Slouching Towards Bethlehem may be the ideal template for today’s literary journalists looking for a starting point in establishing their own voice.
First published in 1968, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem collected the better part of a decade’s worth of essays, largely about California, published primarily within the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. Viewed half a century later, nothing about it seems revolutionary. But the work put her at the vanguard of New Journalism, inserting herself into a first-person narrative that leaned more on creative non-fiction than traditional journalism. This approach has become commonplace over the intervening decades as writers constantly insert themselves into their work to provide greater context, nuance and florid details. The trouble is that the technique has become so commonplace that unless a writer is willing to put themselves in truly extreme situations, no one may care. This holds true for criticism as well, the internet having fully democratized (for better or worse) the once-rarified air of writing and recording life as it unfurls. Of course, one could argue this is the case in a number of fields in a world so proliferated with individuals looking for recognition in a society that rewards wanton attention-seeking. The apex of this may well our current commander in chief and self-proclaimed genius.
Yet while Didion’s prose style feels of the moment, her subject matter is decidedly less so. Placing her focus almost entirely on California and the myriad ways in which it can cause the ruination of people, places and dreams, she comes off as a perennial downer, casting shadows – warranted or not – on the Golden State.
For instance, the title essay, perhaps her best-known work in the collection, finds her reporting back from the legendary Haight-Ashbury scene of 1967 San Francisco. Yet rather than painting rose-colored pictures of peace-loving hippies going about with flowers in their hair, the then 32-year-old Didion saw past the counter-cultural whitewashing and idealization with which history has subsequently and inaccurately colored the scene. In place of the beautiful people, Didion finds teenaged runaways living in filth and squalor, stoned out of their minds and without the slightest inkling of direction. Around them circle the sharks looking to take advantage of young people who’ve come looking for something that simply isn’t there. It’s a bleak picture to be sure, but Didion’s literary prose makes for a fascinating read; where others may have simply recounted events, Didion presents them in real time, affording readers the chance to experience the fallacy of the hippie ideal and how it was presented elsewhere at the time.
Elsewhere she writes of murderous housewives (“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”), matinee idols (“John Wayne: A Love Song”) and the mysterious inner-workings of the Howard Hughes empire (“7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”). In each she makes sure to insert herself into the narrative regardless of whether the story calls for it. This criticism has long been leveled, and has unfortunately had an overwhelming influence on generations of writers. Indeed, in many cases journalistic essays and memoirs have become virtually interchangeable, the writer becoming as much a part of the story as those about whom they are ostensibly writing.
Presented in a new, pocket-sized edition from Picador Modern Classics, Slouching Towards Bethlehem may be the ideal template for today’s literary journalists looking for a starting point in establishing their own voice. Didion is always herself throughout each essay (and always a primary player in each), making it as much autobiography as sociology. In this, we are granted a look at a volatile time in American history and granted a first-person perspective that refuses to idealize the era. Didion’s style might not be for everyone, but it remains as revelatory as the era in which it was conceived.