Telling Stories by One of Living Literature's Sharpest Storytellers, JOAN DIDION

'IN the fall of 1954, when I was nineteen and a junior at Berkeley, I was one of perhaps a dozen students admitted to the late Mark Schorer's English 106A ... English 106A was widely regarded in the fall of 1954 as a kind of sacramental experience, an initiation into the grave world of real writers ... I recall classroom discussions which ranged over meetings with Paul and Jane Bowles, incidents involving Djuna Barnes, years spent in Paris, in Beverly Hills, in the Yucatan, on the lower East Side of New York and on Repulse Bay and even on morphine ... I had never read Paul or Jane Bowles, let alone met them, and when, some fifteen years later at a friend's house in Santa Monica Canyon, I did meet Paul Bowles, I was immediately rendered as dumb and awestruck as I had been when I was nineteen and taking English 106A.... ' (boldness mine)

Telling Stories, 1978
So opens Joan Didion's essay "Telling Stories," the sole essay collected in this rarest of rare rarities of Joan Didion's, Telling Stories. I'd be "rendered dumb and awestruck", too, meeting Jane and Paul Bowles, but I'd probably be rendered dumber meeting Joan Didion. God knows I'm awestruck just reading her marvelous books. No secret I love Joan Didion. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Love Joan Didion. A lot. A lot of people love Joan Didion so much that this whole lotta love and adoration is unfortunate for a book collector such as yours truly and many others, no doubt, because it has made copies of all but signed and inscribed first printings by Joan Didion -- be it her classic essay collections (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, After Henry, Political Fictions, Where I Was From), iconic memoirs (Salvador, Miami, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights), and novels (Run River, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted), alike -- ubiquitous in the eyes of book collectors on the hunt for something rare or obscure of hers.

David Foster Wallace had rarities like "The Planet Trillaphon as It Relates to the Bad Thing," his first story published in 1984 in Amherst College's student literary review, and "Untitled Chunk," published posthumously in the first, Jan. 2009, issue of The Chaffey Review; while Joseph McElroy has a prized rarity also -- 1980s Ship Rock: A Place -- a stand alone excerpt from "Women And Men: A Novel In Progress" published in a limited run of 226 copies by William B. Ewert, of which I own copy 95, but that's a previous story; and so likewise, Joan Didion, has Telling Stories, "Number 26 In The Series of Keepsakes Issued By The Friends Of The Bancroft Library For It's Members" at U.C. Berkeley.

But even those signed and inscribed first printings of Joan Didion's aforementioned most famous books from the Sixties and Seventies do not, as a rule, fetch high prices, barely breaking $1000 among book dealers, which is a low sum for a writer as revered as Didion, what with her impeccable reputation among both critics/peers and her faithful longtime readers. The great supply of Joan Didion's books, unfortunately, exceeds the great demand.  None of her books, in fact, are out of print. Even her first printings in mint condition, protected in brodart, are a dime a dozen, and rarely retail for more than twenty U.S. dollars.  Turns out even this scarce, limited edition "Keepsake" of hers, published in 1978, Telling Stories, holds relatively little monetary value among collectors, too, and yet for me, because I so love Joan Didion (I'd marry her in a second and make her my second wife -- my current wife would just have to deal with it -- if only Joan Didion would let me) is priceless.

Inside my copy of Telling Stories, that I was fortuitous enough to find a few years ago at The Bookman of Orange, was a folded insert advertisment (see below) with other regional California titles in the keepsake series published by Didion's alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. . . .

advertisement included in my copy, listing all the "Keepsakes"
U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library sold to its members

Telling Stories contains the only three short stories that Joan Didion has so far published in book form, and all were written in 1964; they are ...  1) "Coming Home" (originally published in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post); ... 2) "The Welfare Island Ferry" (originally published in 1965 in Harper's Bazaar); ... and 3) "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?".

Story #3 above was rejected twenty-three times before the little known Denver Quarterly accepted it for publication in 1967 for the modest, under market value of fifty paltry dollars.  Fifty.  Absurd.  Five dollars per page.  Even then, nearly fifty years ago, fifty dollars was a lowball payment for an already established and renowned pro of Didion's rank.  Perhaps by the time of Telling Stories' publication, an only by then amusingly-peeved, somewhat sardonic, Joan Didion, still saw fit to take the time and limited space in U.C. Berkeley's keepsake for its members, Telling Stories, and noted for posterity's sake each and every publication that rejected -- and in some instances their rationale for rejecting -- her story with the admittedly long and arguably questionable title, "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?", that Didion even conceded...

' not at all as a story.  It is instead an extended notation for an unwritten novel, an exercise in the  truest sense.  It was in "When Did Music" that I taught myself -- or began to teach myself -- how to make narrative tension out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of past and present.  I should have known what I learned in this story before I ever wrote my first novel.  {Run River, 1964}  Had I never written this story I would have never written a second novel.  {Play It As It Lays, 1970}  As crude and imperfect as the story is, it seems to me by far the most interesting of the three.'

I think Didion suffers from that harsh, but common and understandable malady affecting all successful writers, who when given the opportunity to reflect upon their earliest works, are inevitably driven to its disparagement. For I found in "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" a satisfying story indeed, one reminiscent of her clipped, understated, much-emulated style, contained within a, granted, less refined and effortless or natural sounding voice; voices as such inwardly shrieked with muzzled existential terror, out of the pretty mouths of those doomed starlet beauties I'll never forget, Maria Wyeth and Charlotte Douglas, of Play It As it Lays and A Book of Common Prayer infamy, respectively.  The muzzled, terror stricken voice here in "When Did Music" is an unnamed woman home for Christmas in Reno, Nevada, but instead of the hope and joy and festive season's greetings she should be experiencing, she'll get walloped by the usual, familial, petty hells of the holiday instead.  Listen to her voice and hear in it if it is not nearly as memorable as Didion's later, universal, hard luck soliloquies thought aloud by Maria or Charlotte:

"We all say the same things. Here are some facts. Ward died in 1949, in an aerial show in South Dakota. Aunt Inez did not marry again, and is now on a cruise of the Balkans; I received a card today. "Happy landings," it closed. Cary has married, twice, and I saw her for lunch during the World's Fair. She had five vodka martinis, one in lieu of dessert. I see my mother and father once a year, in July, when I take the children out. They seem older, and to prefer talking to the children than to me. Charlie called a few hours ago to say that if the Christmas tree was not down by the time he came home he would call the Fire Department, that it would ignite one night soon and burn us in our beds. I pointed out that in any case it was unlikely to catch him.  Those are only the facts."

The prestigious periodicals who, nevertheless, rejected "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" are itemized by Didion in "Telling Stories" and, since Didion saw fit to name them by name, shouldn't I do so as well?  If anything, a rejection list like the following afforded Joan Didion offers hope to aspiring writers everywhere, demonstrating as it does that every would-be writer -- in fact, every published writer period, too, even one of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century's most accomplished writers, Joan Didion -- faced rejection.

Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal (twice rejected), McCall's, Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan (rejected twice due to a change in its editorial staff), Vogue, Mademoiselle, The Reporter, Harper's, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly, Paris Review, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, all rejected Joan Didion. Those, too, are only the facts.

And then there was Good Housekeeping's rejection note -- and it's a good note to end on -- because it's by far the funniest rejection of all the rejections; funny, that is, for Didion aficionados well versed in her bereaved poetic prose and melancholic rumination; well versed, in other words, in her overall dark and invariably despairing oeuvre:

"Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I'm going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon...I'm sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time."