The slighter these pieces are, the more remarkable they seem: they’re so deft and enigmatic, often – as Didion says when brilliantly analysing Hemingway’s style – as a result of “deliberate omission, the tension of withheld information”. Fiddling with commercial copy for Vogue in her earliest job, she took pleasure in flattening lumpy dependent clauses and organising “one simple sentence composed of precisely 39 characters”. That minimalism persists in a credo announced with breathtaking casualness in her essay on Mapplethorpe. Artists, she declares, are “people whose work it is to make something out of nothing”... A sentence by Didion, whether it sticks to 39 characters or articulates possibilities in multiple dependent clauses, is always a marvel of magical thinking.
Chronologically arranged, this is a brief volume, but vastly pleasurable. It even has an arc, despite its happenstance origins (if a writer as controlled as Didion truly can be subject to happenstance). It begins with an appreciation of the underground press from 1968 and ends with a close reading of the Martha Stewart media empire, published in 2000, so the collection brackets the metamorphosis of publishing over the latter half of the 20th century. Read as a whole, the essays cohere into a reflection on the business and art of being a writer. Even the pieces not directly on that theme are about style, pretence and observation.
The essays in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” are at once funny and touching, roving and no-nonsense. They are about humiliation and about notions of rightness. About mythmaking, fiction writing, her “failed” intellectualism and the syntactic insides of Hemingway’s craft... Didion turned 86 in December. Many of these dispatches, organized chronologically, were written when she was in her 30s and 40s. A half-century after her last “Points West” column, Didion’s questions remain acute as ever.