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I’m a woman?


Caitlin Flanagan seems to think so:

The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.

Admittedly, I don’t find Didion’s discussions of jasmine and packing lists to be the strongest features of her work. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have to be a woman to do so. Flanagan should know better than to argue from a gender essentialist position so intellectually vapid it can be refuted by the existence of stereotypical gay males.

She clearly doesn’t. Her failure to recognize that she’s diminishing Didion by praising her thus leads her to statements like:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

Calling the woman who wrote “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” a “girl” does her disservice. Calling her a narcissist and suggesting that any females who read her are similarly narcissistic does them a disservice. That Flanagan does this in an attempt to praise Didion renders it all the more appalling because, in the end, Flanagan doesn’t believe that Didion’s actually a writer:

I can tell you this for certain: anything you have ever read by Didion about the shyness that plagued her in her youth, and about her inarticulateness in those days, in the face of even the most banal questions, was not a writer’s exaggeration of a minor character trait for literary effect. The contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder.

Didion emoted her prose onto the page. She didn’t perform an excruciating self-analysis in the service of a journalistic ethos, she was shy so she wrote shyly. The dinner party Flanagan recounts in the article happened after the publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection whose titular essay is renowned for its shy lyric:

We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vaccum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that society’s atomization could be reveresed …. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.”  They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

Except there’s nothing shy about that passage. There’s nothing demure. There’s no mention of flowers or curtains or clothes, but there is a demonstration that the “mastery of language” she applauds is one she possesses. But the worst feature of reducing Didion to her sex is that it compels Flanagan to judge her work by the most sexist of standards:

Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old.

Because we all know woman become fungible as they age. She may have been the Joan Didion in the yellow bikini, but now she’s just another old woman in an ill-fitting suit fretting about her mortality and reminding us of the younger, more attractive writer she used to be. “Her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés,” Flanagan twice quotes Katie Roiphe as “rightly” saying. Neither has the right to until they write something as worn and enervated as this:

As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did. This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end,” which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away. I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action. That the scheme could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained, in the larger picture I had come to recognize, a matter of abiding indifference.

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