Editor's Notes 24.1

By Dan Lehman

November 16, 2022

Editor's Notes 24.1

Two giants of nonfiction literature have died since last we wrote these notes: Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion. And so we offer tribute. Simply stated, one cannot imagine nearly twenty-five years of River Teeth without their enduring influence. You can find it on every page of this issue. In fact, every memoirist or literary journalist writing today owes these women deeply for their pioneering work. 
We start with their candid recognition of the implicating stakes that are inherent in the nonfiction form: a convention that, after all, skewers an outside life in all its complex history and contradictions and delivers it wriggling onto the page. “My only advantage as a reporter,” Didion once noted, “is 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. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember:?writers are always selling somebody out.” 
Every foible, it seems, every habit, every tic a subject reveals will sharpen a tool in the writer’s workshop. Every telling detail brings a character’s life to the page, even as that same detail can trigger the living subject’s mortification. It’s a tricky — even a trickster — business. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm admitted.He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” 
On such scrupulous honesty about the stakes of their craft, both women built astonishing work: Malcolm with decades of incisive pieces in The New Yorker that made literature from intimate portraits of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud, Vanessa Bell, Jeffrey MacDonald, Gertrude Stein, and a host of others. “No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm,” wrote Katie Roiphe in a 2011 Paris Review profile, adding that Malcolm “takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.” 
For her part, Didion built a long string of hallucinogenic set pieces from her native California before turning her attention to El Salvador, Miami, and other ports of call. “The center was not holding,” she began her most famous essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” (Can one imagine a time when a mass-market family magazine like The Saturday Evening Post would publish such a literary piece?) “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.” 
Didion certainly foresaw California’s current wildfire world: torched by the nexus of Santa Ana winds and drought-ravaged countryside. “The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf,” she wrote in 1967. “The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called ‘earthquake weather.’ My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake. ‘On nights like that,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, ‘every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.’ That was the kind of wind it was.” 
One such California wife was Lucille Miller “on a night when the moon was dark and the wind was blowing and she was out of milk”: a subject torn from life whom Didion pinned to the page in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” Miller was convicted of first-degree murder in a double indemnity case, and the “neurotically inarticulate” Didion was there in the courtroom to observe. What she drew on the page for her readers was the murder defendant: “a slight, intermittently pretty woman, already pale from lack of sun, a woman who would turn thirty-five before the trial was over and whose tendency toward haggardness was beginning to show, a meticulous woman who insisted against her lawyer’s advice, on coming to court with her hair piled high and lacquered.” 
More than fifty years later, Didion’s artful narrative not only illustrates how fine art can be wrought from tragedy, but how literary nonfiction troubles real lives. So when Didion died just two days before Christmas this past year, the Miller story broke out yet again. No nonfiction writer, it turns out, no matter how brilliant, can entirely contain a story within its boundaries. Such was the case with Didion. And Janet Malcolm, of course, also recognized this in her oft-quoted passage from The Journalist and the Murderer. “The writer of fiction,” Malcolm asserted, “is entitled to more privilege. He is the master of his own house and may do what he likes with it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined. But the writer of nonfiction is only the renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease.” 
For Didion, a condition of the Lucille Miller lease meant the story would not lie safely on the page. Exactly one month after Didion died, Lucille Miller’s daughter Debra wrote a piece for the L.A. Times in which she revealed how Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” haunted the Miller family. “My mother hated Didion’s essay and taught her children to hate it too,” Debra Miller wrote on January 23, 2022. “She believed it was Didion’s revenge on her for turning down an interview request.”
   For decades, Debra Miller writes, she lived in fear of being identified as the convicted murderer’s daughter: a teenaged daughter whom Didion had described in the essay’s climactic scene as leaping from the spectator’s section upon her mother’s murder conviction and crying “She didn’t do it! She didn’t do it!” Didion’s famous essay weighed heavily on the daughter until, by 1991, Debra Miller could take it no more. She had to let the famous writer know the damaging power of her words. “My letter began, ‘Dear Joan Didion, I am anxious, angry, and jealous as my fragile self-esteem evaporates. I just can’t seem to avoid “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” It helped to make you famous, but it’s my life.’”
    And so that teenaged girl who shouted her mother’s innocence at trial rose as an adult from the pages of “Some Dreamers” to haunt her “temperamentally unobtrusive” creator like some fever vision. How did Joan Didion answer that now-grown, fatherless girl who witnessed her mother’s conviction in a trial that Didion’s artistry made live beyond its years? The answer reveals plenty about literary nonfiction’s enduring demands upon creativity, vision, morality, and responsibility.  
“Dear Debra Miller,” Didion wrote. “I’ve begun this letter so many times because there’s no real way to tell you how moved I was (am) by your letter. As a writer I tend to compartmentalize the people and events I’ve written about — the writer goes in, tries to understand the story, as if the act of writing it down completed the situation,?became the truth.?I guess I think writers need to do this, have to do this to maintain the nerve to write anything at all. But of course it’s an illusion. I’m glad you wrote to me. Thank you.” 
   Didion’s letter opened an avenue of healing for Debra Miller during which she was able to gain perspective on “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” “Didion’s essay is not sympathetic,” writes Miller, “but it helped make her famous. And rightfully so; she was able, by focusing on my mother, to rip apart the tissue of lies that California newcomers tell themselves about how life will be better, different, happier here.” Miller at first thought this gained perspective would be the end of the saga, but real life had one more surprise in store. Six years after receiving Didion’s letter, Miller was introduced to the writer and her husband John Gregory Dunne at an L.A. gathering with a warning that the “famously shy” Didion most likely would not grant “more than a hello, nice to meet you.” 
“But that’s not what happened .?.?. ,” Miller recalled in the L.A. Times piece. “She threw her arms around me, called her husband over to meet me, then tucked her arm in mine and escorted me into the auditorium and sat me down beside her. When an excerpt of the essay was read, focusing on the moment my father burned to death, she grabbed my arm and gave it a hug. Years of mortification melted away.” 
Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm. Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion. Two giants gone; two giants who will live forever on the page. Perhaps right now somewhere out there in Ukraine or some other troubled land, there is a writer, an artist, a witness, channeling their influence and writing truth. 
Here is New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman on Malcolm: “I believe there are many of us whose discovery of her work coincided with our discovery of what nonfiction might be capable of. I’m not sure that Malcolm would wish this discovery to be an entirely happy one. .?.?. And yet she pulls it off wonderfully; she is, was, very good, but she was also unmatchable.”  
And Debra Miller on Didion: “If not for her essay, I would not be the woman I am today — a woman to tell her own story, who survived and flourished rather than succumb to the darkness that consumed my mother and beckoned me.” 

         - DWL  


Works Cited 

Didion, Joan. “Los Angeles Notebook.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist and the Murderer. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. 

Miller, Debra. “I thought Joan Didion’s essay would ruin my life. But something
   else happened.”
Los Angeles Times, 23 Jan. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/

Roiphe, Katie. “Janet Malcolm, The Art of Nonfiction No. 4.” The Paris Review,
no. 196, 2011, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6073/the-art-of-

Waldman, Katy. In “Janet Malcolm, Remembered by Writers.” Various Authors.
The New Yorker, 19 June 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/books/

Keywords: issue 24.1
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