Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold [Netflix] and Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

I consider Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album two of the best books of the 20th Century. Didion’s investigatory skills together with her unrelenting analysis makes her writing superb. I read Didion’s “new” collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, although the most recent piece in it, “,” is from 2000. All of the other pieces in this book are from 1968 to 1998.

But, truth be told, these short articles are not Didion’s best work. “” centers around Martha Stewart. “Last Words” deals with Didion’s assessments of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Norman Mailer.

The essay that struck me most vividly was “Some Women” where Didion talks about Robert Mapplethorpe, the unique photographer. Didion always tends to gravitate toward unconventional situations and people. Are you a Joan Didion fan? GRADE: B+

While I was reading Joan Didion’s new book, I figured I’d watch the Joan Didion documentary on Netflix, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Didion, her husband John Gregory Dunne, and her adopted daughter Quintana Roo live an unconventional life. Didion and Dunne are constantly writing. Quintana looks happy in a lot of the footage, but later we find out otherwise.

If you’re curious about Joan Didion’s life, this documentary is probably the closest you’re going to get to the truth. GRADE: A-


Foreword Hilton Als vii

Alicia and the Underground Press 3

Getting Serenity 10

A Trip to Xanadu 16

On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice 23

Pretty Nancy 30

Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles 38

Why I Write 45

Telling Stories 58

Some Women 79

The Long-Distance Runner 89

Last Words 99 123

16 thoughts on “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold [Netflix] and Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

  1. Steve Oerkfitz

    Read The White Room and it was okay, but I didn’t like Play It as It Lays. Preferred her husbands novel True Confessions and her brother in law’s writings for Vanity Fair (Dominic Dunne) I might try to catch the documentary though.

  2. Deb

    I’ve liked a lot of her writing—and I especially liked THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and BLUE NIGHTS, the first about her widowhood after John Gregory Dunne died, the second about her life after her daughter died (not very long after Dunne). She’s very insightful about grief, but sometimes you feel she’s standing outside herself and making notes rather dispassionately. (Compare those books to Joyce Carol Oates’s WIDOW, which I didn’t like as much as Didion’s writing about losing her husband, but Oates’s grief feels more visceral—even if Oates remarried later and Didion, as far as I know, has not.)

    1. george Post author

      Deb, I get the sense from Didion’s writing that she’s detached from much of the Life she’s living. When Didion asks her daughter whether she was a Good Mother, Quintana answered, “You were okay, but remote.”

  3. Michael Padgett

    My introduction to Didion was PLAY IT AS IT LAYS in the early seventies and I’ve pretty much kept up, although of the books since BLUE NIGHTS I’ve only read the very short SOUTH AND WEST. And though I was aware of THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD the fact that it was on Netflix had somehow escaped me. I’ll definitely watch it soon. Not only is there too much streaming stuff to watch, there’s too much to even keep up with. I agree with Steve about TRUE CONFESSIONS, certainly a good choice for a reread.

    1. george Post author

      Michael, I’m with you on the Too Much To Keep Up With problem. Our DVR is at 48% (mostly Diane’s HALLMARK movies) and we have a Watch List of a dozen movies on HULU, Netflix, HBO, and AMAZON PRIME Video. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up!

      1. george Post author

        Rick, I’m guessing the Pandemic will require us to hang on to HULU, HBO, Netflix, Disney+, AMAZON PRIME Video, etc. a little bit longer. Movie theaters in Western NY can open on March 5, but Diane and I have ZERO interest in sitting inside a theater for hours with people who may be carrying a coronavirus variant.

  4. Jeff Meyerson

    I’ve never read her novels but, like you and Deb, am a big fan of her non-fiction. I recently read (I found it in the basement laundry room) her collection Political Fictions (2001) about Reagan, Poppy Bush, and Clinton mostly. Dated but still readable and she is prescient at times. Yes Deb, I always feel she is standing outside herself taking notes. We watched the documentary (THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD) done by her nephew Griffin Dunne last year and enjoyed it a lot. She went through a hell of a lot with the sudden death of her husband and then the tragic death of her daughter, but she is a survivor. Of course, I associate her with Southern California but she lived (lives?) in New York a long time too. Sorry the new book is actually old stuff, but it should be coming from the library soon and I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading it.

    1. george Post author

      Rick, both THE WHITE ALBUM and SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM are taught in colleges and universities. Joan Didion writes non-fiction at a very high level.


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