Lockdown Reading \ April 2021

Blog about books

Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts is a journal of the months which followed the rejection of the author’s most recent novel by her publisher. Subtitled ‘A Diary of Surviving,’ Roberts reflects on her life and surroundings as she reconstructs her sense of self being amid other difficult circumstances including the sudden deaths of two friends.

She spends a lot of time in France (she is half-French) and attempts to edit the novel so that it will appeal to the publisher without sacrificing her artistic vision. The title is drawn from John Keats’ notion of negative capability as “dwelling peacefully within contradictions without striving for rapidly arriving rational solutions” which Roberts uses as a coping strategy in stressful and uncertain times. When writers talk about rejection, it is almost always in the context of their first attempts to get published, and very, very rarely when they have already published over a dozen novels, poetry collections and other non-fiction. ‘Negative Capability’ is a refreshing account of sustaining a long-term career in the publishing industry and how to carry on in the face of disappointment.

The Secret Barrister showed how the criminal justice system is broken and A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins could be a companion piece about the current state of prisons in the UK with its chronic staff shortages and high reoffending rates. It is an account of the nine months Atkins served in HMP Wandsworth, a Category B prison in south London, at the beginning of his five-year sentence for tax fraud offences. Built in the 1850s, Wandsworth is one of the largest prisons in Europe and well known for its overcrowding problems. As an Oxford-educated documentary-maker, Atkins recognizes that his advantages in life meant he was able to secure more privileges in prison, climbing the hierarchical system to move to a Category C wing alongside other “white collar” prisoners. While it’s fair to say that his experience is not a typical one, he trained as a Listener to provide emotional support to other prisoners which brought him into contact with more vulnerable inmates and their stories offer insight into the huge levels of mental illness and illiteracy among the general population at Wandsworth. I guess that these two books are worth your attention.

April 15, 2021

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