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21Feb

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion review – a masterclass in minimalism

These remarkable essays from the writer’s early years highlight her search for truth and attention to detail

Except for Joan Didion, the New Journalists of the 1960s were a self-dramatising gang, determined to upstage the stories they reported. Norman Mailer brawled, Hunter S Thompson raged; less loudly macho, Tom Wolfe preened and Truman Capote whispered sedition. When Didion calls writing “an aggressive, even a hostile act” or “the tactic of a secret bully”, she might be defining this bumptious fraternity.

Didion’s own tactics, sampled here in a smattering of uncollected articles, are more covert, perhaps even passive-aggressive. In an essay celebrating the scruffy underground press of the hippie era, she proclaims the ideology that underlay the new procedures: on guard against the respectable broadsheets and their “factitious ‘objectivity’”, journalists needed to risk “the act of saying I”. For Didion, however, that was easier said than done. Tentative, tremulous, she initially resisted employing the first-person pronoun, which belonged to her male colleagues by egotistical right.

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