Where To Start With Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne

By NYPL Staff
January 26, 2023
black and white photo of a man and woman standing in a bamboo forest
Joan Didion and John Dunne in Hawaii, undated

The New York Public Library just announced the acquisition of the archives of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Learn more about their lives and careers and explore a list of books to get you started with these titans of 20th-century literature.

Writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne shared four decades of marriage and literary partnership and left behind an intertwined legacy. The two met in the late 1950s in New York City when Didion was working as an editor at Vogue and Dunne a writer at Time. They married in 1964 and relocated to Los Angeles where they would live for twenty-four years before returning to Manhattan. Didion and Dunne each distinguished themselves in their own right, but followed similar career paths as journalists, essayists, novelists, and screenwriters. 

Defying the trope of competitive literary marriages, Didion and Dunne were frequent collaborators using each other as sounding boards, editors, and travel companions on assignments. For several years they wrote a joint column for The Saturday Evening Post and they were a screenwriting team for films including The Panic In Needle Park (1971), A Star Is Born (1976), and Up Close & Personal (1996). Dunne chronicled the eight-year process of the writing and production of Up Close & Personal in Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.

While their fiction was well-received, notably Didions’ Play It As It Lays (1970) and Dunne’s True Confessions (both of which were adapted into film), they are perhaps best remembered for helping define “New Journalism”—a blend of traditional reporting and narrative storytelling epitomized by Didion’s breakout 1967 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” about her time spent absorbing the counterculture and people of Haight-Ashbury.

Keen and sharp observation was at the heart of their writing and cultural criticism. In a 1992 lecture, they spoke about their perspective on journalism and how their style departed from tradition:

What the writer does is observe. And then he filters. Observation is nothing without intelligence to translate it. –John Gregory Dunne

I admire objectivity very much indeed. But I don't see how it can be achieved if the reader doesn't understand the writer's particular bias. Writers are people. They have opinions. They have attitudes. And the fact that these opinions and attitudes too often remain unspoken, unadmitted but very clearly there tends to come between the page and the reader like so much marsh gas. –Joan Didion

It's fitting that John Gregory Dunne is the subject of arguably Didion’s most successful book The Year of Magical Thinking which won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The book chronicles their life together and her struggle to accept his absence after his sudden death at the dinner table in 2003.

Between them, Didion and Dunne published thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and essay collections. In 1985 they were honored by The New York Public Library as Library Lions. Below is a sampling of their work available to borrow with your library card. 

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.