‘The mediocrity of fiction is really to do with feeling cosy’
Photograph by Garry Knight
From The Guardian:
‘People write to me sometimes, and they say that they know me. And of course I know they don’t know me … There is a need for readers to have a sort of personal relationship with writers, which is why you get so much shit” – she spits the word out – “about whether a book is good. Are the characters believable? Or is the plot good? The mediocrity of fiction is really to do with feeling cosy, and that you’ve got a nice friend sitting in your lap telling you a nice story. I’ve never been a nice friend sitting in anyone’s lap. I just wanted to write stuff down in shapes, really.”
After Nothing Natural the novels came fast, and stranger. When Lessing came to the UK from Africa she told an interviewer that the British novel was “small, well shaped and with too much left out”. Diski’s writing has never left much out, and is rarely small. Nony, who narrates Like Mother (1989), is an anencephalous baby, born without a brain, who tells her mother’s story in conversation with an interlocutor who is explicitly non-existent (when I asked Jenny what novel of hers I should start with, she said she thought Like Mother “works”). In Happily Ever After (1991), 68-year-old Daphne drugs the much younger Liam and straps him to a bed so that she can seduce or rape him, with the result that, just as she had expected, he falls deeply in love with her. Much of Monkey’s Uncle (1994) takes place in an imaginary landscape where Charlotte, middle-aged and mad, converses with Freud, Marx, Darwin and a talking orang-utan. It is hard to pin down precisely what happens inThe Dream Mistress (1996), even how many protagonists there are; Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times called it “disturbingly erotic”, though an inference from Jenny’s fiction is that this is a tautology: if it isn’t disturbing, it isn’t erotic). In Only Human (2000), God gets involved in a love triangle with Abraham and Sarah – Jenny seems ambivalent about how much her Jewishness matters, and doesn’t believe in God, but the God she’s not believing in is always Old Testament: even in fiction, she doesn’t go along with the idea that He is love.
Meanwhile, she started writing for the London Review of Books (only because the then-editor, Karl Miller, was flirting with her publisher at a party, she says), and became one of its stars. Those weeks when the paper felt oppressively dry or cliquish, you would turn with relief to Diski, knowing you would get wit and scepticism couched in lucid, frank prose: an assault on the risible, nannying eroticism of Madonna’s would-be porn bookSex, a dazzling argument about the genius and narrowness of Dennis Potter, or a skewering of Anaïs Nin. She became a totem, what EB White was to the New Yorker or Auberon Waugh to Private Eye. (The first few years of her writing for the LRB are collected in Don’t, 1998.)
Although she doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of writing, the turn to non-fiction with Skating to Antarctica (1997) marked a change, if only because it was possible to see how much truth lay behind what had been presented as fiction. More than once in memoirs she’s recalled the day bailiffs came to the flat she lived in off Tottenham Court Road, after her father had left and the money was gone: though they weren’t evicted, her mother took her by the hand and dragged her through the streets, shouting that they were destitute and would have to live under the arches at Charing Cross.