Remembering Joan Didion, a "singular" California writer and a "helluva lot of fun"

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"Joan Didion" Art by Mr. Fish.

Heyday editor Steve Wasserman and “Scheer Intelligence” host Robert Scheer fondly reminisce over their friend, and what made her, her fiction, and her journalism transcendent. Joan Didion’s obituaries are brimming with accolades the 87-year-old undeniably earned over the many decades her career as a novelist, essayist, and journalist spanned. Soon after the great California writer passed away on December 23, the New York Times commended the “'New Journalist' Who Explored Culture and Chaos,” the Associated Press called her a “peerless prose stylist,” while the New Yorker declared, “No country but America could have produced Joan Didion. And no other country would have tolerated her.”

In his own moving tribute to Didion in the San Francisco Examiner, Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and publisher of the independent nonprofit book publisher Heyday, writes, “Joan’s death at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the landscape of California letters. There really was no one like her. She was, in a way, the least Californian of our state’s writers, if by ‘Californian’ we mean ever-sunny, full of optimism, wed to the conceit that history is weightless. Didion cast an unsparing eye on everything she examined. Her aesthetic, perhaps shaped as much by her early stint as a writer for William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative National Review as it was by the desiccated temperament of her Yankee forebears, was chilly, unforgiving, hard.”

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Wasserman joins host Robert Scheer to talk about the larger-than-life writer they both greatly admired, but also the flesh-and-bones woman they both knew personally. Wasserman turns his keen literary eye on Didion’s “forensic ability to deconstruct a sentence, and to understand the vernacular of power and the patois of ordinary people,” revealing that he has a “very mixed view of Joan’s work.” Scheer, meanwhile, shares his own memories of a fellow journalist–one with whom he traveled through the years as they covered epoch-defining stories–who was “generous and thoughtful, and accessible,” and also a “helluva lot of fun.”

The two Californians bring a West coast perspective to the discussion of Didion, who was not only born in the state capital of Sacramento, but, according to Scheer, embodied the “quintessential Californian.” Wasserman also examines Didion’s political shift leftward, which, as he writes in his tribute, led her to always want, “as she once remarked admiringly of former Ramparts editor Robert Scheer’s journalism, to know who does the screwing and who gets screwed.” Listen to the full conversation between Wasserman and Scheer as the two bring Didion to life with their memories and a nuanced analysis of the indelible mark she’s left on American letters and lives.



Joshua Scheer