Ten watercolors were made from that star.

Franklin Strong
6 min readJan 5, 2022

(On banned books, Joan Didion, and Caitlin Flanagan)

On December 29th, I came across this essay by Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic. Flanagan can be a controversial writer. Strike that: she can be an infuriating writer, often stubborn in her defense of whatever the “anti-woke” position happens to be on culture war issues. See this piece on elite private schools, or this tweet in support of parents trying to get books banned from school libraries in Loudon County, Virginia. But she’s also a very good writer, so when I see she has a piece out I make sure to read it, however angry it might make me.

I know it was the 29th because that’s the day we celebrate my mom’s birthday, usually with a bottle of champagne and a big Spanish meal. My mom died thirteen years ago this March of breast cancer, so Flanagan’s essay hit me when I was especially vulnerable to its power.

And what a powerful piece of writing it is. Flanagan writes about the indignities of cancer, or really about the indignities of aging, or maybe more precisely about the indignities of being a human. The essay does what I think good writing is supposed to do: give words to the the understandings we haven’t been able to express, and give understanding to experiences we might never be able to fully grasp.

But I was also struck by the way Flanagan opened her essay. She quotes a chapter of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Then she writes:

“I came across Play it as it Lays in my high-school library when I was 16, and I cut two or possibly three classes to read it. God, I hated high school. I wanted to read, but they wanted me to sit at a desk and talk about ‘side, angle, side.’ I found Joan Didion’s novel electric, bleak, and ravishing. More than that: essential.”

That’s an experience many of us can relate to: when you find a book that seems to be exactly for you, that gives you what your classes can’t, that turns your school library into the vital center of your world. For me and lots of men my age it was Kerouac. For Flanagan it was Didion.

Play it as it Lays is, as Flanagan says, a bleak novel. It tells the story of Maria Wyeth, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. Didion depicts 1960s LA as a world without a moral center, full of drugs and degrading sex — not to mention casual racism (“Tell that sp*c to turn the music down”) and homophobia (“She wondered without interest if Tommy Loew was a f*ggot”). Every husband is cheating on his wife, and every wife is cheating on her husband. No character behaves admirably; the only characters who evoke any sympathy at all (one wonders: why?) are Maria and BZ, a movie producer who steps out on his marriage of convenience to engage in sex with other men. The novel’s two most memorable scenes are an excruciating description of Maria’s back-alley abortion and the novel’s end, when Maria, in a druggy haze, watches as BZ intentionally overdoses on Seconal.

Didion, who died last month, was (like Flanagan) a precise, incisive writer. She was also white and straight, as is the fictional Maria Wyeth. If that hadn’t been the case, if Play it as it Lays had a queer or non-white protagonist — especially if it were published in the last five or ten years — it might have ended up on Texas Rep. Matt Krause’s 850-book blacklist, or this list, put out by activist group No Left Turn, of books to watch out for in your kids’ libraries. It’s easy to imagine a parent waving it around angrily at a school board meeting, pointing out every “fuck” and “cunt” and “cock” in the text.

That’s what has happened to Ashley Hope Pérez, author of the award-winning 2015 novel Out of Darkness. Pérez’s novel is a love story set in East Texas around the time of the 1937 New London school explosion. Its protagonist, an eighteen-year-old Mexican American high school senior named Naomi, is a survivor of sexual abuse and also faces discrimination in the town and in her all-white school. Her love interest is an African American boy her age, called Wash. While Out of Darkness is tragic, it presents the possibility of moral action in the decent, resilient characters Naomi and Wash. And it makes clear the villainy of Naomi’s abuse and the racism its characters face. As such, it isn’t bleak like Didion’s novel. In fact, it’s a much more moral work than Play it as it Lays.

Nonetheless, Out of Darkness has been called “pornography,” and politicians have implied they will prosecute teachers and librarians who make it available to students. Pérez has been called a “pedophile” and accused of “grooming young people” for sexual abuse. Two passages have drawn most of the activists’ ire. In one, Naomi faces her first day of class, and Pérez presents the sexualizing and dehumanizing thoughts some of the boys in her class. In the other, Pérez flashes back to the moment Naomi is sexually violated by her stepfather, through 11-year-old Naomi’s eyes. They’re rough scenes to read, but: that’s it. Maybe 250 words. In a carefully researched, 300-page book with a complicated plot, dense with characterization and historical detail, that’s it.

Someone asked Pérez on Twitter: “Why do you write sexually explict books for minor children?”

Obviously the question was framed in the most inflammatory way possible, the type of question meant to go viral no matter what the response. When did you stop beating your wife?

But maybe it’s worth spending a minute answering it (or something like it) anyway. So: Why should high school students read books with mature themes and scenes? What good can come of it?

One obvious answer is that young people don’t become real readers unless they believe literature will talk to them about what is true. Sex is a part of life, and if literature is going to take on the whole of human experience, it will necessarily have to touch on sex.

But maybe a better answer is Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic essay, the whole of which hums with Didion’s influence. It’s in the piece’s careful blend of self-revelation and self-awareness. In its honesty. In its irreverence. Peeking through Flanagan’s sometimes un-Didion-like humor, showing up in sentences like: “No one can tell you why you got cancer or why your teeth fell out or why the eagle-eyed parking patrol of UCLA didn’t notice that you’d parked in the most conspicuously forbidden spot on campus.”

My favorite Joan Didion paragraph comes at the end of her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe, in which Didion considers the time the artist spent in Texas with her sister:

“In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.”

I think it’s fair to say that Joan Didion has been an evening star for Caitlin Flanagan, and that high school library was her Texas prairie. How many essays were made from that star?



Franklin Strong

PhD in Comparative Literature. Latin American lit, African American lit, religion, politics, feminism, teaching, Cuba, Spain, Texas.