In five decades’ worth of essays, reportage and criticism, Didion has documented the charade implicit in how things are, in a first-person, observational style that is not sacrosanct but common-sensical. Seeing as a way of extrapolating hypocrisy, disingenuousness and doubt, she’ll notice the hydrangeas are plastic and mention it once, in passing, sorting the scene. Her gaze, like a sentry on the page, permanently trained on what is being disguised ... 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 ... Didion’s pen is like a periscope onto the creative mind — and, as this collection demonstrates, it always has been. These essays offer a direct line to what’s in the offing.
Reading Let Me Tell You What I Mean with an eye toward the shimmer, I believe it is possible to identify which pictures, crystalline and resonant, drew Didion closer and compelled her to string words together until the molecules manifested a new truth.
There's plenty of journalistic gold in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion's new book of 12 previously uncollected essays. What's particularly salient is her trademark farsightedness, which is especially striking decades later ... Hilton Als' smart foreword offers a welcome overview, though readers who want to encounter her writing fresh, without an intermediary, might want to read it after the essays ... Readers, and especially aspiring writers, will find the rejection letters garnered by Didion's last stab at short fiction fascinating, while college applicants should find consolation in 'On Being Unchosen by the College of One's Choice' ... As these essays demonstrate, Didion, even with her famous detachment, is no slouch at showing us what she means ... there's a wistfulness to this book, for it is impossible to read without wishing Didion were weighing in on how the center still cannot hold and things continue to fall apart in the 21st century.
... less a selected essays than a rejected essays, a director’s un-cut of her older work. Traditionally, this is the sort of collection squeezed out by itchy heirs after an author’s death ... It’s happy news, then, that the book still offers some familiar pleasures. The earliest columns, from the late sixties, remain crisp and engaging on the page (not a given for late-sixties writing) ... Didion stopped publishing new material in 2011, a silence that’s well earned but bittersweet in light of recent events, and Let Me Tell You What I Mean is meant to summon the old feelings. Yet the book ends up a study in the limits of Didion’s prose, because its parts, for all their elegance, don’t make a whole. Devoted readers will find the book unrecognizable as a Didion collection in any real sense.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean collects 12 pieces written between 1968 and 2000 ... The bad news first: You’ll want more ... Her distinctive rhythms, her ability to distill the essence of a thing: these are refined pleasures indeed ... [Didion's] bewitching blend of humility and disdain and her unsentimental yet compassionate eye are welcome tonics for frenzied times.
... the impression one gets is that of reading a magazine made up of all ledes and kickers ... Her essays show a writer who attempts a close reading of the powerful people and strange circumstances she encounters but then, when understanding proves difficult, draws back to look at them from a great, flat distance ... her sense of control over the material and her certainty of its meaning, as though nothing happens without her permission ... Didion’s sentences have a way of taking a person at face value and seeing the way subtle truths lie under glossy surfaces ... But as the reader continues through the essays in this collection, her writing can also take on the feeling of being alone in someone else’s living room: She is going through their homes in search of a secret ... The questions such a collection of essays demands—for example, why these pieces, and why now?—invite a cynical answer that is then attached, inextricably so, to the thought itself: Because these are the pieces that haven’t been recently collected; because these are the pieces that can be sold either to the completist or to the casual reader. If this book does have a theme, it is one indistinguishable from what many readers already know about Didion: that all of this writing is less about the topic than about how Didion feels about it ... Reading Didion’s latest collection is enough to convince anyone that her writing is often more evocative than empathetic, more interested in style than in meaning.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean arrives with the uncommon weight of expectation, and not a little bit of fear — in the purely morbid sense that this could be her last, yes (at 86, she's only mortal), but also that her legendary instincts might have faltered, a late-game blot on her legacy ... slim but satisfying ... In nearly every paragraph, though, are hallmarks of what Als calls 'the Didion gaze' — the callbacks and repetitions, the clean snap of a telling detail, the almost pathological aversion to sentiment and cliché ... a visionary who for more than half a century has shown us how to look through a glass darkly, and see anew.
