Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who is the Joan Didion/Susan Sontag of our generation?


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.

34 comments:

  1. For a slightly older generation we have Rebecca Solnit and Rosalind Williams, writers of dream, future, dystopia and fantasy.

    For them and for us, it seems to take a longer time: more books, more articles, maybe the long and winding path of academia to produce those books that stick...

    That legacy of dreamwriting and imaginary futures may well have moved online. I nominate Joanne McClellan @jomc and Peggy Nelson @otholythe for the Didion/Sontag prize.

    But let us not forget: women have not only been literary theorists and philosophers, but also political economists, ethicists, and observers of contemporary political change.

    Consider the tradition of activist/pundits/politician/writers like Beatrice Webb, Dora Russell, and Dorothy Soelle. For some of us, these writers are the inspiration -- up there with Locke, Gibbon, and Marx in terms of reframing the nature of the true and the good. I'm in a heated race with @zephoria (ms danah) for the crown and palm of Hannah Arendt!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Francine Prose, maybe? ZZ Packer? Zadie Smith?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not a fan of Francine Prose. ZZ Packer is still no my to-read list -- what of hers do you recommend?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm keeping my eye on Eula Biss as a potential future Didion. Have you read Notes from No Man's Land?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'd suggest someone like Elif Batuman as the closest equivalent -- certainly has breadth, writes essays, but "relevance" is a little hard to determine until after the fact. Zadie Smith also counts. Btw I don't think of Eggers or DFW as being like Sontag -- who was more the Lionel Trilling of her generation -- DFW in particular was a novelist who dabbled in other stuff later in life. People of l3tt3rs ain't what they used to be...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love DFW's nonfiction. I don't think of him as a "dabbler" in that area at all.

    Have not read Eula Biss or Elif Batuman.

    Isn't Zadie Smith British?

    ReplyDelete
  7. ZS is British but teaches at NYU and used to teach at Columbia. As for DFW's essays we differ on their merits -- the style sets my teeth on edge -- but for all I know they might be better than his fiction, which I have avoided.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I can understand that but I'm surprised you like ZS then -- I feel like she's in the same vein.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Maybe Judith Butler, but she's not nearly pop or diverse enough. Maureen Dowd definitely isn't right either. I have no good answer. I am tempted to say something very cynical and obvious about the possibilities of being a popular cultural and literary critic in the US now..., but instead of saying it I am just saying that I want to say it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Lorraine, my initial thoughts are cynical too. Along of the lines of: A) we have regressed somewhat and women are taken less seriously now than they were 30-40 years ago, and B) Our generation has suspicious ambitions, such that the people capable of the job aren't attempting it, since attempting it would involve being "mainstream."

    ReplyDelete
  11. It seems like a) might potentially be true, but I don't know about b). Maybe some people of "our generation" don't want to be mainstream, but the reverse seems much more likely: the mainstream (big publishers) don't want books of essays like The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem anymore because books of essays are perceived as box office poison/non-starters(unless maybe you're David Sedaris).

    But maybe Sarah Vowell is our generation's Didion?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Well, I think a book of essays would sell if the individual essays already had a following, but they might also have to be framed more as chapters in a book. Nonfiction has no problem selling.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Essays are kind of like short story collections, though, in that they are their own genre and they are a hard sell in general. Most agents, and most editors, do not want them. Unless, you're right, they have a following on This American Life or something.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Joan Didion's essays were already published as articles (again, different framing) in major magazines, I believe, before they were published as books.

    People "these days" are often able to leverage blogs with large followings into books. I think you just have to prove your book will sell first.

    ReplyDelete
  15. What are some generation defining blog-to-book books?

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't know if I consider any of them generation-defining, or I wouldn't have written this blog post. But a lot of writers get their first book deals by having a high-trafficked blog. Or they get more famous via some other route. See Dooce, the Fuck You Penguin guy, many first-time cookbook authors, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sure, I know authors get deals that way--just wondering if there were any really great books that resulted from that route. There must be?

    Maybe, when you get your book deal from this blog, you will be our Didion-Sontag.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Um, I Can Haz Cheezburger? Hello.

    The ones that are coming to mind are mostly novelty books, but I bet something good has come out of this model, and there's no reason something good *couldn't* come out of this model. (Has anyone read Wil Wheaton's book?)

    Chuck Klosterman's writing has the feel of blogging, even if he didn't actually blog first.

