Same Song, Different Verse: A Letter to Caitlin Flanagan

That’s enough Caitlin Flanagan.

As a friend of mine said recently, about a declarative with the same structure (though about a different personality*), that sentence works with or without the comma.

Caitlin, you really bug people. I would say Google yourself to see why, but you already know why, don’t you? You’re a good writer, and I covet your job, and, depending on my mood, I usually read your articles. But I can almost always count on you to offend me with some broad, sweeping claim that makes — truly — no sense. You’ve done it before. And now this, from your article “The Autumn of Joan Didion: the Writer’s Work is a Triumph — and a Disaster” in this month’s Atlantic: “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.”

Dear Caitlin, why is it always about love that you write? And why are you such a fan of prescribing the boundaries of love so that you invariably leave people out? Alienate people? Is that just your thing? Does it make you feel good? Tell me, Caitlin, how did you get so good at loving? Because clearly you’ve got something other people don’t. We know, we know: you’re a woman. You’re a mother. Only you can understand what real love is. A few paragraphs later you write, “Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer.” Replace Didion with Flanagan and I think we’re getting somewhere.

Do you ever re-read your pieces before you send them off to be published? Do you hesitate for a moment, for just a second try to imagine what you sound like to others? There is always the possibility that you actually believe what you write — there is something to be said for that, but in this case I’m not sure what it is. “Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight,” you write, this your indictment of a man who couldn’t possibly love Joan Didion the way you do, “(a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.”


As I remarked the last time you upset me, there are many things I don’t understand, like “what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she [Didion] explored in a way no one else ever has.” Good writing, and great literature, invites people in to a common (though distinct) shared experience — which is something you, somewhere deep inside, do understand, because it happened to you with Didion and, I dare say, it has happened to you with other writers as well. The problem is you don’t want to share it. You want it all for yourself. You seem to get a kick out of classifying these shared experiences (not a bad thing in itself), placing sweeping value judgments on each division (less admirable or understandable), and then (this is where I really start to lose you) deriding everyone who isn’t in a category that looks exactly like yours (and let’s face it, if you had your way you’d be the only one in your category). This is what you do in your review.

Except it isn’t actually a review, is it? The best parts of your essay are when you’re talking about the writing. Unfortunately, that’s not what you wanted to tell us about. No, it wasn’t really ever about the writing at all. “I just wanted to tell you about the young woman who came to dinner at my house so long ago.” And there we have it, folks. Joan Didion came to dinner at Caitlin’s house one time, and she didn’t come to yours.

What I am left thinking about is why I feel so possessive of Joan? This is something we have in common, I think, because clearly you feel it too. Possessive is likely not the right word for what I feel, though, but something else — affection, devotion, gratitude, epiphany, these come closer. And it’s because of the language that I love her, because of passages like “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.”

I’ve read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, too. And I’m not you, Caitlin, I’m not a woman and I didn’t grow up in the sixties and I can’t ever claim certain things (especially that Joan Didion came to my house when I was a young teenager and that that experience left me with an exaggerated sense of entitlement toward the woman and her work), but it still grabbed me and pulled me in and moved me in ways I find difficult to describe and inspired me to write this letter that very few people will ever read because, Caitlin, I loved it too. It was a different kind of love, sure. Where you found something to respond to viscerally, to feel deeply, something to which you related and probably aspired, I found something approaching an artifact — of a bygone place and time that had been rendered in language so crisp and clear and precise that she took me there with her. And unlike that dinner from long ago, thankfully you were not there. So I could read it and love it as much as I cared or wanted to, without being made to feel like I didn’t have the right stuff for it, or that I was wrong. As I’ve said before, it may be a different kind of love from yours but that makes it no less valid, no less intense and, certainly, no less real.

So please, Caitlin. Please, please. Stop writing about love. Go be better than the rest of us at something else for a while.

*It was Zooey Deschanel.

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4 Responses to Same Song, Different Verse: A Letter to Caitlin Flanagan

  1. chris says:

    I love me some riled-up Billygoat! (And that’s *still* enough, Zooey Deschanel.)

  2. tracy says:

    YES! I read that same piece and was left totally be-queased. I was also annoyed by the claim that *any* female reader would *naturally* gravitate towards and fondly remember passages about clothes and window treatments and not be moved by Didion’s social commentary, or ability to make the marginal story the central one, or etc., etc. And didn’t you think that long, LONG anecdote about Didion visiting her house was self-indulgent to the point of being actively cruel? Oh, let’s pity poor Joan Didion who is socially awkward and mousey and dominated by her husband. How do you possibly know the innerworkings and power dynamics of their, by the account that matters most, DIDION’S, successful marriage? Ugh. UGH. Thanks for writing this and giving eloquent vent to my spleen!

  3. randasfans says:

    My new favorite word is be-queased. I shall employ it henceforth! Thanks for the comments, folks.

  4. Pingback: On Nodding Terms | Randa's Fans

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