Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski: 2021 Criticism Finalist

By Carlin Romano

Cover of Why Didn't You Just Do What You Were Told; an orange-toned photo of a woman in sunglasses

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury)

Critics who wrote about the prolific English novelist and essayist Jenny Diski (1947-2016) during her lifetime often treated her Jewishness as tangential. Maybe because Diski opined about an astounding array of topics in her more than 200 London Review of Books pieces, and spanned an equally daunting spectrum in her 11 novels and 8 nonfiction works, the voice crackling through all of them lost, for some readers, its identity. 

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, a posthumous collection of her best LRB essays, shatters that blinkered view. Diski’s Jewishness matters from front to back, from first line to last—her voice proves both utterly sui generis and yet unmistakably of the tribe. 

Secular version, that is. Ironic, sarcastic, unsentimental, argumentative, solipsistic, ingenious, fearless and narcissistic. Irreverent toward Jewish theology, yet respectful of Jewish suffering– when engaged with the latter, Diski can turn benevolent, kindly, imaginative and appropriately somber. 

Diski’s LRB assignments purported to be book reviews. The author would return  inimitable, coruscating essays, with the book reviews tucked somewhere inside. They soar on many unexpected topics: Howard Hughes, Sonia Orwell, spiders, Nietzsche and his sister. Why does Diski’s criticism dazzle? The title, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? explains it. Because she sized up everything for herself, wrote what she deduced in phrases no one had tried before, and didn’t care what anyone else thought. 

Diski’s final idiosyncratic turn, her death-march in print after a diagnosis of lung cancer, came in a series of LRB essays about her decline. The essays became her last book, In Gratitude, published a week before her death. Its Janus-faced title proved one more instance of Diski’s astringent wit.

In that book, her sardonic tone, the blunt voice of the Jewish non-believer, held fast even as she grappled with her own death. Her chief initial grievance centered on being forced into caving to her greatest enemy: cliché. She’d have to write “Another fucking cancer diary” even though she could think of “no novel responses.” That response itself meant she’d “committed [her] first platitude.” Diski also forbade herself any deathbed leap of faith. She took comfort from Nabokov’s notion that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Added Diski, “When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced.”

Examples in this new collection that betoken her impudent attitude toward Judaism  include “The Girl in the Attic.” Diski scrutinizes the multiple versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, offering an author tougher, flintier, more acerbic than the sanctified image—a writer somewhat like Diski herself. A core problem for Anne, she suggests, is the aloofness of the Jewish God, “who is notorious for evading questions directed at him.” Her surmise for why He hasn’t responded to a direct question since Job? “Too busy with the overall scheme of things, perhaps.”

In “Did Jesus Walk on Water Because He Couldn’t Swim?”, a playful Diski picks apart the logic of Genesis. She notes a famous midrashic question: Did fish survive the Flood? Midrashic answer? God made the waters boiling hot, so the fish perished too. In “The Khugistic Sandal,” Diski reviews a volume of cultural-studies articles titled Jews and Shoes that’s “entirely devoid of jokes.” Diski compensates by lacing  her piece with the humor the contributors missed. She also gets in her steely view of Israeli politics, complaining that those “Biblical sandals” of the 1930s are “never described as being symbolically on the necks of the Canaanites or the Palestinians.”

In a feisty Daily Telegraph interview, Diski clarified her perspective on Jewish tradition—call it secular midrash with a vengeance: “If it’s all right for the rabbis to do it, it’s all right for me.” She once told the Guardian, “I can’t even get close to what they call faith.”

Diski nonetheless managed, over many years, to keep narrating an essentially Jewish story. She remained master of a key element of her secular tradition—keeping eyes wide open for danger coming down the pike. “One thing about being Jewish,” she noted in an essay for the Guardian, “is we never forget there’s a downside.”

Carlin Romano, NBCC VP for Grants, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Buy this book at Bookshop.