Monday, November 07, 2011


Jacob Levy points me to a gold mine of YPISdom - YPIS being the acronym I use for "your privilege is showing," the preferred insult of a certain sort of (typically plenty privileged) person. (Banal example: you can tell someone who finds it sad that some must buy their pink polos at Banana Republic and not Lacoste that his privilege is showing.) Writer Joan Didion's privilege is, evidently, on show, and everyone - a Slate writer (David Haglund), Slate commenters, the pieces Haglund links to - is enjoying a good hurling-of-YPIS at the evidently oh-so-aloof author, who evidently responded, in her latest book, to those who've criticized her as being unaware of her privilege.

If I was reluctant to post about this at first, it's because of those "evidentlies." I have never read anything by Didion, and thus have no thoughts on whether or not she comes across as defensive about her privilege. (Didion is not among the authors on my pile of books about the history of the Jewish family I need to read for Chapter One. Sorry.) I had to Google her to see what the privilege in question was referring to, beyond that she's a writer with name-recognition.

But there is a whopping YPIS angle here, and one that has approximately zilch to do with Didion's writing.* What we can glean without knowing how much brilliant and/or snooty the relevant original texts convey:

1) Privilege-showing is now ranked among the offenses a writer may have committed such that you have to ask those difficult 'but does the Great Art mean we can still appreciate this evil person's writing?' questions, like you would of a Céline. As in, insufficiently-apologized-for socioeconomic privilege is now akin to having been a Nazi sympathizer. This is not entirely new - remember the stuff about "dead white males"? But what's at stake now isn't Didion's identity - rich, well-connected, white, and what the Daily Mail would enviously call "worryingly thin" - but rather her apparently failure, by the standards of some, to apologize for, at least, the wealth. An accusation she made the grave mistake of addressing. Why a mistake? Because it's no fun to hurl a YPIS unless it's going to sting, and evidently sting it did.

The problem here is that what's under attack isn't the unfairness inherent in privilege, but rather aloofness, as though aloofness itself should be our main concern. The alternative is rarely presented as, let's open up the field to writers of a more diverse set of backgrounds. Well, lip service is paid to that possibility, but instead, we get privileged sorts writing from a place of sensitivity. Privilege going acknowledged, accusations of aloofness preempted. As if it's fine to have writing be the wealthy taking on the wealthy, as long as privilege has been acknowledged. As if it's indeed more progressive to hear the privileged yammering on about their privilege than to not hear so much from them, period. (See, for example, this piece, linked from the Slate one.)

2) It makes sense, on a population level, to speak of certain categories of privilege and lack thereof. Not necessarily when it comes to individual cases. Some individual rich white men really do have worse than the average working-class Latina, even if these men would be in a still-more-problematic boat (yacht?) if they did not have the various privileges in their favor. In Didion's case, YPIS is being hurled at someone writing about her daughter getting sick and dying in her 30s, because (from the perspective of the hurlers) call the waahmbulance, break out the tiny violins, and remember how much worse it is to be young, ill and uninsured, and not the daughter of famous people. When it's like, fair enough, but think how much better it is for tragedy not to strike, and to live happily to 90 without ever experiencing Didion-level glamor or wealth. Think how much worse it would be to have whichever problems in the developing world. Think of this, think of that, or maybe just accept that what went on with Didion's daughter was indeed tragic, even if they could afford to pay their medical bills.

Basically, there are forms of Bad that are unequivocally worse than growing up without a lot of money (even if these forms, plus not having much money, are worse than these forms with). And these forms tend not to be obstacles as readily-acknowledged as socioeconomic status. While ideally, of course, no one would, some do feel shame at having grown up poor or working-class. But in a meritocracy, it can also be advantageous to remind others that your parents didn't go to college, that you've paid your own way since 15, that you didn't have everything handed to you, etc. Whereas non-socioeconomic forms of disadvantage - health, mental and physical; abuse; drug or severe emotional problems; that which is family-specific and unclassifiable; etc. - are less likely to be casually evoked. For this reason, I don't see the point in responding to tales of suffering not related to socioeconomic status with, 'ah, but think how much worse things are for those dealing with individual-case suffering and systematic suffering.' I think everyone gets that that's the case. But it doesn't follow that individual-case suffering in all cases is waambulence in comparison to a broader form of underprivilege. Or, phrased differently, sometimes "poor little rich girls" actually have it rough. Having gone to school for nine years with girls from families for the most part far wealthier than my own (solidly UMC) one, I'm going to have to say that some things some individual families went through would without a doubt qualify. Not rich-people-problems, just problems that being rich couldn't solve.

3) The Slate commenters coming to Didion's defense seem genuinely confused about YPIS, if they think claims that Didion is out-of-touch are coming from those jealous of Didion on account of being poorer/less famous than she is. It's not "class envy." It's coming from upper-middle-class sorts. It's always about sticking up for those who could, in theory, find such cluelessness offensive.

4) Anyone who's actually read anything by Didion, or anyone else for that matter, have any thoughts?

