Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the kale of writers
Welcome to a new, semi-regular feature, in which Partisan asks contributors to identify a writer, living or dead, they consider overrated and offer a brief take. In the second installment, Phoebe Maltz Bovy worries about being blasé about Joan Didion's "gratuitous blasé." —Editors
CHOOSING AN OVERRATED writer proved difficult, because I’d only want to rate a writer I’d read at least two books by (ideally more than that). But if I disliked a book enough to place it in a superlative Worst category, I probably wouldn’t pick up a second by the same author.
So I’m going to go with Joan Didion. Partly this is because, after consuming both her essay collection The White Album and memoir Blue Nights—yes, two whole books—I’m still not swooning. The ratio of wit and surprise to name-dropping and gratuitous blasé wasn’t quite what I’d expected—and yes, I see the irony in being blasé in this way in an item on Joan Didion. Friends and writers whose opinions I deeply respect had insisted I’d love her work, so merely liking it seemed a bit of a letdown. (It’s my prediction that merely voicing this view will invite an influx of suggestions for other Didion to read, much as expressing a dislike of kale invites—or did, when kale was having its 15 minutes—a heap of kale recipes guaranteed to bring you on board.)
But Didion’s also another sort of “overrated”—the somewhat unfair (and, in this case, borderline sexist) sort, where the hype around an author’s persona means the writing gets a wider audience, but gets taken less seriously. The issue here may be less that Didion is overrated as a writer than that her reputation as an icon of cool (complete with a late-in-life turn as a sunglasses model) has, fairly or not, coloured how her work reads today. As Hermione Hoby has argued, “the name and image of Joan Didion seems in danger of eclipsing her actual work.” Molly Fischer, Haley Mlotek, and others have made similar points about the tension between Didion the writer and Didion the (profitable) idea. While I find the Didion-commentary genre quite compelling, I wonder if it, in turn, is “in danger of eclipsing” the primary source.
PHOEBE MALTZ BOVY is working on a book about privilege for St. Martin's Press (2017). Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.
Photo credit: David Shankbone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
WHAT TO READ NEXT: "[H]is work gives the impression of nothing so much as an old man desperately trying to shock his readers, mainly with the details of his mildly outré sex life..."