Let Me Tell You What (I Think) She Means: A Review of ‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean’ by Joan Didion

The acclaimed essayist and author Joan Didion just published a new anthology of old essays. Here is what I think of them.

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Edie Fine

‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean,’ by Joan Didion, has just been published by the Alfred K. Knopf publishing imprint, part of Random House.

Joan Didion’s proclivity toward journalism and writing being a direct communication between writer and reader is hyper-present in her (aptly titled) recently published anthology of essays Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Her fearlessness of the “I” pronoun speaks to her belief that journalism and non-fiction must necessarily be composed of not just fact on paper (the pursuit of objectivity is futile, she seems to believe), but of the truth as the writer believes it to be. 

Throughout the anthology of essays, she writes of many niche, mostly bite-sized topics. One especially present topic is that of writing itself (the text is quite meta). In the first essay of the compilation, “Alicia and the Underground Press,” she writes of her reverence for the so-called “underground press.” 

“The Free Press, the EVO [East Village Other], the Berkeley Barb, all the other tabloid-sized papers that reflect the special interests of the young and the disaffiliated: their particular virtue is to be devoid of conventional press postures, so many of which rest on a quite fictitious “objectivity.” Do not misread me: I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias… When a writer for an underground paper approves or disapproves of something, he says so, quite often in lieu of who, what when, where, and how.”

Didion flouts the traditions of journalism and offers her own belief. “Truth,” as we know it, is only attainable if the writer chooses to divulge herself and her experiences. The relationship between the reader and writer is transactional, and it seems foolish for the writer to pretend herself to be invisible. 

For this reason, I vow to employ the “I” pronoun throughout this piece. Like Didion, I do not seek to be an omniscient force and falsely objective: I come to this piece with my own predilections, interests, and disinterests. As such: I am an avid zine lover (if you do not know what a zine is, read the article I wrote a few months ago, Smells Like Zine Spirit), and I felt like Didion preached to the choir on this one. I believe in rawness and honesty in publications and press; so does she. 

Among the other essays are many in her natural style: she finds a point of interest and maintains a peripheral (but not omniscient) role throughout her reporting of it. As in all of her most famous writing, especially that of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, her collection of 1960s essays mostly about her experiences in California embedded with cultural analysis (an all-time favorite of mine), Didion takes distance from the material with which she is interacting. But it never feels self-effacing, nor is it passive. She is always there, she is always present. 

In fact, she refuses to ever let passivity reign. In “Getting Serenity,” we see her discomfort manifest after being confronted with the word “serenity.” Among the attendees of the Gambler’s Anonymous meeting, she is disquieted by their quietude; she cringes at their failure to seek and take ownership of their recovery. The program’s mantras (“miracles can happen”), as she particularly mentions, are all written in passive voice, as if their gambling addiction recovery were some symptom of fate and in the hands of God rather than in their own. When she hears the word “serenity” being tossed around in a manner of celebration, “I got out fast then,” she narrates, “before anyone could say ‘serenity’ again, for it is a word I associate with death, and for several days after that meeting, I wanted only to be in places where the lights were bright and no one counted days.”

Her displeasure with attempting neutrality and invisibility in her reporting also manifests in her honesty. She enters into a contract with the reader. She is transparent about what she knows writing to be. In “Why I Write,” she claims that writing is “an aggressive, even a hostile act,” that despite using linguistic and grammatical qualifiers, it is still “the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Writing, for her, is a reckoning with what she comes into contact with, and a subsequent reckoning with the reader. 

Didion is unafraid of her own truth. In fact, in “On Keeping a Notebook” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, as Didion is writing about what it means to her to keep a journal, “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different instinct entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess… not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

While Didion is writing about personal writing (writing of the utmost intimacy, such as journal keeping), her philosophy seems to seep its way into her reporting as well. She seeks to uncover and unveil a truth that may overlap with, but is never wholly dependent on, an objective recounting of events. Let Me Tell You What I Mean — seems a perfect intersection between Joan Didion’s reporting and her journal writing. While it may not be as culturally effective as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion provides her own personal perspective, over and over again. She lays bare her experiences, her thoughts, her ideas. It reads like an invitation into what she truly means. 

Let Me Tell You What I Mean — seems a perfect intersection between Joan Didion’s reporting and her journal writing. While it may not be as culturally effective as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion provides her own personal perspective, over and over again. She lays bare her experiences, her thoughts, her ideas. It reads like an invitation into what she truly means. 

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