Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Thanks once again to Ed for this link, wherein writer Terry Teachout reams the stage adaption of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking."

We still have freedom of speech in our fine country, all Administration efforts to the contrary. This means Teachout is entitled to his opinion of the play. He loathed it. Fine. Like I say, at this moment, we are still free to express our opinions. Hallelujah.

What upset me were his opening words:

It surprised me when Joan Didion published "The Year of Magical Thinking," for I identified her so completely with California in the '60s that I'd almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish--a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall--but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever.

He'd forgotten she was still alive? Excuse me? After Henry, with its painful acuity, emerged in 1992. How about the instant bestsellerdom of 1996's The Last Thing He Wanted? Or that other dull little number, 2003's Where I Was From, which hardly sank without a trace. As for The Year of Magical Thinking, was Mr. Teachout on vacation when it won the National Book Award?

A figure from the distant past? Mr. Teachout, do you live beneath a rock?

Don't get me wrong--it's clear Teachout is no Didion fan. Of the book, he writes:

Yet I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief.

Well, I think he was alone on that one. Ms. Didion's style has served her well over the years: how was she supposed to write? And how many of us would choose to push the boundaries of a searingly successful style once we're past seventy? How many of us--writers, wannabe writers, impassioned critics--could have pulled ourselves together to create such a document?

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. He isn't a Didion fan, and that's okay. I am not a fan of Dave Eggers' writing. I find Pynchon unreadable. This doesn't mean I am free to dismiss them, or their influence, out of hand. People writing seriously about reading, writing, and writers have an obligation to know what's out there. To borrow an analogy from hockey, one of the things that made Gretzky great was his ability to envision the ice surface, and everybody on it. He played center. And he always, always knew where his guys were--Kurri, McSorley, Messier, Coffey. He could pass to any of them without raising his head. He knew all the angles, the give in the boards, the furthest corners of the ice. He hung out behind the opposing net, moving back and forth, until with one sudden move the puck was in the net and the goalie cursing wildly. All this from a physically unprepossing man with the gift of great hands who saw the ice the way we wordy types should view the literary landscape.

We need to know who's publishing, what they're writing about, and who's reading them. Did they get a tour? Is Oprah courting them? Did Michi pan them? Is Starbucks stocking them beside the fair trade organic coffee grown by starving Columbians? What are their angles? Are they working the edges, as Cormac McCarthy does, or hanging out in the center, where the ice is soft? (Mitch Albom comes to mind.)

We may not want to read all these writers, and frankly, there's no way we can. This doesn't give us permission to be ignorant, or arrogant. To think Didion a relic is inexcusable from writer of Teachout's stature. To insult a writer of Didion's accomplishment and indisputable skill is worse than inexcusable: Teachout discredits himself.

No hairball count, as I am still choking.


Post a Comment

<< Home