How, and with what effect, do Joan Didion’s The White Album and Philip Roth’s Writing American Fiction appeal to the reader’s emotions?

A piece of writing, by its very nature, represents a link between writer and reader. This bond is of immense importance, for it represents how the author’s work is interpreted by their audience, what they take from their words. And at the heart of this lies one fundamental element, how does the writing appeal to the reader’s emotions, and what effect does this have on their reading of the text. Joan Didion’s The White Album and Philip Roth’s Writing American Fiction represent two distinct examples of the essay form and by investigating this concept of targeting the reader’s emotions in these two pieces we can begin to uncover the reasons why this technique can achieve such a powerful effect, as well as understanding why the authors of these pieces write in the way they do.

At their most base level, emotions are tied into human nature, and in these two essays one key aspect of human nature that comes into play is a desire for information, to want to know more, to hear stories. It’s this desire which has led us to read the piece in question and a desire to share information that has led the author to write it in the first place. And through this sharing of information, there also comes a sharing of emotions. This ties into Joan Didion’s job as a journalist – her work places her in a role wherein her duty is to present us with information in such a way that we can draw our own conclusions on it.

Didion’s essay is something of a hybrid. Is it even an essay to begin with? Or is it a piece of journalism? Or even an autobiography? The truth is that it contains elements of all these forms, and it is through the intermingling of these forms that the reader gets to know Didion as a person, how the initial bond of writer/reader transforms into something more personal, something that is intensely emotional. A great deal of this is derived from the way Didion constructs her essay from a series of unrelated events. Though initially it would appear this format of flash-cuts from her life might be confusing and disorientating, it is through a theory she herself outlines that the true effect of this method is unveiled.

In the opening paragraph of her essay she states “We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images”. As the essay progresses the reader realises that what they are doing within their mind is the same process that Didion has outlined in the opening. The realisation of this brings with it an admiration for her knowledge of the workings of the human mind as well as a sense of community. Her use of ‘we’ is important, including the reader and prompting a feeling of friendship between her and her audience. Didion’s essay is interesting in that it presents an intensely personal autobiographical style against a more factual journalistic side. Meanwhile, Roth’s essay is far more traditional in its format, and while this may present a more straightforward means of presenting its points to the readership, it can be questioned whether it works on the reader’s emotions to the degree that The White Album does. Instead of simply spoon-feeding us the various elements of her piece; Didion instead makes us work at them, ultimately making her essay far more effective in the conveyance of its message.

One key technique both writers use to appeal to the reader’s emotions is the sense of location. Didion recognises it as she states “Living in America shaped me”, and Roth expands on the idea, explaining “But the America that we find him in seems to me to be the America of his childhood, and (if only in a metaphoric way) of everyone’s childhood”. Both writers believe that a fundamental of a person’s being is based on where they grew up, that experiences play a vital part in creating a person. This backs up Didion’s ‘flash-cut’ concept, where a collection of experiences comes together to present ‘her’.

Both writers’ essays are infused with numerous cultural references; from other writers, to musicians and songs, films, journals and politics – a myriad of aspects of modern life that we as the reader can associate and empathise with. Our emotions are tied into the society and culture of the everyday world that surrounds us, so by touching on these aspects, Roth and Didion appeal to the reader, drawing them further into the essay, its accessibility increased through the introduction of the components of the everyday.

Placing the two essays in a boarder context, both can be said to contain aspects of Gonzo journalism. What is crucial here is the emphasis this form places on impact over truth. Instead of a focus on cold, hard fact, there is a desire to touch the reader’s emotions. Roth’s essay begins with a perfect example of the subjective, first-person narrative format of the Gonzo movement, “Several winters back, while I was living in Chicago”. His use of “So far as I know,” also stands in direct contrast to traditional journalistic values of fidelity – this unsurity is a technique used frequently in Didion’s essay too and appeals to the reader’s emotions, its effect being to lower the writer down to the reader’s level – just like the reader, they do not know everything.

Roth does not just establish a sense of unity however, he also provokes outrage. In Writing American Fiction he outlines a murder case, but his description of it is full of black humour as he describes a popular song and competition that spring up out of the case. The stark contrast between the grim reality of the subject matter and the joyous, light-hearted mediums Roth presents is shocking to the reader, provoking a significant emotional response. He goes on to describe the mother of the two murdered girls as “poor woman”; the irony being that she is neither poor nor deserving of our sympathy. This is again a classic example of Gonzo techniques, the writer’s subjectivity placing impact over facts. Thus, the reader is involved further in the essay as they formulate their own opinions on the subject matter and counter them against the writer’s own choice of words and tone.

Didion employs a similar technique in The White Album where she presents a medical analysis, describing the subject as “highly unconventional and frequently bizarre” – it is only afterwards that the reader discovers that the individual being described is Didion herself. Again, the emphasis is all on impact. By making public something private, Didion creates an air of openness and we are forced to evaluate her character. Does our opinion of her change due to our knowledge of her psychological irregularities? Do we trust her more for her honesty? All these elements show how Didion’s essay appeals to the readers emotions.

An interesting point is that following on from the medical analysis, Didion employs further scientific language as she describes her essay as an “alchemy of issues”. The use of terminology is a crucial one and highlights how she is purposefully choosing and mixing a variety of subject matters so as to best target the reader’s emotions.

While Didion presents a very intense personal outlook on emotion, Roth instead focuses on the bigger picture. He states, “When Edmund Wilson says that after reading Life magazine he feels he does not belong to the country depicted there, that he does not live in this country, I understand what he means.” In this statement, we are presented with the concept that the journalism of America presents not the reality of the country, but a kind of idealised fiction. The media presents an image of life that people aspire to, finding energy to strive towards a goal and joy in achieving it – it is a concept that to a degree defines society and every person’s life, including that of the reader’s. They are part of this, and Roth’s essay uses this concept to reach out and touch their emotions too.

Both Didion’s and Roth’s essays employ a variety of techniques to achieve this effect throughout their duration, their power stemming from the way they intermingle with so many aspects of modern life. Like the media and newspapers themselves, which Roth at one point described as having “took over”, it is a significant power, and highlights just how effective words can be at penetrating right to the heart of a person’s emotions. Whether it be trust, shock, joy or understanding, the two writers delve deep into how these emotions are created and thus, by very association, how those same emotions go on to effect us too.

 

Bibliography

Didion, Joan, The White Album, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2009

Hirst, Martin, ‘What Is Gonzo? The Etymology of an Urban Legend’, University of Queensland Press: 2004 [http://eprint.uq.edu.au/archive/00000776/01/mhirst_gonzo.pdf] (accessed 2nd April 2010)

Keeble, Richard, Print Journalism: A Critical Introduction, Routledge: 2005

Olster, Stacey, Reminiscence and Re-creation in Contemporary American Fiction, Cambridge University Press: 2009

Roth, Philip, Reading Myself And Others, Vintage Books USA: 2001

Whitt, Jan, Women in American Journalism: A New History, University of Illinois Press: 2008

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