... calling this a 'new' book may be somewhat misleading, as it serves as more of an 'odds and ends' release, compiling a series of never-before-collected short essays written between 1968 and 2000; one might think of this as a B-Side album, if you will. But Didion is one of our few living writers who can truthfully be said to have achieved iconic status, one who counts both casual readers and esteemed authors among her devoted audience, and even her 'B-Sides' ring with the authority of her distinctive voice ... And the essays gathered here may be of particular interest to Didion’s fellow writers as so many of them touch on the act of writing itself ... As is always the case with Didion, no words are wasted—and we are fortunate to have more of her essays to savor in this uncertain time. At first glance, the assortment gathered here may appear to lack cohesion, but the unifying force is, as ever, Didion’s voice—its incisiveness, its understated humor, her pragmatic view. The author can release a book called Let Me Tell You What I Mean in part because, for so many readers, we sense Didion tells things precisely as they are.
The story Didion tells about her development as a writer in the new collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a story of naïve craftmanship: Didion as a 'collector of verbs,' a scavenger of images, innocent of their meaning. She is not 'an intellectual.' Not political. Of course, she is both ... In her new collection, Didion does not always tell us what she means, least of all about her own writing, but she does show us. More than just a collector of verbs, she was an astute critic of the mid-century press, who cared about much more than the lights on in the Bevatron.
Slim and elegant as Didion’s public persona remains at age 86 ... The new book captures the essence of Didion in countless lapidary sentences ... She would come to match that economy with unwavering vision, setting a standard for those who have inhaled Didion not just as a writer’s writer, but also as a soul – still-centered, self-haunted – of modern experience.
Witty, heartfelt, and insightful, the writing in Let Me Tell You What I Mean is always incisive and shows Didion as a perennial chronicler and keen observer obsessed with the present, the palpable, the real ... there are not weak essays here ... Didion doesn’t talk much about herself in her work, but there is plenty of her in the pages of this collection. What the very aptly titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean does is not only show Didion as a writer through her work but also allow her to show herself in her own words ... reveals a brutally honest thinker taking a step back to look at what she does for a living ... Her work is an eloquent mirror she holds up to herself and then points it at us, and we’re lucky to have that, and lucky to see her shimmering just beyond it.
The collection – expansively introduced by Hilton Als – touches on many of the themes that run through Didion’s work: the power of illusion [...] the unspoken dynamics of makeshift, often precarious communities; the dangerous thrill of pursuing dreams ... Let Me Tell You What I Mean, its chapters largely rooted in this discombobulating period, is a valuable addition to the literature of self-doubt and self-awareness, an elegant untangling of what and why we remember and forget.
Through her work, Didion has conjured a culture that’s dazzling and dangerous, mythic and mundane ... [Let Me Tell You What I Mean] brings together previously uncollected pieces in a prismatic retrospective; the critic Hilton Als charts the arc of her career in a rich foreword that’s almost as long as the book itself. The essays could easily feel like bits from the cutting-room floor, but as usual, Didion exceeds our expectations ... there’s also plenty of vintage Didion: her passion for writing is omnipresent, a compulsion to write about writing, which sparks her finest meditations here. These interior debates about what she does, and how and why she does it, resonate ... the Didion of Let Me Tell You What I Mean is also a revelation, as the woman behind the curtain steps forward, more intimate somehow, with flashes of feminist feeling ... Brava.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean is being marketed as a collection of “early” Didion essays, though its contents were first published between the late sixties and the new millennium. It is certainly further evidence of what Hilton Als, in his foreword, calls Didion’s 'feeling for the uncanny,' but whether it’s a coherent addition to the Didion corpus is another matter ... What then of Let Me Tell You What I Mean and its corralling of perfectly polished essays into something that doesn’t quite feel like a book by Joan Didion? Of course, essay collections may be as motley as one likes, and you could anyway assemble your own new Didion anthology (including uncollected obscurities) today, with a little judicious googling and access to one or two magazine archives ... Didion’s collections have usually been constellations: they inscribe a moment or a mood, in ways this book does not ... I would have loved a harder look—Didion meets Helen Gurley Brown, Didion decides to make twenty figgy puddings—at the unreprinted Post columns: a proper compendium of the years just before she stopped being 'early.'
The clarity of Didion’s vision and the precision with which she sets it down do indeed feel uncanny. Her writing has often revealed what was previously hidden, parsed what was unconscious, be it the miasmic unease of the late 1960s or the subterranean structures of national politics. Reading her now, she does seem prophetic ... The bad news first: You’ll want more. The Saturday Evening Post articles are bite-size, trailers rather than the whole movie, and some later articles have been conspicuously overtaken by the passage of time ... Meanwhile, the absence of anything post-2000 is cause for regret. Oh, for Didion’s take on the Obama years. The alt-right. The Trump presidency ... Still, admirers have much to celebrate.
