I have been finding it hard to read recently – but two books that I found myself able to focus on and return to were Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts and Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby.
If you’re not familiar with Michèle Roberts, as I confess I wasn’t until recently, she is a half-English, half-French reasonably grand author of many books. This most recent one, Negative Capability, is the diary of the year following the drawn-out but then firm rejection of her most recent novel. The Agent doesn’t like it, The Publisher doesn’t like it. She re-writes and re-writes to their increasingly off-message specifications and yet the answer is still no.
It is devastating for her and Negative Capability is the close examination of the year of her life, one section per month, thereafter. It is all examined in minute detail, each coffee, each disastrous AirBnB visit with friends, each glance up at a section of mouldy ceiling that she is putting off getting fixed.
Samantha Irby is a tremendously funny American comedian, who blogs at Bitches Gotta Eat and has done TV work and is generally a sort of autonamous joke-machine that kind of defies categorisation. The books of hers I have read – Wow, No Thank You and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, (there is another, Meaty), are delves into her life and consciousness. She writes about her early not un-tragic life living with her terminally ill mother; her Chrone’s Disease, which leaves her with a trick bowel that she mines pitilessly for comic effect – everything she documents without fear or shame. She writes in an unfettered outpouring of confessions and thoughts and jokes and theories, inviting you into her life and her mind.
Wow, No Thank You opens like this:
“I live for a glamorous lifestyle blog featuring some gorgeous ingenue with piles of secret wealth that she never divulges to the unsuspecting slobs on the other side of the screen. How does she afford three-hundred dollar eye-cream if her job is listed as “freelance editor,” and why is it tossed so casually on her nightstand like she wouldn’t cry if she lost it?”
The thing that connects these two authors is that they both address and defy the rigid formula to which most books are expected to adhere. Roberts laments in Negative Capability her editor’s wishes for her writing to be less complex and opaque in her fiction writing, when she – Roberts – thinks that the reader shouldn’t be babied. She brings up more than once her irritation at having her male lead called “Unlikeable.”
Samantha Irby, on the other hand, has been given free reign to just write in whatever unfettered, stream-of-consciousness way she sees fit. Books like this don’t get green-lit very often, and almost never in the UK, and it is such a shame. Notes to Self is an exception that proves the rule. (You are going to tell me about thousands of others now.)
Sure, at times Irby’s writing is so overwhelming you have to put the book aside and rest your eyes and your brain a bit. Negative Capability is not a classic “page-turner” but is that all that books have to be, now? Page-turners? It’s annoying.
I sometimes read books and feel so manipulated. I know for a fact that so many hands have been on a book, tweaking it and editing it to squash characters into familiar shapes and insert peril and seek moral hearts and encourage resolution. And often it works but double often it strikes me as deathly and sterile.
These two books above require a bit of work on the part of the reader but it is worth it for the bright sections of brilliance, for the liveliness and honesty. For the freedom.
How about you? Have you been reading much lately?