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.