    ReplyDelete
  19. My last 3 books came about by and through and because of my blog and my 4th which is in work found a publisher the same way. They might not be "great books" to you, but they are to me and yes I realized you're not writing about poetry. I think it's a wee bit snobby to declare a book (any book) as GENERATION DEFINING. I think this is something that takes years to discover. This is the reason I stopped reading Mr. Silliman's blog. He liked to label and define everything that came down the pike as either GENERATION DEFINING or THE BEST BOOK OF THE DECADE or THIS SUCKS. What does he know?

    Rebecca Loudon
    Generation Defining Poet

    ReplyDelete
  20. FWIW I don't think "generation defining" is about "greatness" or "bestness." I haven't read Didion's complete works but I don't actually think of her as a great *writer* per se. I'm more thinking of a figure that a lot of people identify with. I wasn't thinking about this with respect to poetry at all.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Ahh, I should have begun with the quote about blogs Sure, I know authors get deals that way--just wondering if there were any really great books that resulted from that route. What is FWIW?
    r

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thank you, Elisa. I'm so um special needs sometimes haha. Someone kept telling me to STFU (she was sending me death threats) and I kept saying stufu, stufu and I had no idea what it meant.

    xo

    ReplyDelete
  23. ha! it sounds like a university, no?

    ReplyDelete
  24. I thought it was a way to cook a turkey that I didn't know because I'm a vegetarian and have never cooked a turkey in my life. It didn't make context within the confines of the "conversation" (I wasn't answering her death threats as I usually leave those alone) and I was confused. But now that you mention it it does sound like a university. For assholes.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Being told to STFU when you're already ignoring someone is pretty perverse. But then, so is being told how to cook your nonexistent turkey. This person definitely went to Asshole School.

    ReplyDelete
  26. In other contexts, what you're talking about here is usually called the problem of the Public Intellectual; someone who has a large scale public profile but whose work also has convincing intellectual value (however defined). There are a few such figures in the United States--Noam Chomsky and Cornell West come to mind--but it's a role that modern media power has significantly done away with by disallowing any platform for such a thing in the first place.

    You have to have, for instance, magazines with significant intellectual content and a large readership, but beyond a struggling Harper's or Atlantic Monthly, there really aren't such publications much anymore. Further, such people would probably have to appear, sooner or later, on TV. But TV isn't actually interested in letting them appear. The exceptions are few.

    One needs more than a writer, that is, to make such a role possible. The existence of platforms for such people to appear are also central.

    I'm not an expert here, but haven't there been some books by women in recent years on gender that received some large scale level of readership and attention? I don't know if any of those books have enough content worthy of the role you're asking for here, but it's books like that that seem to me to come closest to what you're looking for.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Mark, thanks for your comment -- I agree we need "more than a writer" for such a role to exist. I think there are plenty of capable writers, they just don't have the public visibility.

    What books are you thinking of?

    ReplyDelete
  28. I wish I could think of their names, but I can't. Books on gender by relatively younger women in recent years--I think Lorraine read one about women, passive aggression, and bureaucracy.

    ReplyDelete
  29. The two books are Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, by Phylis Chesler (who also wrote Women and Madness; her politics are complicated), and Mad, Bad and Sad, by Lisa Appiganesi--she's British, but she does write novels, too. But maybe neither of them are mainstream enough.

    ReplyDelete
  30. After further investigation, each of the three women I had in mind turned out to be born in the 1940s, so I guess that might disqualify them as members of a different generation than Didion since she was born in the 1930s. Just for kicks, the women I had in mind were Elaine Showalter, Martha Nussbaum, and Elaine Scarry. Perhaps they are more academic than Didion, but they've all had publishing success in the public marketplace in addition to the academic marketplace.

    By the way, I taught Didion's "The White Album" this semester to college freshman in an Intro. to Narrative class, and they loved it.

    ReplyDelete
  31. After further investigation, each of the three women I had in mind turned out to be born in the 1940s, so I guess that might disqualify them as members of a different generation than Didion since she was born in the 1930s. Just for kicks, the women I had in mind were Elaine Showalter, Martha Nussbaum, and Elaine Scarry. Perhaps they are more academic than Didion, but they've all had publishing success in the public marketplace in addition to the academic marketplace.

    By the way, I taught Didion's "The White Album" this semester to college freshman in an Intro. to Narrative class, and they loved it.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Maybe Didion is still our Didion. :)

    ReplyDelete
  33. Canada Has Michelle Landsberg. Yeah!!!

    ReplyDelete