Michèle Roberts: Negative Capability

It’s a brave, bold move to write a diary about being rejected as a writer and learning to live with it, especially when it is not a rediscovered manuscript from a hundred years ago but refers to the present day, and is not a one-off article in a newspaper. How can you write about your disappointments and discomfort when you have published in the past, known some success and critical acclaim, have a second home in France and friends who invite you on holidays abroad?

I am sure that some descriptions of Michèle Roberts’ life over the course of a year (a day for each month of the year) will jar with many readers. And perhaps it was too soon to publish this – this is the kind of diary that might be published posthumously – but I for one found her candour and zest for life refreshing. She copes with the double disappointment of a relationship breaking down and being rejected by a publisher and fearing that she will never be able to write again in the only way she knows how: by keeping a diary, trying to come to terms with failure but also describing the good things going on in her life.

‘Negative capability’ is a phrase that has often been mentioned before (it is also the title of a Marianne Faithfull album). It comes from Keats, who sees it as an ideal state for a poet (or human being in general): ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. A sort of Zen state. You might be quibble that it is doubtful that Roberts achieves this in the twelve months, there is certainly quite a lot of anger especially towards the beginning of the book, but she certainly tries.

Having attended a workshop run by the author, I did squirm a little at the description of one of the courses she runs in Dublin and there certainly is the literary author’s disdain towards genre literature in this paragraph:

Most of the students equated writing novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent-identified, agent-approved agendas… These students obviously had a template for the perfect commercial genre novel in their heads. Product! They spoke authortiatvely about rules and techniques, about backstory and front-loading and info dumps. They trusted literature less than self-help writing manuals.

As always, I can see both sides of this argument. The problem is that far too many would-be writers think they are ‘too profound, too literary’ to respect any rules, but that, to get published, you do have to meet certain criteria and commodify your work. But this proliferation of writing courses and ‘meet the publisher or the agent’ events do tend to lead to a lot of cookie-cutter novels and MFA type writing, which exasperate me and which allow little room for experimentation or diversity.

Roberts is often sharp-tongued and sarcastic about the people she encounters, but always harshest on herself. She does not shy away from dissecting her own pretensions, assumptions, beliefs, but she also shows much tenderness towards friends and neighbours, even her ex-partners. She shows the rawness of her grief at the death of a friend, and is very open about the flickers of sexual desire, the need for love, which she still feels and which, in an older woman, society deems almost shameful.

I related above all to her dual identity (her mother was French, her father English) and to her conclusion that life goes on, despite there being no recognisable or comforting patterns, and that one should stop seeking approval from somewhere.

Perhaps Negative Capability could mean finally letting go once and for all of that deep, childhood need for approval by powerful others, letting go of making them the sole arbiters of whether I was any good as a person, as a writer… Strength not as a shield, but formed from the knowledge of my own capacity for weakness, my knowledge of the support of other writers, the support of friends.

In the end, this proved a soothing read (with recipes for Normandy chicken and mackerel in the special launch pack which I pre-ordered from Sandstone Press). A reminder that there is life beyond loss and rejection, and that we have to make the most of living in the moment and connecting with our friends.

13 thoughts on “Michèle Roberts: Negative Capability”

  1. I like Roberts’ writing a lot, and have other things in common with her (though not perhaps, such as dual identity and having lived in France, so this sounds one for the reading list – if only to dip into from time to time -thanks!

  2. My reaction is quite negative to the very idea of this book. Imagine being privileged enough as a writer to have your place in London and your place in France, holidays with friends, your academic job, and so little experience of rejection (as it sounds) that when it finally comes it is such a weight.

    I feel like my attitude must be unfair, of course.

    1. I can completely see how this could be (and will be) interpreted as a priviliged way of looking at things, but I don’t think that Roberts has had it that easy as a person or writer by any means. She has never been one of those successful writers who earn lots of money, she has known lots of rejections in the past, but I think what made this one feel different was perhaps the age. I could certainly relate to that sudden cold fear that you’ve wasted your life, that you won’t be remembered after death, that you leave nothing behind you, that your time has passed and tastes have moved on without you.

      1. Maybe I’ve gone past that point. I was saying to a friend recently I’d be very happy to spend the rest of my life lying on the sofa reading books and getting up occasionally to take my book down to a cafe. He didn’t believe me, thought I was too ‘competitive’. But I think the thing I will regret on my deathbed, should I be so lucky as to have one, will be all the books I haven’t read. That will be so much more important than what other people think of me, while I’m alive or dead.

        I go to the Geneva flea market quite often and it makes me sad to see how much of it is the disrespectful dumping of dead people’s lives – and this is by people who knew them! It is then pawed over by people who don’t care either. I have to resist the urge to save things. And I think of my own treasures, which mostly consist of many books. My time will pass and everything that was my life will disappear.

  3. Some of this really resonates, Marina Sofia. And you’re right; it does take a certain amount of courage and creativity to share in this way. Life really does go on, even if we don’t know what it will look like, and I’m glad she shows how that happened for her.

  4. Oof. Having had a nasty rejection this morning (professional, not creative, but still stings), this sounds like a very useful book for me to track down…

  5. I read one Michele Roberts book some years ago and it has remained with me to this day. I’ve always planned to read it again or read more from her in an attempt to understand my nebulous reaction to that single book. I neither liked nor disliked it and yet she interests me very much. Coupled with my liking for diaries in general and for books by writers about being a writer, I think I have to add this one near the top of the list.

    1. I really liked her memoir as well, about the giddy days of the 60s and 70s and Spare Rib and all that (Paper Houses, it’s called). I think she does interesting things with her writing, she is very thoughtful and also very sensuous as a writer (and probably as a person).

  6. This sounds fascinating! It sounds like it takes the well-trodden ground of “writers get rejected lots” and looks at it more existentially. Thank you for sharing!

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.