*There is no doubt, as Levy noted when passing this along, a writing-about-children angle here, Haglund alludes to at the end of his piece. But if the "child" in question was an adult and is, at the time of publication, deceased, I'm not sure the usual issues are at stake - and again, being as far from a Didion expert as I am, I have no idea whether Didion was ever writing about her daughter's SAT scores or first crushes or similar in real time. But for those focused on that sort of topic, this is probably of interest.


Miss Self-Important said...

I don't think I understand from the slate thing just what the problem here is. She wrote about her daughter dying and mentioned that she was given dresses, and people were upset by this b/c like it would be a better story if she died w/o dresses, or naked in a gutter? That would be, what, more representative of the 99 percent? I think the better acronym for this objection is STFU.

This should be the apotheosis of the ypis angle, but I doubt it will be. Of course didion's life sounds glamorous--she and her husband were hollywood screenwriters and she's reported on many famous and infamous people for the past 50 years. It IS glamorous. She's also an incredible writer, so she writes about her glamorous life and the glamorous people in it and their unglamorous problems w/ great insight. Are good writers only permitted to write poverty porn or not at all? Is it de facto offensive to read about the lives of the non-wretched? Also, haven't we already had this controversy over "realism" in literature a century ago w/ Dreiser?

I haven't read this book, but I've read a lot of her other writing, and her style is personal and self-absorbed in a way that works surprisingly well for setting moods in political essays-- I don't think didion wrote much about her daughter before she got sick (she's mentioned but not extensively analyzed), but she wrote a lot about her own migraines and tenuous sanity in the '60s, which apparently annoyed her critics.

If you want to read something quick and funny, search for her review of Manhattan in the NYRB archives. It offers an intelligent twist on "privilege" from the 1970s.

Phoebe said...


First off, thanks for the reading recommendation - articles about Woody Allen movies make for lovely study breaks. Whereas a book-length meditation on grief, maybe not.

YPIS and STFU are certainly not mutually exclusive, and yes, this instance is one where the two especially overlap. I don't know what about Didion's remark in this latest book set off the YPIS brigade, and to Haglund's credit, it seems he's also a bit mystified. My guess would be that her crime was mentioning that she'd been called "privileged" - the word perks up the ears of YPIS sorts, and of course they prefer to accuse those who've given some hint that they might get defensive.

Flavia said...

I'm generally with MSI on a) my confusion at the Slate article, and b) the gorgeousness of Didion's writing. In fact, I was just re-reading some essays from The White Album on Friday, after being struck down by an awful migraine, and was admiring her afresh.

And FWIW, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album are both great introductions to her work, and since they're both collections of essays, they make for fine study breaks.

Phoebe said...


You can read during a migraine? I'm impressed. And thanks for these additional recommendations.

My take on the Slate article was that it was basically a round-up of the reaction to Didion. The reaction itself seems bizarre, and I suppose does make me curious to read what's being reacted to, because there has to be some missing piece. Didion's supposed to be too snooty because she refers not to "a hospital" but the specific one in NY where the action takes place? Would it be OK to say which hospital of it were in Nebraska? And how can there be this great big rant about how Didion's too fancy-schmancy of a name-dropper, that culminates in the ranter telling us, "As it happens, I spent an afternoon with Didion back in 2003. We were being interviewed together for a magazine, after which we would pose for a photo that would accompany the interview."? How does that add up? Famous writers will always live more glamorous lives, unless we restrict ourselves to reading the only posthumously famous. It seems better to look into ways to open up the field, to let people who didn't grow up in splendor also get to that place, than to condemn those who, through their own writing and ambition, have reached that point.

Phoebe said...

OK, this is the comment from a Slate reader that really shocked me, but that seems to sum up much of the complaint:

"I think what Didion fails to recognize is that there are people who have the tremendous health problems and early death that her daughter did, but who don't have access to doctors, hospitals, or housekeepers. She's thinking of 'privilege' in terms of healthy versus ill; but the comparison is actually sick people in her position, with the access they have, versus similarly sick people with no insurance and struggling to pay their mortgage because of the medical bills. I can see, having lost a child, that it is hard for her to understand this."

How is the comparison "actually" to those with very ill and then dead offspring and less money, and not any number of other scenarios? As in, why not compare Didion's situation to that of someone working-class and non-glamorous but also without any great life tragedies to speak of? Why not compare her situation and that of a less wealthy American version thereof to that of someone in the developing world? It doesn't seem so wild to suggest that there are horrible things that money and glamor do not shield a person from. And having horrible medical problems and dying at 39 would seem to qualify - was Didion's daughter fancy and schmancy for not dying at 35 instead? It just seems so very, very off.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, I also saw that comment and thought we might now stop talking about privilege altogether b/c we've reached the absurd logical endpoint of the premise: if you're privileged and die, you're actually less dead than the un-privileged who also died.

Phoebe said...


Well of course the rich and dead are less dead. They're all at a great big cocktail party in the sky, where they're served local-sustainable caviar, and the cheeses that those lacking sufficient cultural capital do not recognize at grad student receptions.

But I don't think the fact that extremes have been reached means this genre or whatever we're calling it is on the wane. Everyone loves a first world problem. All the better, really, that as Gawker commenters point out, the author herself went to Princeton, and the "white person problem" in question was recently faced... by another person as well, who happens to be black.