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?
Aw fantastic! Part of me lives for your book posts! No pressure!
I love this – it does seem to have become a thing that books need to grab you or be easy to read. Sometimes you need to work a little. And sometimes the reward doesn’t come until the end. Middlemarch is one of the best books I’ve ever read but the first 100 pages are an absolute slog and a half. I’ve read a lot of books recently that I’ve enjoyed ok but leave me feeling a bit manoeuvred and not particularly challenged and that description of many hands on something is so accurate for the feeling. I’ve just read The Mothers by Brit Bennett and she really writes beautifully, sentences you just want to eat up, and I liked it and would recommend it, and will read her new one, but it was so perfectly put together and by the end felt familiar. A lot of books are so neat, and neatly tied up, they don’t ultimately elicit much emotion from me, though they are technically well-executed and the writer undoubtedly talented. I really like reading some older things like Barbara Comyns that are so idiosyncratic and weird and kind of rough around the edges in terms of subject they’re refreshing and unexpected. I really wanted to read Negative Capability, pleased you’ve reviewed it. I like Samantha Irby too, her blog is funny and she often has good book recommendations. The one that comes to mind for me is Deborah Levy The Cost of Living, excellent and unfettered. I’m reading Parallel Lives which was a birthday present that I’ve wanted for ages about the marriages of Dickens and Eliot et al and on the cover it says Nora Ephron read it every four years – what more do you want? Also Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss, a memoir of her move to Iceland with her family. I liked her novel Ghost Wall.
Peabody bites says
That’s such a good point. I find either novels are over-edited (often novels by newish writers) and run the risk of losing their originality – or they are from famous writers and radically under edited (JK Rowling, Johnathan Franzen, William Dalrymple).
I’m reading and loving Warlight by Ondaatje; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadette Evaristo (interestingly, I think it suffered a bit from the over-editing because the stories seemed unexpectedly familiar) and The Overground by Richard Powers.
Yes this is true. I know the commercial element is important, but dislike feeling so aware at times of a book as a product, it takes you out of it. I liked Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family but have not read his fiction other than The English Patient.
Yes very good point about over/under editing according to the success of the writer
I’ve gone mixture of history books, ‘Anne de Courcy’ is the queen of the posh gel bio and also lots and lots of YA which I find soothing, try Elizabeth Wein ‘Code Name Verity’.
I haven’t been able to read much more than Sunday supplement articles and homes magazines since lock down. I don’t know why. Maybe my brain cells (and patience) are being used up by home schooling. I started reading the book de jour Fleishman is in Trouble but had to stop as they were all so hateful and it seemed such a petty book once the pandemic hit.. I have read Queen by Candice Carty-Williams (loved it, dark, sad, funny, challenging) and listened to My Name is Lucy Barton (wish I’d read the book, felt I’d missed something at the end, but I enjoyed it) but that’s not a lot in three months. Such a Fun Age is on my kindle so going to try to start that tonight but will look out here for more recommendations!
I have been struggling to read lately too, but I am reading Writers and Lovers by Lily King – another book about writers and the process of writing, as well as a lot of other things (grief, relationships, friends). I would definitely recommend it (it has comic bits too).
Kate Atkinson’s novels are a good antidote if you feel jaded with over-edited novels, especially Life After Life and God In Ruins. She plays with literary convention and genre in such an original way (and she is so funny).
Kathleen Rear says
Samantha Irby is so so good. I subscribe to her blog. And thank you for zeroing in on and giving a name to why i’ve given up on most of the “bestselling authors” and gone back and re-read an old favorite lately. Over-edited! Yes. Precisely. Also may I just say that unlikable characters make for the best reading? Mr. Darcy, Emma, Jasmine Bashara from Andy Wier’s Artemis. I hated her…then I loved her. All these characters (and more) made me feel something, got me rooting for them in the end.
One book that stood out for being very different was Handiwork by Sara Baume – https://www.tramppress.com/product/handiwork/. I think she might be a genius, and it is a really fascinating look at what it means to be an artist. I’d recommend her other two books as well if you haven’t read them. The publisher is the same as Emilie Pine and they publish a lot of work that I think would struggle to get started elsewhere.
Think it’s hard to settle and relax into reading when everything feels in limbo. Some therapists claim reading is difficult after a trauma or unsettling experience as you need to feel ‘safe’ to let go and lose yourself in a book. Having said that am enjoying Girl, Woman, Other but as someone remarked above each story can feel unnaturally neat and tidy – possibly a result of over-editing Xx
Yes that could explain a lot – I’m a huge reader usually but just haven’t been able to concentrate. The worst thing for me is that I’ve been looking forward to the last part of the Wolf Hall trilogy for months, reread the 2 previous books in preparation and then got stuck very early on and had to abandon. So I’ve been rereading old favourites – some soothing Jane Austin, Jilly Cooper, Barbara Trapido, some YA, and some modern sci-fi, Becky Chambers, NK Jemison, which isn’t soothing but surprisingly challenging and most importantly refreshingly hasn’t been overedited into neat, tidy tales that can be easily marketed.
Sally Webb says
Missed your blog….. where have you been??? And now a book review??? But how are you??
Hi Sally! Life briefly took over…
Very enjoyable column in The Times today Esther – Spikers, let’s rally and comment that we want more pieces from Esther in future!
Oh bless you Annabel! you are so kind. There really is a limit to how hard I can work tbh as I don’t have any childcare, but I’m sure they will continue to fling me the occasional feature like the old days! So pleased you liked the column xxxx
Oh thanks so much! Will be ordering these NOW.