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‘Nobody wrote sentences like her’: A Didion scholar talks the enduring magic of the late writer’s prose

Author Joan Didion posed for a photograph in her New York apartment in September 2007. 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, died on Dec. 23 at the age of 87.Kathy Willens/AP/file

In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion observed that “to shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”

The surefooted wordsmith — whose oeuvre spanned journalism, memoir, fiction, and screenwriting — died last week at the age of 87. She was an American skeptic, in turns heralded and chided for her incisive, steely prose. Her piercing restraint was palpable down to the grammar, which she called “a piano I play by ear.”

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“There’s a musicality there,” said Kathleen Vandenberg, a master lecturer of rhetoric at Boston University, of Didion’s writing. Earlier this year, Vanderberg’s book, “Joan Didion: Substance and Style,” was published by SUNY Press. “She wanted people to really see things in sharp relief. She just didn’t like easy sentimentality,” she said.

The Globe talked with Vanderberg about Didion’s singular style, how it dovetailed with her personal life, and the late writer’s legacy.

Q. What made Didion’s voice so idiosyncratic?

A. Her sentences were so precise and controlled and concise, even though they could be very, very long. She spoke a lot about editing and revising and going over every single part of her sentences and attending to grammar and punctuation. She was reserved, but still powerfully emotional in her sentences. Every word was chosen. She argued with her style, as much as she did with her content. So yes, [her sentences] were beautiful, they were moving, but they were also very rhetorically powerful.

Q. You wrote about her capturing time and place. Can you tell me more about that?

A. She would offer the mythology of these places and the romance of them, and then the rest of an essay would slowly deconstruct that. Like the California dream, or the myth of New York City. She paid attention to details. It was all very tactile and sensory, and that really brought these places to life.

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Q. But she also met the cultural moment — she wrote about disillusionment when a lot of people were feeling disillusioned.

A. I don’t want to call it a contrarian impulse, but the, “don’t accept the official story line.” Push back against it. Question it. Question the stories that are being told to us, question the stories we tell ourselves. She thought it was important enough to write against the grain. She thought it mattered that things were critiqued and questioned.

Q. How did she convey that with her style?

A. A lot of sarcasm. A lot of irony. A lot of understatement. It was by taking these people’s own words and the details that everyone would just sort of accept as a narrative and then turning them inside out with her own sentences that called your attention to how ridiculous some of this stuff was.

Q. How were people drawn to her writing style because of her personal style?

A. I think a lot of it was because people were drawn to her. She cared about aesthetic, and she also had this enigmatic personality. There are the pictures of her with the Stingray and the cigarette and the big sunglasses. There’s this whole mythology around her. I think for a lot of people, she was of a certain world that they wanted to be a part of, or that they wanted to be affiliated with.

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Q. What is a notion that you had of Didion that changed as you studied her more?

A. At the beginning, I was more invested in the idea of her, like, “It would be so great if I could interview her for this book.” Towards the end of it, I was like, “Oh, I never want to meet her.” Not that I disliked her, but everything I needed to know about her was in her writing. She wasn’t someone who wanted to bare her soul. It was all there in the writing — which is great that she left us with that.

Q. Like her famous packing list.

A. Very economical, but also, each item told you something about her.

Q. But that style made some accuse her of coldness.

A. She was just who she was. She wasn’t trying to be the warm, fuzzy best friend. She would describe the situations and let you have the feelings. She was very much about showing, not telling, to use a cliché.

Q. Do you think there will ever be another Joan Didion?

A. No. I think a lot of people would like to be. I think she was of her time — I should say times. I’m not saying there aren’t writers as powerful and so forth, but it’s just such a unique lifetime.

Q. How would you suggest writers try to emulate Didion’s style?

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A. Sit down and copy her works, word for word. A passage, a whole essay, several essays across time. I’m a writing teacher — I have my students copy her sentences sometimes just to get the feel for them. The rhythm, the possibilities.

Q. What do you think will be Didion’s legacy?

A. I do think her legacy will be her prose style. She could convey a mood in one sentence, or just totally undermine an official narrative with two words. Her sentences sometimes were very oral, but sometimes very textual. So sometimes very short and emphatic and repetitive, but also sometimes several lines long and complex and delaying information and carrying the reader along in this rhythm before concluding. I think people will be looking at her sentences for a long time to come, in undergraduate classes, or in their own private readings of her, or in trying to develop their own writing. I mean, nobody wrote sentences like her.

Interview was edited and condensed.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com.