The Work is a Means to an End

Jenny Diski, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?

Bloomsbury, 448pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781526621900

reviewed by Andrew Key

I miss Jenny Diski. I started reading the London Review of Books in earnest when she started publishing her cancer diary there, from September 2014 onwards. At that time I was living on the West Coast of the US, somewhere far enough away that the LRB only arrived (and was placed in the reading room of the library of the university I was attending) two weeks or so after it had been published in the UK. I would use the arrival of each edition to avoid my responsibilities, often skipping class, getting through as much as possible of each issue in a single sitting, a habit which mostly seems to have been a technique for assuaging homesickness. Diski’s writing about her illness, which she combined with her memoir about living with Doris Lessing as a teenager (since collected and republished as In Gratitude) were real highlights, the only pieces I actually read with consistent and fixed attention, rather than the cultivated boredom with which I would approach the rest of the LRB. Diski’s pieces were vicious, sharp, morose, complaining, arch and profoundly moving. They gave me greater pleasure than almost anything else I was reading at the time. I read a few of her other books — a novel or two, some of her memoirs — but it was the essays in the LRB which really turned me into an admirer of her writing, of her style, which could be caustic and bone-dry, sometimes piercing, sometimes brittle, sometimes gentle and deeply pained.

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? is a collection of her writings for the LRB, from the start until nearly the end, containing more or less one essay per year between 1992 to 2014, selected and introduced by Mary-Kay Wilmers, with an afterword by her daughter, Chloe Diski. As you would expect from the place of their original publication, the pieces here are mostly book reviews, but the books which Diski reviewed are not necessarily typical LRB fare. There are a handful of reviews of works of cultural history — typically about Jewishness, sometimes about psychology (with Diski’s skepticism about Freudian models and techniques a regular theme in the collection) — but the bulk of these pieces are reviews of biographies. There are literary wives and sisters (Sonia Orwell, Véra Nabokov, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche); politicians’ husbands (Dennis Thatcher), but the best pieces come in the form of a rogue’s gallery of some of the more asinine celebrities of the long 1990s (Richard Branson, Piers Morgan, Princess Diana).

Diski claimed — a little too neatly, a little archly, perhaps — that she really only knew how to write about herself (‘I start with me, and often enough end with me’), and this is precisely why she is such an excellent reviewer of biography: the lives of famous (or infamous) and successful (or unsuccessful) people are held up for comparison with her own behaviour and habits and attitudes, and they are usually found lacking. No, she usually decides by the end of the review, she wouldn’t have liked that life for herself; despite her own complaints, anxieties, unhappy childhood, regular and frequent depressive episodes, there is something in Diski’s writing which suggests that she has found a way to carve out a meaningful and gratifying life for herself. The thing that enables this turns out to be the work, a fact which seems to come as a surprise to Diski, who is at pains to remind us that she’s actually quite lazy (despite her prolific output). It is writing, whether that means book reviews, a column about supermarkets, memoir or novels, that makes her life satisfying despite the rest of it. The work is a means to an end, and the end is life; Diski wrote so that she could live.

Some of the pieces in Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? were already familiar to me: her bravura hatchet job on the awful personality and overrated adult fiction of Roald Dahl (‘Stinker’, from 1994), for example. One of them I had encountered before, in a different form, and it was — I’m afraid — the only point in the volume which made me feel a pang of disappointment. A few years ago I read Skating to Antarctica, Diski’s book-length memoir about her mother and father, her obsession with the colour white, her desire for a completely blank and empty space in which she might be left alone. Towards the end of her book, Diski arrives at Antarctica after a lengthy voyage by sea, only to decide that she doesn’t know if she can in fact be bothered to get off the boat and set foot on the continent. ‘Did I or didn’t I get to Antarctica? . . . It didn’t matter whether I actually did or I didn’t. The quality of my life wouldn’t alter one bit, and either way, only I, and handful of fellow travellers, would know, and none of us would care. The decision had become entirely academic.’ (If there is one thing that Diski abhorred, it seems to have been any decision or distinction that became academic.) She realises that if anyone asked about it when she gets back to London, she could just lie, or be mysteriously evasive. I loved this ending, and I would always find an excuse to bring it up whenever possible. A masterstroke of the refusenik mentality which I adore and envy in Diski’s attitude to the world. Unfortunately, this admirable irresolution has been spoiled me by reading the original piece, republished in this collection under the title ‘A Feeling for Ice’, where we learn that Diski did indeed set foot on Antarctica, and found a rock on which to sit, a rock perhaps on which no person had ever sat before, and she looked at some penguins who ignored her, and there was the sea, and the snow and the ice, and she had quite a nice time.

