Return to reading: On the Fictional Didion

I fell back to the old places for public posting, but no more.  No.  I have things to say about books, and I want to say them in more open lands.

First, I have just finished a book by Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer. I am a fan of Didion’s non-fiction.  I read The Year of Magical Thinking with dread and wonder; The White Album is so clear and so dedicated and so despairing and so rich that reading it made it difficult for me to write fiction any more.  We just read four pieces from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, all of which I found refreshing, clear, concise, believable, etc.  I teach Didion.  I am moved by Didion.  But this book — it’s not quite there for me.  Part of it is just that I can see her working beneath the prose — I can see the writer coming through in the way that sentences are dramatically aligned and crafted, particularly in the constant, heavy-handed repetitions.  “She remembered that she bled,” for instance.  The book has a frame story — there’s a woman telling another woman’s story, and overall story is supposed to be about them both — that feels, in places, like a thin cover for giving the author a voice.  In places, it feels like it’s supposed to feel like Didion wanted it to seem like she was writing about herself.  If that sounds confusing… well, yes.

So what makes someone a great writer of non-fiction and a lousy writer of fiction?  I can think of two other examples of similar “genre” problems off the top of my head.  My theory on Didion could perhaps be expanded outward.  I think she has become so used to the sound of her own voice in a piece that, when composing fiction, she found she had two choices: 1). just use that voice to tell a “made up” story, or 2).  make the new voice so dramatic that it wouldn’t sound like a voice at all.  I think she tries for both of these options and fails.

I wish I could nail down an absolute answer to this question, though.  It bothers me.  There’s not that much stylistic difference between what I find interesting, what I find “good,” in fiction and in non-fiction.  So why are the writers so often not good at crossing the lines?

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