Joan Didion's Greatest Two-Word Sentence
New York magazine|January 3-16, 2022
The power of an ice-cold, unflinching gaze.
By Molly Fischer, Photography by Brigitte Lacombe

WHAT READERLY EXPERIENCE matches the pleasure of a well executed, well-deserved takedown? When the critic is sharp enough, the subject praise-glutted enough, the results are exquisite—succulent, tart, worth any mess. ¶ Forty-two years ago, Joan Didion—who died on December 23 at 87—delivered one such delectable specimen. “Letter From ‘Manhattan’” was the restrained headline that appeared above her 1979 New York Review of Books essay on Woody Allen’s late-’70s oeuvre. And, if only in a certain sense, the essay that followed was restrained as well.

Didion was not unleashing a tirade; tirades were not her style. Rather, she was describing—with exasperated precision—a body of work whose popularity she found “interesting, and rather astonishing.” Allen’s characters possess “the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class,” Didion wrote:

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder “what love is.” They have “interesting” occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures “write,” usually on tape recorders. In Manhattan, Woody Allen quits his job as a television writer and is later seen dictating an “idea” for a short story, an idea which, I am afraid, is also the “idea” for the picture itself: “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe.”

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