How Joan Didion paved the way for women in journalism

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From fiction to reality, Joan Didion has greatly contributed to the world of words. As rightful queen of New Journalism movement, Didion helped create a place where journalists could be seen as individuals, while broadening the scope to include women’s voices.

Thanks to her distinctive style and wide array of accomplishments, Didion has become an inimitable figure among her generation and Gen-Z. In light of her passing in December 2021 and in honor of Women’s History Month, it is now fitting to appreciate Didion’s impact on journalism.

An inspiration to writers and liberal arts students, Didion’s work is a portal to the 60s and 70s. Using narrative tone and the portrayal of personality, the New Journalism genre managed to combine the fiction and non-fiction writing techniques in a powerful and captivating form of writing. Journalism just hasn’t been the same since.

Born in Sacramento, California in 1934, Didion spent her childhood in and out of school due to her father’s many moves. In her early teens, she teaches herself the art of sentence structures by typing the works of Ernest Hemingway, which may have led her to later adopt the style now associated with her work.

She publishes her first collection of essays, Advance towards Bethlehem, in 1968. It depicts the Haight-Ashbury hippies during the LSD craze. At the time the book was published, it was considered a non-traditional get into journalism.

Not only were the essays written in prose and with the use of literary techniques such as imagery, but the people she wrote about resembled characters in a novel in the way they were portrayed. Additionally, how they are depicted is affected by Didion’s opinions and views on humanity.

According to Tom Wolfe, another proponent of new journalism, the change in the ethical attitude of the world is what is so fascinating about the 1960s, rather than any political event. Journalism has taken a similar turn, with the traditional institutional voice of journalists being replaced by a more creative and personalized form of writing.

While some feared that the new journalism would undermine objectivity in reporting, others argued that this is precisely what must continue to change in the journalism industry today.

Award-winning journalist Pacinthe Mattar argue in his article “Objectivity is a privilege granted to white journalists” that the maintenance of objectivity in certain areas of journalism hinders social growth. There are certain biases that are helpful rather than harmful. This is especially true in cases surrounding marginalized communities.

Not only did Didion inspire many women and other marginalized writers to pursue journalism through her unforgettable work, but she also paved the way for those seeking to tell stories whose voices have never been heard.

Moreover, the new journalism and the abandonment of objectivity allowed journalists to cultivate their own voice in their work, allowing readers to admire the writers with whom they most identified. It broke down the barrier between journalist and celebrity, giving writers the opportunity to receive the appreciation they’ve always deserved.

Although she is not the creator of new journalism, Didion’s contributions to the invention of gender have been hugely influential, especially for journalists who do not identify as straight, cisgender white men. Without Joan Didion, we wouldn’t have so many unique journalists to inspire us today.


Graphic presented by Sara Mizannojehdehi.

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