Show & Tell: On Joan Didion’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean

Self-assuredness has always been part of Joan Didion’s appeal. Guesswork and rumination are out of sight, somewhere in the drafts. Everything clicks, and from her confidence comes exhilarating clarity.

But this confidence is usually implied rather than asserted; demonstrated in the certainty of an observation, in her willingness to speak, say, as the representative of a state’s imagination. “It has been for almost half a century a peculiar and affecting image in the California mind: San Simeon,” she writes in the third essay of Let Me Tell You What I Mean, the new collection of previously uncompiled texts spanning her career. Whatever her credentials for speaking on behalf of “the California mind,” her unqualified claim commands our attention, dispels our disbelief.

It comes as a kind of relief, then, to see Didion fess up, making the latent blatant. Midway through the collection, in an essay titled “Why I Write,” she stakes a claim her admirers already accept: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”

In this act of literary bravado, Didion’s phrase bespeaks the musicality to which it lays claim. In the assonance of grammar and ear. In the percussive consonance of piano, play, and by. And in its meter:

          Gram-mar is a                                                       pi-an-o                                                       I play by ear

[long-short] [long] [short]                                   [short] [long] [short]                                   [short] [long] [short] [long]

Two trochees, an amphibrach, two iambs. It’s a sentence of perfect syllabic symmetry.

To play by ear, rather than by the book, is to put practice before theory. It is to start with the concrete instead of the abstract.

According to Didion, her predilection for the particular was born of a deficiency, a helplessness before abstract thought. “I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific,” she says in “Why I Write,” reflecting on her undergrad years at UC Berkeley. “I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree … and the particular way the petals fell.”

But her reporting tells a different story. Throughout Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion fixates on the particular, not because abstractions and theories are puzzles too tricky to put together, but because they may be sources of error, negligence, and wishful thinking. Theories, when misapplied, may create ideological clichés, obscure ambiguities, and collapse historical distinctions.

The uneasiness running through “Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles,” an essay about the 1968 reunion of the 101st Airborne Division, which fought in World War II, flows from the veterans’ optimistic conflation of that war with Vietnam, from their efforts to view all American wars as equally worthwhile—from their failure, in effect, to do justice to history and experience. “The men in Vietnam are exactly like you were, and I was” a colonel says. One veteran tells Didion that he “see[s] it a little differently now,” after she mentions another veteran’s son, who is missing in Vietnam. But the difference he sees is not in the nature of global conflicts: “I didn’t look at it from the parents’ point of view then.” Insofar as there’s a change, it’s an ontogenetic one, a product of the timeless process of aging and assuming paternal duties. Didion cuts through this sentiment, provides a simpler explanation: “Perhaps it was hard to bring quite the same urgency to holding a position in a Vietnamese village or two that they had brought to liberating Europe.” Perhaps, Didion implies, there is a historical distinction between a war that more than 90% of Americans supported, and a conflict that, in 1968, more than half the country thought “a mistake.”

Didion’s eye to anachronism is keenest in her studies of two iconic White American women: Nancy Reagan and Martha Stewart. For Didion, these women’s novelty and strangeness is concealed by their associations with an archetypical postwar housewife. Reagan, Didion writes in her 1968 essay “Pretty Nancy,” has “the smile of a woman who seems to be playing out some middle-class American woman’s daydream, circa 1948.” This outmoded smile, along with her husband’s cinematic charm, facilitated the Reagans’ entrance into the California governor’s mansion. It also concealed what was fundamentally new about their postures: the pumping into politics of Hollywood artifice. “The set for this daydream is perfectly dressed, every detail correct,” Didion writes. Reading this essay in 2021, it becomes clear that Reagan’s posturing has more in common with the reality TV charade that helped launch the Trumps into the White House than it does with the ideal housewife of yore.

Didion identifies the same obscuring veneer in her more favorably toned treatment of Martha Stewart, the last essay in the collection. Some of Stewart’s critics see her as the incarnation of a “nostalgic siren call for a return to Fifties-style homemaking.” But they’ve got it all wrong, Didion says. Stewart compels attention not because she represents staid suburban bliss, but because she “get[s] out of the house with a vengeance,” because “her personal stock in the company she personally invented [was valued at] $614 million.” In short, because she is a 21st-century boss lady, not a midcentury femme au foyer. To trivialize her influence, to mischaracterize her message, is to fail to apprehend her historical import.

Didion carefully topples abstractions and clichés by fastening onto particulars. There she finds answers to unspoken questions at the heart of her work. Looking at some sensational person or event, she asks: What is different? What is new? What is left over? What just appears thus? In details she spots the incongruities between ideality and actuality.

She shuns the generic, the putting-of-theory-before-practice, in fact and fiction alike. In the collection’s eighth essay, “Telling Stories,” Didion expresses her distaste for the short story form in terms akin to her discomfort with the men of the 101st or the woman in the governor’s mansion: it’s beclouded by sentiment, it uses tropes that have no purchase in the present. In 1978, a short story could be wrought with “a woman weeping in a tea room,” tearooms “still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life.” In other words, short stories may tell us more about narrative conventions than what it’s like to perceive in the present.

But for all its consistency with her reportorial ethos, there is irony to this insistence on “real life” from a writer who admitted, in a 1978 interview, to having “tended to perceive the world in terms of things read about it.” “I began,” Didion said, “with a literary idea of experience, and I still don’t know where all the lies are.” It’s hard to square that admission with the skepticism pervading this collection. How reliable is Didion? Is she disenchanter or dupe? Does she uncover truths about her subject matter or simply spin it into literary yarns?

Of course, these are the perennial charges against Didion: that she only seems to take note, that her journalism only seems empirically rooted, that she only seems to detect the spirit of her time. In reality, the critiques go, “her subject is always herself” (Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, 1979); her reporting reveals “more about the emotional states of … Miss Didion” than it does about her ostensible objects (Frank Rich, 1984). In Didion’s piece on Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the best in the collection, she approvingly applies an analogous claim to the photographer: “his subject was finally that very symmetry with which he himself had arranged things.”

Didion arranges things deftly. She, too, inflects things with her tone and taste. But is her work really just pure projection? The best defense against such accusations comes from Didion herself, in the book’s opening and oldest piece, “Alicia and the Underground Press”:

I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias. For the writer to pretend that he has none lends the entire venture a mendacity.

In this light, the opposition between Didion the demystifier and Didion the dreamer evaporates. Her admission to being beguiled by a “literary idea of experience” becomes a recognition of her own bias—the precondition, in her view, of good reporting. It may be that Didion roots out received ideas with Flaubertian rancor precisely because she fell prey to them.

“Setting words on paper,” Didion declares in “Why I Write,” is “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” What she forgets to add is that it can also be an invitation. Throughout her work, Didion is repeatedly asking, “Let me,” before presenting us with some detail, description, or list. “Let me try” appears in Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking; “Let me tell you” shows up in After Henry and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

Let me sketch the picture. Let me frame the facts. If you’re not convinced, you can look away. Just try.