A peerless prose stylist: American journalist and author Joan Didion dies at 87

The revered American writer, whose provocative social commentary made her a critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. Didion's publisher announced the author's death on Dec. 23, 2021.

Publisher Penguin Random House announced the author's death on Dec. 23, 2021

A portrait of Joan Didion, the great American essayist and author. (Nancy Ellison)

Joan Didion, the revered American author and essayist whose precise social and personal commentary in such classics as The White Album, South and West and The Year of Magical Thinking made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of turbulent times, has died. She was 87.

Didion's publisher Penguin Random House announced the author's death on Thursday (Dec. 23). 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 bestselling works of fiction, commentary and memoir have received numerous honours and are considered modern classics," Penguin Random House said in a statement.

Didion 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.

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. She 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."

Her work has had a profound impact on generations of writers. In her first collection of personal essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion interwove her own intimate experiences in California with astute observations of the counterculture that was pervasive in American society at the time.

At the age of 21, Didion won the Prix de Paris, which awarded her a job as a research assistant at Vogue in New York City. It was there she met writer John Gregory Dunne, a man who would eventually become her partner in life and literature. They were married for nearly 40 years, until Dunne died of a heart attack in their Manhattan home in 2003.

Didion wrote about the stages of her immeasurable grief immediately following her husband's death in her award-winning 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Their daughter, Quintana, died from acute pancreatitis at the age of 39 before the book was published. She spoke with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel in the months after Quintana's death.

"You can think of grief as what just hits you," said Didion in front of a packed audience in Toronto.

"The affliction just keeps coming over you in waves. But mourning is an actual process that you go through if you allow yourself to, which is a kind of constructive process because it enables you to accept the death. It involves letting yourself remember."

Listen | Joan Didion talks about the evolving nature of grief on Writers & Company

Didion spent her later years in New York, but she was most strongly identified with her native state of California, "a hologram that dematerializes 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. 

Didion's subjects also included earthquakes, movie stars and Cuban exiles, but common themes emerged: the need to impose order where order doesn't exist, the gap between accepted wisdom and real life, the way people deceive themselves — and others — into believing the world can be explained in a straight, narrative line.

[Grief] involves letting yourself remember.- Joan Didion

Much of her nonfiction was collected in the 2006 book We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, named after the opening sentence of her famous title essay from The White Album, a testament to one woman's search for the truth behind the truth. 

"We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five," she wrote.

"We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." 

Written by Colleen Long of the Associated Press, with files from CBC Books.

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