Pin It
Screenshot 2022-02-09 at 12.08.51
Photography Julian Wasser, courtesy of Netflix

The death of the ‘chic’ writer

Will we ever see the likes of Babitz and Didion again, or will we be stuck with the sad literary girl forever?

It seemed so abominably cruel yet so morbidly logical that we lost Eve Babitz and Joan Didion within the same week. Babitz and Didion were two writers who, despite covering quite different topics and having quite distinct styles, were always inextricably linked by the fact they breathed and bathed in that same sunny Los Angeles air. When the tributes came pouring in, there was an emphasis placed on both writers as personalities, as stylish and beautiful women, that is rarely seen applied to writers. Often when a major writer passes we focus on their work, their grand oeuvres, and while this was true for Babitz and Didion, there was also great tributes made to them for being just so unrepentantly chic.

Chicness is a concept that has had quite a makeover recently. What once described the mere aesthetic of being sartorially sleek and stylish, it can now be effectively applied to the aura of a person, object, or action. It is nebulous, intangible, impossible to define. The way Didion held her cigarette? Chic. Babitz’s laundry list of famous hook-ups? Chic. Other things that exude chicness: Fitzcarraldo Editions, French, using the term ‘gauche’, My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, and small plates.

Mix all of this with an invite to every party and an eye that can capture the scene, whether from centrestage (Babitz) or cooly gazing from the sidelines (Didion), the result is a chic writer. Many writers once donned this specific cloak of chicness: James Baldwin, Tama Janowitz, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde. In my effort to find any author even resembling this template today, I could think of only one: Zadie Smith. And I’m sure she’s sick of having to carry on this mantle like a soigné Sisyphus.

I’ve often found that the default persona for many contemporary writers is the literary dormouse: those who rattan themselves in fleeces and wools, shy away from public events and hold-close the concepts of privacy and ‘the work speaking for itself’. The author as a sad, literary girl. This person simply is not chic, but they are as rampant as a virus among the contemporary writing scene. Why do we seem to be unable to produce chic writers? Where are the partygirls and the waifs? Will we ever see the likes of Babitz and Didion ever again, or must we live with the tyranny of the sad, literary girl forever?

“We have to point out the fact that some of it is about worsening industry conditions for young writers,” author Shon Faye tells me, “less social mobility, higher cost of living, less secure and liveable incomes while writing and so less time and opportunity to lead an abundant life while also writing books. Even if you are getting published chances are you’re still probably struggling to make ends meet doing commercial copywriting or a day job and, at best, having a few spare quid to get on it twice a month at someone’s kitchen table.” 

It’s true, the sheer cost of the “chic” life is something that most writers would struggle with now. The cost of living is reaching dizzying new heights: I can personally vouch for this after being charged £27 for two double vodka cokes in a central London bar only a couple of months ago (I still take it as a personal affront). Many writers, particularly novelists, could only dream of Babitz’s social life or Didion’s wardrobe. But sheer economy cannot be the only factor. It is possible to struggle and still be chic. In fact, being chic while struggling is the chicest thing of all.

“I’m always wary of romanticising the past,” writer Holly Connolly states, “but it does feel like writing, and by extension writers, used to exist more in tandem with other fields, like art and film. That feels like it’s a lot less of a thing now. The scenes that I do think are still at least somewhat cool in terms of writers, thinking of New York specifically, have that kind of cross-pollination; you know artists, actors, writers, food people even, all in a social scene together. I do think that’s genuinely important! I think writers should be really wary of speaking only to other writers, and I think it’s when that starts to happen that you get these very introverted, almost recluse figures.”

This used to be the way that cultural circles once worked: think of the salon culture harboured by Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s, or the whole colonies of artists, writers and musicians who co-existed in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s. There was an interplay and melding of worlds that does seem to be lost in contemporary culture. Writers now just argue with other writers on Twitter, it’s so tremendously unchic.

The New York scene seems to be the only one genuinely capable of producing chic writers. Take for example Marlowe Granados, author of the champagne-soaked Happy Hour, or Kaitlin Phillips, a verified partygirl and someone who very closely follows in the footsteps of Babitz and Didion. Her parties are literally covered in The Cut. I reached out to Phillips to see if she had any thoughts on the death of the chic writer.

“The puritanical strain in millennial culture – particularly online in the writing community – killed the ‘chic author’ for our generation,” she tells me. “I remember being a part of literary Brooklyn, n+1 culture, and feeling as if I fell down drunk at a party it would be the end of the world – that’s how you know you’re at a bad party in a bad scene.”

It seems poetically apt that the rise in social media would lead to the end of the social writer. Probably, if someone were following Babitz and Didion around every party, tweeting their every social faux-pas, they wouldn’t have been able to keep up that shroud of mystery that is so crucial to chicness. 

With all of this at play, it begs the question: will any of us ever be chic again? I don’t know about you, but is not the all-seeing eye of social media, the relentless struggle of rent and the general acceptance of introversion as a legitimate personality trait not enough to throw off your weighted blanket, down a glass of the cheapest Sauvignon Blanc available, and glide about an audience of your friends, acquaintances, and lovers? Sometimes, you’ve simply got to be the change you want to see in the world.