact on a writer figuring out her style — I don’t imagine she is easy to imitate, although I’m sure you did a fine job of it!

    Litlove — Hmmm … Siri Hustvedt is an interesting possibility. I’ll admit I wasn’t much fond of her fiction, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like her nonfiction. In fact, I often prefer the nonfiction to the fiction when it comes to this type of writer.

    Stefanie — I think I may have read a Rich essay once, and I remember admiring it. I can see that she would be a brutally honest writer. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Danielle — I’m looking forward to hearing about your essay reading next year! Sontag does seem just right. I’ve read a bit of her and think she fits right in.

    Emily — thanks for the suggestions! I’ve never read Vowell, but I’ve heard her reading, I think on This American Life, and (when I wasn’t distracted by her speaking voice) I liked her stories.

    Zhiv — thanks. I hope you write about the Didion novel because I’m curious to hear what her fiction is like. I thought you’d have something to say about Didion, as she is such a strong California writer. I’m kind of curious how McCarthy reacted to Sontag (and maybe Didion too) — certainly they are all occupying similar territory.

    Cipriano — thank you for the recommendation! I’ve had my eye on that book, but thought I might read some of her earlier work first. Now I may be ready for it.


  9. Cam

    I went through this phase in the early 90’s (omg, was that really almost 20 years ago!) where I read everything published by Didion. I talked so much about her that one of my composition students expressed interest. Loaned him my books and never got them back. I’ve been thinking recently about how I want to read some of her work again. I wish I could write like her.


  10. Cam — that’s terrible that you never saw those books again! Why do people DO that??


  11. Pingback: Skating to Antarctica « Of Books and Bicycles

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