[Galley Beggar Press; 2023]

Originally published in daily installments on substack, A Writer’s Diary was conceived to be read every day: “It’ll be just like you’re reading it over my shoulder—as I scribble it.”  It was going to be, according to Litt, “Not just any diary—an everything diary—a hyperdiary—my life in a year and a year in my life.” Now it appears in book form, no longer open for subscriptions or online comments; months can be read in an afternoon, and you could even skip to the end, should you choose. It’s hard to imagine how a project designed for a digital platform and subscriber audience might translate across 365 pages of text. But, of course, this is a writer’s diary. And Toby Litt is a great writer.

A leading member of the late 90s British hip-lit movement—a post- Amis, Barnes, and Rushdie gang of young writers resetting the power lines of British fiction—Litt began his career with subversive, cross-genre novels (including the brilliant deadkidsongs) that had reviewers salivating, calling him the most exciting new talent in British literature. Yet, while his strictly alphabetically titled novels have continued at an impressive rate (we’re currently up to Q), both the media clamor and large advances have dwindled. In A Writer’s Diary, we discover that Litt is living the quiet life, supporting himself with a part-time university teaching post and the rental income from a property bought during his heyday. Not all his books sell, and when they do, it’s to small, independent presses. But he sits at his desk each day, steadfastly committed to being a writer.

In the first few days of the year, Litt reveals that his mother has terminal cancer and his partner is newly pregnant: news he receives with caution, given what appears to be a long history of attempting to start a family. With the anticipation of birth and death, the emotional stakes for the reader are high, but rather than using these twin concerns to create tension and provide a continuing narrative, most of the first half of the year’s diary delivers personal news in cursory fashion, without fuss or reflection. Litt keeps his personal relationships at a distance while he focuses on what it is to be a writer.

Towards the end of February, Litt wonders if the diary idea was worth it. “Is it all waving, jumping around, me-me-meing?” The inevitable answer is yes, given that this is his diary, but Litt’s self reflection and internalized voice is one of the treats for readers. What he really wants to write is a blend of form, “equidistant from diary, poetry, memoir, short story, novel and notebook.” This “interform,” as Litt calls it, is the great strength of A Writer’s Diary; he follows his instincts, lending a ponderous playfulness to his prose. It feels as if Litt is holding onto Oscar Wilde’s aphorism dearly: “We should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

“What people really like in diaries,” Litt says, “aren’t generalisations about Art & Life. They like the bit about the pig escaping into the walled garden.” Thus the leaky bathrooms and spilled tea, cat excretions and broken pencil sharpeners that occupy his entries, alongside experiments in style: prose poetry and modernist streams of consciousness. Plus, more material writerly obsessions: notebooks, ink pens, handwriting, and desk paraphernalia. The expensive Blackwing pencil sharpener is a problem: “It’s not sharpening the wood as much as it used to.” The ordering of a new, identical model is discussed at length, along with regular updates on how long it is taking to arrive and the bad news that when it does, “it’s blue rather than black.” In June there is: “Disaster! The red bobble from the end of the clip on the black cap of the black retro pen is gone!” The sentence is a sort of tongue twister, and the absurdly inflated importance Litt gives to a pen lid is an entry point into the writer’s life, a life where triviality forms part of a mysterious world that must be reframed in words. 

With each passing month, the prospects of birth and death edge closer and closer. It starts to feel as if by writing his diary, Litt is avoiding, rather than exploring, the inevitable. Just when you think the abrupt, single line updates on his mother’s health or his partner’s pregnancy will transform and blossom into the subject of the diary, Litt instead poses questions such as, “Why have I always wondered if I could write a good verbal fugue?” or “How do bubbles form in a glass of water?” A writer can use a notebook to contemplate these kinds of questions; but life cannot be outrun, and his notebook can’t alter what is to come.

By winter, the writer recedes and the reader is rewarded with Litt himself: the person behind the writer, vividly describing his private world of joy and pain. Litt’s tone shifts from tedious to timorous as entries almost exclusively concern life events that can no longer be set aside. Kafka said, “In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations.” With these observations, Litt reveals himself to be more than just a writer, just as his diary is more than just a diary. In the end, we get everything, as promised: a life in a year and a year in a life—an everything diary. Toby Litt may not be as hip as he used to be, but this wise old owl continues to dazzle and confound in new ways. Fans of Litt’s anarchic style in Adventures in Capitalism or the biting parody of Finding Myself may be surprised by the serious tone of A Writer’s Diary, but no two Toby Litt are ever the same.

A Writer’s Diary does not align itself with the popular autofiction of writers such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, or the inventively memoiristic books of Olivia Laing. A Writer’s Diary feels much closer to something by members of the Oulipo, like Raymond Queneau or Harry Matthews. It’s a constrained piece of writing, a literary experiment, in which a new thought is written each day without planning or forethought but intended for immediate publication. The result is a plethora of styles and concerns stretching from the most serious to the most mundane, contained within a book that is pleasingly self-conscious about its self-consciousness. “But I do make something,” he says, “even if it’s to my own distaste—I try to make a new thing every day.” A Writer’s Diary is a record of 365 new things, each one a treat.

Simon Lowe is a British writer. His stories have appeared in EX/Post, Breakwater Review, AMP, Akashic Books online, Ponder Review, and elsewhere. His novel, The World is at War, Again, was published June 2021 (Elsewhen Press).

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