Recent Facebook status update:
“Kelly Kathleen Ferguson notices that students refer to male authors by last name (Updike) but women authors by first (Joan). She endeavors to correct one Didion at a time.”
And then voila! I discovered Joan Didion was coming to read at Tulane. This event earned a top tier Hello Kitty! calendar sticker. Joan Didion is the Chrissie Hynde of the writer’s world. One of the few true badasses who has transcended gender in a male dominated field.
Now, given that 70% of the reader’s market consists of women, some might argue with my male dominated rap. But in the field of “Literature,” I argue men (more than women, we can only count Toni Morrison so many times) are considered to be the “important” authors. They aren’t expected to reduce themselves to the crass guttermuck of sales, because they are writing the next Ulysses. I suspect that has something to do with why Jonathan Franzen declined the Oprah award. So demeaning for a man of letters!
As women we have few idols. I’m not going to say they don’t exist, but Didion has stared down male publishing world and she has not flinched. She has not only worked as a journalist and written novels, but she has been nonfiction badass. She has her own patented style. I could see the introducers (3!) squirm as the they tried to conjure the adequate words. This event merited The President of Tulane! The important white man was trotted out!
Then Didion arrives, a petite, wiry figure parting the velvet curtain as if it were a buzzing fly. She turns them all to dust.
She read Chapter One from The Year of Magical Thinking because “she hadn’t read it for a while.” Yep, she rocked the mike. She doesn’t inflect much, but the prose is so freaking good, she doesn’t have to. I can’t think of another nonfiction writer who could write about tragedy, exactly how it feels, as well. She weaves that fine line between stark details and prose in a way that mirrors exactly that surreal floating feeling, even as these horrible visions go off like flashbulbs in our head. These are the imprints that will remain and jolt us awake at 3 am while we struggle to remember the rest.
The Q and A (as usual) was horribly painful. Can’t people just be normal and ask a normal question? One woman got up and said she’s writing a book on California and wanted Didion to (basically) tell her what her book should be about. Didion said as nicely as possible, “Um, isn’t that your job?” OK, actually she said something more like, “Well, I don’t know.” The woman also said she was thrilled to find out Didion was born in Yolo County, just like she was.
Didion: “Actually I was born in Sacramento County.”
Next some guy lifted a quote from an essay she wrote thirty years ago. It took him 2-3 minutes to read this excerpt, (it was something about the bitterness of life, etc.) and he was “wondering if she felt any differently about it now.”
Didion: “No, I’m pretty much the same person.”
What it is, and I understand, is we all want to put our hand on the flame. We can’t help ourselves. I guess I knew to recognize I wasn’t worthy, and kept quiet.