Feature-Length Books: Ariel Levy and Joan Didion

Without being about writing, two books out this spring from Random House, Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply and Joan Didion’s South and West, put its processes on display. Each chases a feature-length magazine article that feels somewhat missing-in-action in the prose: Levy’s expands a perfect essay, Didion’s, a publication of notes, imagines an essay that might have been.

The viral popularity of Ariel Levy’s 2013 New Yorker essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” added it to a growing twenty-first century canon of magazine articles that open new vantages on the romantic and reproductive lives of Gen X women by questioning how the lessons of seventies feminists are playing out in their daughters’ lives. Others on the list might include Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!,” from 2008, and Kate Bolick’s retort, “All the Single Ladies,” from 2011, both published first in The Atlantic and then expanded into books.

Levy’s essay narrates her devastation at losing her first baby after five months of pregnancy while alone on assignment in Mongolia. In her sorrow she wonders whether, by putting adventure before motherhood at 38, she missed out on what seemed at last, during the few moments she held her son, the greatest adventure of life.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a book-length expansion of her piece that explains in more depth how this disaster came about. Those who, like me, have read and re-read her original essay may find the echoes of its lyricism occasionally clunky. In general, though, the book builds on the essay by telling a more detailed and at times humorous story, bringing a measure of air into its mysterious and grieving original.

Didion’s South and West is a notebook of writing about the American South and California that she intended to turn into essays in the seventies, but didn’t. The result stands as an atmospheric colour piece on a long-gone place and time, as though the ghost of Didion-past hovered over these historical scenes, and took nearly fifty years to float her way back to tell the tale. The book is very brief—and, without an integrated argument, it feels brief, like a publisher’s chance to sell a bit of Didion for the coffee table, rather than a literary occasion. Still, she is always a pleasure to read and follow as she trains her eye on the casual disasters that no one else tells quite so well or in such harrowingly spare detail.

The shape of the book may be tricky for narrative nonfiction, which, thanks in no small part to Didion’s writing, has grown up and achieved its current popularity between the covers of magazines. Essay-length arguments sometimes stretch thin in books, but books remain marketable—and there is nothing like a hit magazine article to spur publishers on to book deals.

In watching articles expand into hardcover books—other new works in the category include books by Cat Marnell and Scaachi Koul—it often seems as though this genre of self-disclosure is being given over to women. Sometimes I wonder whether these hard covers aren’t another form of containment, a way to put women’s true stories on shelves, where they will be easy to sell, and, if not, easy to ignore.