“Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf)
Back in 1968, Joan Didion identified a problem with the mainstream media.
“The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain, very probably by an Associated Press wire …,” she begins in an essay that goes on to criticize traditional news outlets, including the wire service carrying this review, for pretending that there is such a thing as neutral, unbiased, objective reporting.
That article, “Alicia and the Underground Press,” was a snarky ode to alternative newspapers in the 1960s like the East Village Other and Berkeley Barb that might have been “amateurish and badly written” but at least had the virtue of speaking directly to their readers, and speaking to them as friends.
Some 50 years later, in a media landscape dominated by players who present “alternative facts” with a straight face, and consumers who get their news through platforms tailored to their specific interests, Didion’s critique seems more prescient than ever.
The essay is one of 12 she wrote between 1968 and 2000 that have been collected in a new volume, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” sure to be of interest to Didion completists and fans of such cultural touchstones as “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
Others haven’t aged as well. Another piece from 1968, about Gamblers Anonymous, quotes the people at a meeting in ungrammatical English, speaking “as if from some subverbal swamp.” In “A Trip to Xanadu,” she sneers at tourists at the Hearst Castle in their “slacks and straw hats and hair rollers.”
But when she punches up instead of down, the results can be devastating, as in her portrait from the same year of Nancy Reagan, then the wife of the California governor, portrayed as a media-savvy control freak and distant mother to her then 10-year-old son. Similarly, her 2000 profile of Martha Stewart captures what most observers missed at the time — that Martha wasn’t selling homemaking, she was selling success.
The best of the bunch have to do with the subject Didion, 86, knows and cares about most — being a writer. In essays like “Why I Write,” whose title she borrowed from George Orwell, “Telling Stories” and “Last Words,” she makes it clear why she has been an essential voice in American arts and letters for more than half a century.