Books & Culture

Jenny Diski: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told and Criticism Today

In contemporary criticism, there is little appetite for digression. Social media gives us enough digression anyway. We want our critics to get right to the point. Online short-form venues have no appetite for the strange detour or rambling mind. We are so busy watching our own minds think on TikTok and Twitter, we have no time to watch others do the same, or perhaps we are so accustomed to the ramble that we have no patience for the formalized one. And that’s perhaps why Jenny Diski is so remarkable in her posthumous collection of essay and criticism: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told. Diski’s discourse is discursive. Its substance is digression. As Johanna Fateman noted in Bookforum, “If you’re accustomed to handing in reviews at about one-third (or at less than one-tenth) the length, you’ll find plenty to slash—whole swaths in a single stroke—plus sentences and clauses to trim, easily shrinking her paragraphs down to a reasonable size.”

I have the uncomfortable freedom of not having an editor. I say uncomfortable because my errors and failures are entirely mine and I don’t have the luxury of someone smarter than me to help me refine or expand my pieces. I do trust myself, for what that’s worth. When a writer finds a good editor, it’s a miraculous event, and I’ve known of writers who will not take raises at other magazines or publishers just to be able to maintain a relationship with a given editor.

It is a luxury to write with the freedom I have, to expand and contract into whatever form a given piece deems appropriate, winding the cocoon as expansively or as tightly as I please. Criticism and essay is a space where there is room for forgiveness for bias. Even The New York Times makes mistakes, but in critique there’s space to breathe in the messiness of first-assessments, and room to embrace the narrow room of the first-person. I can write so expansively because I give myself permission to do so. But, isn’t this the genesis of all art?

All this brings me to the question of whether Jenny Diski could be a successful critic were she young today. First of all, there are under 100 paid full-time critics writing for publications in America (according to Jerry Saltz, and I believe him). Read any local paper and chances are the reviews are syndicated from the New York Times (budgets are tight, I get it). And the few critics who have jobs, have very limited space and words in which to make their points.

Thanks to the internet, social media, and YouTube, everyone can be an critic. The wide success of Yelp is only one example. We only have only so much patience for the grotesquerie of a professionally paid critic. And so I wonder whether a writer like Jenny Diski would have ever found a regular space in any reputable magazine in the America or London of today (and by regular space I mean full-time job), as much as she has been respected and honored in those same magazines recently. Her collection of critical essays was received well by many reputable critical sources, including the New York Times.

Criticism has value to the culture in so far as it helps the culture assess what has value. A good critic can open us to new creative possibilities, and offer us a buffet of creative experiences we otherwise would have never encountered. Critics deserve work. Each major city needs its small cohort of good critics.

The Glory That Shines More in One Place and Less Elsewhere. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
The Glory That Shines More in One Place and Less Elsewhere. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

And here I must make a digression of my own, to a recent post made by Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer-prize winning art critic. Saltz recently posted on Instagram about being offered $250,000 to write for Substack, another platform where writers can make money from subscriptions to their newsletters.

Saltz refused the offer, saying he’d prefer to write for his current publication rather than engage in the “fishy” practice of trying to get readers to subscribe. I take this to mean that Saltz would prefer to outsource that job to his magazine’s marketing department, and that’s fair enough.

Saltz explained: “I think it is not my real work to write for the ‘subscribers.’” In broken prose, he added that he doesn’t want “a ore-screens [sic] paying audience who already reads it likes me. I want to reach strangers…I like being in my huge department store @Nymag.” Saltz post was heavily criticized by the social media mob, especially because he said he was “poor” despite making a six-figure salary at his magazine job. Saltz later apologized for the post, explaining that he understood that he was not poor. The post was an unfortunate mistake, but I think it’s important to look closely at Saltz’s post because of what it reveals about criticism today.

First, it is clear that Saltz reaps the benefit of having a very good editor at New York Magazine. There is a clear distinction between the polished prose of his published pieces and the writing you find on his social media feeds, and I don’t think speed or the medium alone can account for it. Don’t get me wrong, Saltz is an excellent writer, an agile thinker, and a fabulous critic, but I believe he benefits immensely from editorial insight and oversight. Secondly, Saltz may love his department store at New York Magazine, but the internet is a city of department stores, small mom and pops, and lemonade stands. Sometimes it amazes me how little writers understand how the internet works.

I have my issues with Substack, but not because it connects established writers to subscribers, offering some of them a better revenue stream than many magazines can offer, but because it creates another ghetto where unestablished writers basically write for free to enrich another Silicon Valley startup with 20 employees. When we switch to platform services, we cut out the middlemen and women: with Uber it was taxi companies, with AirBnB it was the hotels, and with Substack it’s editors and magazines.

Just as the publishing industry is now dominated by blockbuster writers, so is Substack also dominated by a few show ponies. The Jerry Saltzs and Roxane Gays of the world can probably get better salaries through Substack than they could at a traditional magazine. But for good writers with smaller audiences whose audience is in the few thousands (like mine, at present), not millions, Substack cannot offer anything more than the promise of another platform into which to pour your free content and labor with no promise of compensation. It’s basically an unpaid Medium, except when a writer gets paid subscribers, the platform benefits financially, too.

The lure of the quarter million paycheck will keep many would-be writers working for nothing. This is not to say that I’ll never join Substack. When I have a strong enough audience willing to pay for my gated content, I’d be more than happy to join such a platform. Nor is this to say that Substack is a bad idea if a writer is truly trying to grow an email list and newsletter, and is willing to start with a free model if her audience is small. I would never expect to get a Jerry Saltz kind of salary through Substack. The vast majority of young writers who imagine they’ll pay the bills through Substack alone will find themselves frustrated, and possibly give up before they’ve even given themselves a fair chance to grow into the kind of writer who could benefit from Substack at some point.

All this is to say, we should all be supporting critics, and writers, and artists, especially ones we enjoy or benefit from. So hey, if you like what you’re reading, consider ordering my book (or buy one for a friend), or order a book I’ve reviewed by clicking on a book link in this blog, or follow me on Instagram @janicegreenwoodwriter, and support my projects. All of these things support this website, a labor of love.

Jenny Diski was free to write about everything from Anne Frank to Antarctica to Jeffrey Dahmer. She wrote about these subjects on her own terms. I sometimes wonder what the world would look like if we paid more critics a living wage, if more writers could make a living wage from writing, and if more artists could make a living wage from their art.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.