As a group, these essays are wide-ranging in subject, yet each displays the distinctive voice Didion has honed with precision. Whether she is profiling the studied perfection of then-first lady of California Nancy Reagan or the cultural significance of Martha Stewart on the cusp of her historic initial public offering, Didion allows her subjects to speak for themselves, inviting us to read between the lines and draw our own conclusions ... Fans of Didion’s incisive fiction will delight in her candid reflection on why she abandoned the short story as a viable form early in her career ... Not unexpectedly, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is secondary Didion at best, but even minor offerings from this prose master are hard to dismiss—and equally hard to resist.
For an author as obsessed with meaning as Didion, that title is a revealing double entendre, and one that seems to hang on that moment at Berkeley in 1975. She is telling us what she means, as she told that standing-room-only audience. And she is also telling us what she means, here in 2021, after decades of being one of America’s most admired, most argued-over writers ... Some essays in the collection feel very personal, like Didion’s remembrance of friend, director, and producer Tony Richardson ... it feels more like an appendix or an album of B-sides to Didion’s oeuvre than a fully fleshed-out new entry. Scholars and avid readers of Didion will not find new information here. But it’s a worthy collection nonetheless because it works like a skeleton key to unlock Didion’s continued significance in American culture ... Saying things, then clarifying them, is evidence of Didion’s precision, her need to make sure she reveals only what she wants to and not a bit more, that the words she chooses do exactly what she means for them to do.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean features 12 of those previously uncollected pieces that together foreshadow Didion's distinctive style and the considerable range of her interests ... Despite its brevity, Let Me Tell You What I Mean hints at some of the subjects that would preoccupy Didion, including life in her native California and the craft of writing itself ... This slim collection of mostly early pieces from Joan Didion provides a window into the work of her long, much-admired career.
Didion’s critique seems more prescient than ever ... Others haven’t aged as well. Another piece from 1968, about Gamblers Anonymous, quotes the people at a meeting in ungrammatical English, speaking 'as if from some subverbal swamp.' In A Trip to Xanadu, she sneers at tourists at the Hearst Castle in their 'slacks and straw hats and hair rollers' ... But when she punches up instead of down, the results can be devastating ... The best of the bunch have to do with the subject Didion, 86, knows and cares about most — being a writer. In essays like Why I Write, whose title she borrowed from George Orwell, Telling Stories and Last Words, she makes it clear why she has been an essential voice in American arts and letters for more than half a century.
... engrossing, memorable, and delightful ... remarkably consistent and relevant throughout ... All are written with sincerity and with Didion’s powerful sense of astute observation, as she describes her influences, worries, and occasionally fears. Readers can judge for themselves their own standout essay from the collection, but surely Why I Write will be a strong contender. Several pieces in this volume attend to the craft and purpose of writing, and in this one especially Didion candidly shows her devotion to writing and explains her own place and purpose as a writer ... This volume could be read in one sitting or one vignette at a time, as Didion’s perceptive voice connects the essays beautifully, but each one can stand equally well on its own terms. For both fans of Didion and those new to her work entirely, this collection is an essential investment.
Didion in an essence, elegantly dismantling assumptions and stating discomfiting truths. In Why I Write, another of the dozen arresting, mind-tuning, previously uncollected essays in this exhilarating and instructive gathering spanning several decades, she states that writing is 'an aggressive, even a hostile act.' It is also a voyage of discovery for Didion, conducted via meticulous observation and assiduous questioning of what she thinks and how her investigations make her feel ... an illuminating and inspiring addition to the influential Didion canon.
The 'energy and shimmer' of her prose are fully evident in this volume of previously uncollected pieces, written from 1968 to 2000. Although Didion portrays herself as a diffident, unconfident writer as a college student, she learned 'a kind of ease with words' when working at Vogue, where she was assigned to write punchy, concise copy ... All reveal the author’s shrewd, acerbic critical eye ... Writing, for her, is 'the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.' As these pieces show, it’s also an accomplished act of seduction. A slender, highly satisfying collection.