In The Center Will Not Hold, the 2017 documentary about Joan Didion directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, he asks what she felt when she saw a 5-year-old tripping on LSD while reporting from Haight-Ashbury for her 1967 essay, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."
The automatic response from most people might be, "I was horrified." But Didion, of course, is not most people. Her answer is chilling: "Well, let me tell you, it was gold...You live for moments like that if you're doing a piece, good or bad."
There's plenty of journalistic gold in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion's new book of 12 previously uncollected essays. What's particularly salient is her trademark farsightedness, which is especially striking decades later. Half the pieces date from 1968 and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. The most recent was written in 2000.
The opening essay, "Alicia and the Underground Press," flags "the inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to 'get through.'" One of the things Didion appreciates about papers like the East Village Other and the Los Angeles Free Press is that they don't even make a pretense of objectivity: "When a writer for an underground paper approves or disapproves of something, he says so, quite often in lieu of who, what, where, when, how," she writes. She points out that these publications are often "strident and brash," and then adds, "But to think that these papers are read for 'facts' is to misapprehend their appeal. It is the genius of these papers that they talk directly to their readers." More than 50 years after she wrote these words, the relevance of her observations in today's fractured world of fringe media is uncannily prescient.
Another bravura performance is Didion's profile of Martha Stewart, "Everywoman.com," first published in The New Yorker in 2000. As as she sees it, Stewart's genius was in branding herself "not as a Superwoman but as Everywoman," playing into women's dreams and fantasies of "getting out of the house with a vengeance, and on your own terms." On the eve of the IPO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC, Didion quotes from the Risk Factors section of its prospectus, which is even more devastating in hindsight:
"Our business would be adversely affected if Martha Stewart's public image or reputation were to be tarnished...Our continued success and the value of our brand name therefore depends, to a large degree, on the reputation of Martha Stewart."
Didion's profile was published four years before Stewart was sent to prison after being found guilty of felony charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.