After finishing The Year of Magical Thinking yesterday, I did a little poking around on the Internet to learn more about Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, who was apparently a well-known writer himself, though I wasn't sure if I'd heard of him. It turns out he had a fairly famous family: He was the brother of Dominick Dunne, a writer I had heard of, who was the father of Griffin Dunne (an actor I like quite a lot though he was in one of the worst movies ever made) and Dominique Dunne, an actress who was strangled to death in the '80s.
I found an article by Dominick Dunne, published in Vanity Fair after his brother's death, reflecting on their relationship; it was interesting for a few reasons, one being that his account of their family life over the years is so different from Didion's account. DD (whom Didion calls "Nick" in the book) focuses on a years-long rift between the brothers; Didion never mentions this. At one point he remembers how Didion seemed to him at her daughter's wedding: "that day I realized again what a truly significant person she is. She had, after all, helped define a generation."
Last night I got to thinking about this statement. I put Joan Didion and Susan Sontag in the same category: They are "women of letters" in a way, intellectuals with broad interests, writing in multiple genres, with a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. They wrote essays that were memorable for being smart, yes, but also accessible and broadly relevant. I can't think of anyone filling this role today, by which I mean a writer and intellectual helping to "define a generation." For Generation X, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggars probably fit the bill. (Maybe Douglas Coupland, but did he write nonfiction?) Is anyone doing this now? Is a woman doing this now?
Joan Didion wasn't famous until her 30s. Maybe our woman of letters hasn't emerged yet.