Where To Start With Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne
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.
Joan Didion: Essays, Nonfiction, and Memoir
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
Capturing the tumultuous landscape of the United States, and in particular California, during a pivotal era of social change, the first work of nonfiction from one of American literature's most distinctive prose stylists is a modern classic. Collects essays on such diverse topics as John Wayne, the Haight-Asbury culture, and the Newport mansions.
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
An autobiographical portrait of marriage and motherhood by the acclaimed author details the critical illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo, followed by the fatal coronary of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter's second bout with a life-threatening ailment, and her struggle to come to terms with life and death, illness, sanity, personal upheaval, and grief.
The White Album (1979)
Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era—including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall—through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.
Where I Was From (2003)
Didion applies her scalpel-like intelligence to California's ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency in order to examine that ethic’s often tenuous relationship to reality. Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, Where I Was From explores California’s romances with land and water; its unacknowledged debts to railroads, aerospace, and big government; the disjunction between its code of individualism and its fetish for prisons.
After Henry (1992)
Here, Didion covers ground from Washington to Los Angeles, from a TV producer's gargantuan "manor" to the racial battlefields of New York's criminal courts. At each stop, she uncovers the mythic narratives that elude other observers: Didion tells us about the fantasies the media construct around crime victims and presidential candidates; she gives us new interpretations of the stories of Nancy Reagan and Patty Hearst; she charts America's rollercoaster ride through evanescent booms and hard times that won't go away.
Joan Didion: Fiction
Play It As It Lays (1970)
Maria Wyeth is an ex-model and the star of two films directed by her estranged husband, Carter Lang. But in the spiritual desert of 1960s Los Angeles, Maria has lost the plot of her own life. Her daughter was born with an "aberrant chemical in her brain." Her long-troubled marriage has slipped beyond repair, and her disastrous love affairs and strained friendships provide little comfort. Her only escape is to get in her car and drive the freeway until it runs out "somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped." But every ride to nowhere, every sleepless night numbed by pills and booze and sex, makes it harder for Maria to find the meaning in another day.
Run River (1961)
Everett McClellan and his wife, Lily, are the great-grandchildren of pioneers, and what happens to them is a tragic epilogue to the pioneer experience—a haunting portrait of a marriage whose wrong turns and betrayals are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and a razor-sharp commentary on the history of California.
A Book of Common Prayer (1977)
An American woman, Charlotte, comes to a derelict Central American hoping to be reunited with her fugitive daughter. There she meets another American, Grace, who knows where all the skeletons are buried.
Inez Victor knows that the major casualty of the political life is memory. But the people around Inez have made careers out of losing track. Her senator husband wants to forget the failure of his last bid for the presidency. Her husband's handler would like the press to forget that Inez's father is a murderer. And, in 1975, America is doing its best to lose track of its one-time client, the lethally hemorrhaging republic of South Vietnam.
John Gregory Dunne: Essays and Nonfiction
The Studio (1969)
In 1967, Dunne asked for unlimited access to the inner workings of Twentieth Century Fox. Miraculously, he got it. For one year he went everywhere there was to go and talked to everyone worth talking to within the studio. He tracked every step of the creation of pictures like Dr. Dolittle, Planet of the Apes, and The Boston Strangler. The result is a work of reportage that may be the most minutely observed and therefore most uproariously funny portrait of the motion picture business.
Monster: Living Off the Big Screen (1997)
Revealing the absurdities of Hollywood movie-making, the author offers an account of his eight-year struggle to see his screenplay for the film Up Close and Personal through production.
Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne
A collection of key nonfiction works includes the writer's frank observations on the film industry, politics, sports, and other topics; his reflections on raising an adopted daughter; and depictions of Las Vegas and a Hollywood film studio.
John Gregory Dunne: Fiction
True Confessions (1977)
In 1940s Los Angeles, an unidentified murder victim is found bisected in a shadowy lot. Two brothers, Tom and Des Spellacy, are at the heart of this powerful novel about Irish-Catholic life in Southern California just after World War II. Tom is a homicide detective and Des is a priest on the rise within the Church. The murder investigation provides the background against which are played the ever-changing loyalties of the two brothers.
Set in the glamorous, gangster-dominated Hollywood of the 1940s, Playland tells the story of Blue Tyler, a child star who disappears from Hollywood and becomes a bag lady in New York City.
Nothing Lost (published posthumously in 2004)
In the aftermath of Edgar Parlance’s killing, the small prairie town of Regent becomes a destination for everyone from a sociopathic teenage supermodel to an enigmatic attorney with secret familial links to the worlds of Hollywood and organized crime. Out of their manifold convergences, their jockeying for power, publicity, or love.
Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.