Joan Didion, who died last month, embodied cool in its multifarious meanings: stylishness, reserve, aplomb, proportion, idiosyncrasy and poise. Cool always has its superficial aspects, like the “iconic” photographs of an unimpressed Joan with a cigarette that stand in as a substitute for her writing. But cool is also a virtue and one that’s being lost by the contemporary cultural demand to emote, to declaim, or to comment incessantly. Didion’s cool also involved intellectual virtues like skepticism, disinterested observation and judgment, and the distrust and even hatred of cant. This last quality is where Didion’s writing reveals the passion that always underwrites genuine cool: where one can detect some anger or even disgust at the abuse and degradation of language, of the replacement of the complex matter — the “irreducible ambiguities'' — of individual experience with the meager stuffing of clichés and slogans.
Whether it’s possible for an author to rise above ideology and become a truly disinterested observer of their times is not for me to say, but at the very least Didion credibly represented this aspiration. When so much writing seems to be the industrial-scale production of cant and cliché, it is notable that Didion triumphed as an individual: through her own particular sensibility, talent, and industriousness. She worked as a writer, producing everything from magazine articles to screenplays.
Like most writers, she had to work for places that were either highly commercial (Vogue) or ideological (National Review), but that fact didn’t diminish her artistic reputation. She wore her celebrity without seeming gaudy or crass. Nor did wealth or fame seem to corrupt her. In these ways, she represents a variation on the American dream in so far as it applies to writers. She made it. And she embodies a time when a certain form of being an individual — a successful artist, if not exactly on your one’s own terms, or at least reasonably negotiable ones — was a real possibility.
Her accomplishments as a writer, in terms of style and career arc, appear so elegant in comparison to the contemporary world that it feels like a shame to drag her back into it. This is why Ross Douthat’s recent tongue-in-cheek lib-baiting in a New York Times column titled “Try Canceling Joan Didion” feels so unnecessary. Douthat writes: “[w]hat Didion offered to admirers on the right was an example of how to write conservative essays that were first and foremost simply essays, their conservatism a matter of atmosphere and attitude rather than tedious polemic.” Correct. Now, if only he had followed her example instead of beginning with the tiresome conceit of Joan Didion’s imaginary cancelation, with all the familiar trimmings: talk of “censors,” and “apparatchiks,” and inevitable references to Substack exile and Dave Chapelle and J.K. Rowling. It was just this sort of lazy abstraction and reliance on ideologically inflected cant that Didion most disdained.
Didion’s accomplishments as a writer, in terms of style and career arc, appear so elegant in comparison to the contemporary world that it feels like a shame to drag her back into it.
Douthat brings up Didion’s critique of feminism in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement” as an example of her “reactionary” streak, but the key thing about that essay is her skepticism about the application of the world-historical grandiosity of Marxist language of class struggle and revolutions to the situation of American women, who she thought did not really rise to the level of being the revolutionary proletariat. Somewhat impishly, Douthat wants to suggest that Didion’s focused criticism of the actual, explicit use of Marx by feminist writers like Shulamith Firestone is somehow of a piece with the contemporary right-wing paranoia about “Cultural Marxism,” and that would be grounds for her hypothetical cancelation. But then he immediately admits “the essay is not a dogmatic attack on the Marxist ideas that it discerns in feminism.” That’s right, and there’s a clear difference in kind between what Didion is up to and the revival of Reds-Under-the-Bed conspiracism on the American Right.
One could easily imagine a similar piece entitled “The Conservative Movement,” which pours equally cold water on the need for hysterical conservatives, even ones as ironic and wry as Douthat is capable of being, to use Soviet-era language to imagine themselves in the midst of Stalinoid dystopia. Douthat portrays Didion as rejecting utopianism first and foremost, but this insistent dystopianism is no less a “dreampolitik” and that can “curdle into ideology and fantasy.” As Didion suspected of the women’s movement, the truth is much sadder than even the ideologues suspect.
Need I point out that we are now doing phantom cancellations. We must imagine Didion being canceled, something that just didn’t happen. We’re constantly told that there’s no “nuance,” that not enough allowances are made for art and literature that delivers more than ideological bromides. Yet when there’s actually a celebration of just such art or artist, we’re then told such a thing can’t have actually happened. It must be the result of mere hypocrisy. I had one furiously anti-woke partisan tell me that the lack of denunciation of Philip Roth after his death was because he was being deliberately “grandfathered in” by — whom exactly — the Comintern? The Elders of Wokeness? — to give the appearance of evenhandedness and open-minded-ness.
The system is so complete and its power so overwhelming that any deviation must be intentional. Now a cancellation must be called forth, if even one just of the imagination. Last week, many people were extremely quick to believe the rumor that Norman Mailer’s essay collection had been canceled — by an overly-sensitive junior staffer, no less. The affair generated many articles and tweets, as they do. Now it’s been proposed that it may have been a publicity stunt to generate attention for a writer who has not been canceled so much as just gone completely out of fashion. For artists (and publishers) there is a fate much worse than being canceled: no one caring at all.
The system is so complete and its power so overwhelming that any deviation must be intentional. Now a cancellation must be called forth, if even one just of the imagination.
The Culture War — even “cancel culture” if you will — is not a war at all, or a culture of any kind, it’s a little industry, its own mode of production. It has ample jobs available, if you are willing to do them. It also provides industrially pre-manufactured words and phrases to make writing easier: “woke mob,” “moral panic,” “political correctness,” “problematic,” “trauma,” “censorship,” “soft totalitarianism,” “elites,” “identity politics,” etc. That’s not to say that people don’t get hurt or there aren’t real careers ruined or calumnies or absurd denunciations, but these things don’t destroy the really famous people unless there’s real criminality involved. They just shift to other markets. (Skyhorse Publishing, presented by Douthat as some kind of samizdat press for the canceled, is distributed by Simon & Schuster, the third-largest publisher in the world, and can boast of bestselling titles.) Only little and medium people get chewed up in the cogs: the big guys push ever upward, and exchange their tough-luck stories for princely sums on Substack that are equivalent to years of yeoman magazine work.
Douthat tries to enlist Didion not just as a small-c conservative, a disposition she certainly possessed, among others, but even as a “reactionary.” This elision dishonors Didion, because she never merely reacted, even to things she found distasteful or disturbing, but sought to understand and actually observe them. Perhaps none of us can fully escape our prejudices, but at least she put them to the test. Her writing has very little in common with the sort of crude propaganda generated now by the remains of the Conservative Movement or much of the culture industry in general. Perhaps her gradual alienation from Conservatism had as much to do with its total vulgarity and vacuity as much as her instinctive distrust of “enthusiasm” and “utopianism.”
In life, Didion in her individuality managed her own escape from this industrialized grind of cultural production and thereby gave us a vision of integrity and grace beyond it, even if it's mythical or illusory. Let’s allow her to escape in death as well. Let’s let her remain cool.
John Ganz is a Gawker columnist. He is working on a book about the ‘90s.