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Joan Didion, peerless prose stylist, dies at 87

The revered American author and essayist died from complications from Parkinson’s disease.

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American author Joan Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87. (Kathy Willens/AP)

American author Joan Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87. (Kathy Willens/AP)

American author Joan Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Joan Didion, the revered American author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87

Didion’s publisher Penguin Random House announced the author’s death on Thursday.

She died from complications from Parkinson’s disease, the company said.

“Didion was one of the country’s most trenchant writers and astute observers. Her best-selling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honours and are considered modern classics,” Penguin Random House said in a statement.

Writers are always selling somebody outJoan Didion

Tiny and frail even as a young woman, with large, sad eyes, she was a novelist, journalist, playwright and essayist.

She was known for her cool and ruthless dissection of culture and politics, from hippies to presidential campaigns to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Her essay collection The White Album has become standard reading and Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays became essential collections of literary journalism.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a classic work about grief that won the National Book Award.

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Along with Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron and Gay Talese, Didion reigned in the pantheon of “New Journalists” who emerged in the 1960s and wedded literary style to nonfiction reporting.

Tiny and frail even as a young woman, with large, sad eyes often hidden behind sun glasses and a soft, deliberate style of speaking, she was a novelist, playwright and essayist who once observed that “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”

Or, as she more famously put it: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Didion received a National Humanities Medal in 2012, when she was praised for devoting “her life to noticing things other people strive not to see”.

For decades, she had engaged in the cool and ruthless dissection of politics and culture, from hippies to presidential campaigns to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and for her distrust of official stories.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album and other books became essential collections of literary journalism, with notable writings including her takedown of Hollywood politics in Good Citizensand a prophetic dissent against the consensus that in 1989 five young Black and Latino men had raped a white jogger in Central Park (the men’s convictions were later overturned and they were freed from prison).

Didion was equally unsparing about her own struggles. She was diagnosed in her 30s with multiple sclerosis and around the same time suffered a breakdown and checked into a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, California that diagnosed her worldview as “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive”.

In her 70s, she reported on personal tragedy in the heartbreaking 2005 work, The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative formed out of the chaos of grief that followed the death of her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne. It won a National Book Award, and she adapted it as a one-woman Broadway play that starred Vanessa Redgrave.

Didion spent her later years in New York, but she was most strongly identified with her native state of California, “a hologram that dematerialises as I drive through it”. It was the setting for her best known novel, the despairing Play It As It Lays, and for many of her essays.

“California belongs to Joan Didion,” wrote The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. “Not the California where everyone wears aviator sunglasses, owns a Jacuzzi and buys his clothes on Rodeo Drive. But California in the sense of the West. The old West where Manifest Destiny was an almost palpable notion that was somehow tied to the land and the climate and one’s own family.”


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