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Image of Deerfield Public Library Podcast Logo and the book cover of Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson (2017)

Podcast: Deborah Nelson on Joan Didion and “Tough Enough”

This month on the Deerfield Public Library Podcast, we are honored to share a conversation with Deborah Nelson, author of Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Deborah Nelson is the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of English and chair of the Department of English at the University of Chicago.

Deborah Nelson’s fascinating book
Tough Enough identifies an affinity in a group of challenging 20th century writers (and a photographer)—Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion—who were all committed in various ways to moral and aesthetic “toughness.”

Our podcast conversation was occasioned by the death of Joan Didion in December 2021. Her passing also prompted the Classic Book Discussion at the Library to take on a recent three part career-retrospective series on Didion, from the early essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, to the political reporting and novels of her middle period, through to the bestselling memoirs of grief The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights

Deborah Nelson and Tough Enough help us put Didion in context. These women, Nelson writes, were self-consciously “unsentimental” in their approach to addressing the suffering and horrors of the 20th century and critics were often scandalized by the extremity of their tone or positions, often because they were women. As Nelson writes in her introduction:

When unsentimentality succeeds, its descriptors are “lucid,” “clear-eyed,” “precise,” “restrained,” and “penetrating,” to name a few. When it fails, unsentimentality veers into coldness, tactlessness, aggression, and even cruelty. Painful reality, it seems, must not be treated too directly, concretely, and realistically without conveying some of the writer’s relationship to the suffering or she—and it is always she—is perceived as cold, tactless, or heartless.

Our conversation uses the thinking of these writers (and the example of Joan Didion in particular) to examine these intentionally unsentimental sensibilities and the “costs and benefits of these alternatives” to common ideas about literature, art, empathy, feeling, and suffering. Whether you are a fan of Joan Didion, a member of our book discussion, or one of our many listeners near or far, this conversation is a fascinating resource for thinking anew. 

You can check out Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil here at the Library, or find many other books by and about these writers. The book is also available through The University of Chicago Press. Tough Enough won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for Best Book of 2017 and the Gordan Laing Prize in 2019 for the most distinguished contribution to the University of Chicago Press by a faculty member.

We hope you enjoy our 56th interview episode! Each month (or so) we release an episode featuring a conversation with an author, artist, or other notable guests from Chicagoland or around the world. If you liked this episode, you may enjoy our 2019 conversation with cartoonist Ken Krimstein on his book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt. Learn more about the podcast on our podcast page. You can listen to all of our episodes in the player below or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. We welcome your comments and feedback—please send to podcast@deerfieldlibrary.org.

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