To the Editor:
Let me make sure I understand Sam Schulman’s point in his review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking [December 2005]. Mr. Schulman believes that Didion’s “authorial decision to remain . . . ignorant of her daughter’s death” for the duration of her memoir of the year following her husband’s death was “calculated”? Her failure to revise the book’s perspective upon her daughter’s death “after the book was completed but months before its publication” was a “cunning solicitation” for greater sympathy?
Didion finished writing The Year of Magical Thinking on December 31, 2004— one year and one day after her husband died. Her daughter died on August 26, 2005, after two and a half months in intensive care. The book was published in October 2005. When exactly should the rewrite have been done?
Sam Schulman writes:
D.L. Mowrey accuses me of having demanded that Joan Didion rewrite her book after the death of her daughter. I did not. I was thinking instead of what I expected to find in the book: a note in the front or back matter. Not encountering it there, I was sure as I read the book that a sentence or paragraph at the end would mention the sad fact of Quintana Dunne’s death, bringing to a close the terrible experience that Didion went through. Not to have encountered even a single sentence—or a set of dates—surprised me. Any publication schedule could easily have accommodated such a change. Not to make it was an authorial choice. The effect of Didion’s choice is to make the reader feel manhandled, manipulated—and puzzled. What effect she meant to have is an open question, but there is no doubt that one was intended.
D.L. Mowrey is also wrong to say that I called Didion’s decision to withhold such a note a piece of “cunning solicitation.” I applied these words to the book as a whole, which indeed is carefully crafted to solicit pity while being interspersed with passionate and utterly mystifying denunciations of self-pity. Her choice not to mention her daughter’s death strikes me as of a piece with this.