A moment of profound disenchantment with the possibilities for refusal in this world descended upon me as I read this. But this change — the introduction of uncertainty in the longer work, the shift to refusing us a clear answer — also reveals something about Diski’s style, which is so closely intertwined with—which grows out of—her own personal attitudes. It is somehow disappointing to learn that Diski might actually have had a quite pleasant and slightly mundane experience on a rock on Antarctica because it ultimately feels more appropriately Diskian for her to not tell us about it — for her to realise a few months later, in the process of revision and expansion, that it doesn’t matter whether she did set foot on the continent or not. This is not a roundabout way of saying it’s the journey, rather than the destination, that matters. Diski resists cliché, while being aware that sometimes they are unavoidable. Her style reads easily, but it contains moments of lyrical flight that are clearly the result of hard work and polish. If you pretend that you only write about yourself, perhaps you can sometimes pretend that there’s a certain kind of straightforwardness or modesty to that: I write about myself because I don't know about anything else. There’s a sprezzatura in Diski’s prose which only becomes apparent at the moments when, perhaps accidentally, you can see the work happening. There can be an austere and icy clarity to her prose, but this is only achieved by long, slow, careful attention and effort.

In some ways this collection of her essays feels like a document of a world which has now disappeared. Diski died a few months before the Brexit referendum in 2016; the last piece included here, ‘A Diagnosis’, is from 10 September 2014. The bulk of Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? comes from the long years of New Labour (1997 – 2010), with a few pieces from the years either side. Diski doesn’t write too much about current affairs — though they often provide a backdrop — but there is something of the age reflected or refracted through her work. She doesn’t share its optimism, or its complacency; she recognises the hollowness and cruelty and betrayal behind the Blairite sheen. But reading this collection, it is almost possible to feel a pang of nostalgia for those years: the years before the global resurgence of rightwing populism, before climate change was an unavoidable immediacy, before a pandemic rendered most of us housebound. It is tempting to imagine what Diski would have made of the contemporary world, how she would have responded to Trump’s election, for example, or to the global pandemic, or to lockdown, to staying at home (an activity which she writes about with relish in other circumstances). We can guess, perhaps. But Diski is also capable of surprising us and herself: her attitude to the world doesn’t harden into a parody of itself, it isn’t a defensive stance, or a set of easy and familiar reactions. It comes, hard-won, from a careful examination of what exactly it means to be a person trying to live in a world which constantly imposes itself upon you, against your will and despite your best efforts.

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? is a significant book, not just in its bulk, but in its deft capture and combination of Diski's personality and her individual feelings, as well as the mood of a recently expired time. Diski’s writing can teach us many things: how to be wilfully sullen and miserable, how to see through and puncture superficial gloss and pretence. It can teach us how to decide what it is that you need for yourself, and then how to go about getting it. But most importantly perhaps, it can teach us that it is possible to live a life full of meaning and attention and deep concern for the world, without pretending that you’re enjoying yourself while you’re doing it, without any false consolation and without the need for a cheerful disposition. It demonstrates with a skill that often approaches mastery the art and joys of being bad tempered.
Andrew Key lives in Sheffield. His writing has also appeared in The Manchester Review, Splice, New Socialist, 3:AM Magazine, amongst other publications. He writes the Roland Barfs Film Diary ( and is on Twitter (@rolandbarfs).