After almost half a century of acclaimed writing – after 16 novels, a memoir, books of short stories and poetry – Michele Roberts somehow still struggles to get her work into print. In Negative Capability, she describes the reaction of one publisher getting cold feet over her latest novel, which is partly set in the 19th century and has a “troubled, difficult” narrator. “The market for novels was really bad, she was thinking of my career, what was I writing at the moment, oh, a memoir” – what a relief, finally a book “she could see how she could sell”.
Roberts has internalised similar criticisms over the years. “In private I heard that familiar sneering voice: we told you so, your novels are too literary, too difficult, too experimental, too serious, too poetic [...] why can’t you write a bestseller?”
This is a universal problem among writers. What Keats called “negative capability” – “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” – is now anathema to the book business.
Authors – particularly female novelists – are constantly asked about how true their writing is, which bits are based on their lives, by journalists resentful of Mysteries, irritably reaching after fact. As Roberts has realised, “Marketing persons now required writers to turn into brands”. There’s a new hierarchy: autofiction beats imaginitive fiction; memoir beats autofiction.
This baffles me, as wonderful novels are so often written by pleasant but dull people. Roberts – by wide consensus a wonderful novelist – has here written a pleasant, dull book about her pleasant, dull life. It’s not “too difficult, too experimental”, it has received countless rave reviews, it is very likely to outsell her last few novels, and now I want to bury my head in a bucket of sand.
Negative Capability is a mildly amusing and amusingly mild diary of 12 months. There are brief visits to Ireland and Italy, but the year is mostly spent between her London home and La Lievrerie, a house in France she bought with prize money from her award-winning 1993 novel Daughters of the House.
One thread loosely holding it together is the process of rewriting the novel with the “difficult” 19th-century protagonist, after “the Publisher” (who, like the Lord, takes the upper case) turns down an early version. The novel isn’t named, but from the way it’s described readers will quickly recognise it as The Walworth Beauty, published to very friendly reviews in 2017, which does rather undermine what little suspense there might have been.
This book’s full title is Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving. It’s possible a sales-savvy Publisher was responsible for “Surviving”. “Negative Capability: A Diary of Coasting Along Sometimes Feeling a Bit Disappointed But Generally Having a Nice Time with Nice Friends Who Are for the Most Part Terribly Charming and Supportive and Well-Connected” might not have been as marketable.
There’s little about the actual writing process, though what hints we get are tantalising. Starting a new novel “required going beyond conscious ego into the unknown... and that felt very close to going mad, with no guarantee that you’d ever come out the other side. Routine helped: you went ‘mad’ for four or five hours every morning then you came out into the kitchen and made lunch”. I’d have liked more madness and less lunch.
There is a lot of lunch. A sample sentence: “Recently I had lunch with my friend Pete Ayrton at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, before visiting the Ravilious show together, and over delicate salads artistically arranged on big plates we talked about books and writing and the Spanish Civil War anthology he has just finished compiling and editing, and just before that, again in London, I gave my friend James Le Fanu (Sarah’s brother) lunch at my flat.” Ayrton, of course, is a successful publisher; and Le Fanu a doctor and Telegraph columnist, married to another successful publisher.
Roberts paints people more interestingly than landscapes. Here’s a French sunrise: “Birds sang. The air was cool and fresh. Gold from the east streaked low through the trees. Long thin shadows stretched along the dewy grass.” It’s well-turned, literary and entirely unmemorable. I think the word I’m looking for is capable.
It’s hard to get excited about capability. I prefer Negative Capability when it’s negative. Roberts allows herself brief and enlivening flashes of anger at the flaky Publisher and a vacuous agent and a ghastly would-be therapist who attends her writing workshop but refuses to do any writing. The prevailing tone, though, is friendliness.
In the penultimate chapter, Roberts throws a London lunch party for 20 pals and calls it La Fete de l’Amitie. This book itself is a kind of Fete de l’Amitie, a salute to various loving friends and friendly ex-lovers. Devoted Roberts fans will read this and enjoy imagining how charming it would be to be her friend. Any reader new to her work should ignore Negative Capability and start with those difficult novels.
The Sunday Telegraph
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