Maggie Nelson: Transcending the Divide
Writer Maggie Nelson is one of the most celebrated critical thinkers of her generation. But all her work feels starkly personal.
Maggie Nelson is an award-winning writer known for her wide-ranging non-fiction books which incorporate philosophy and critical theory into discussions of contemporary culture and everyday life.
Born in 1973 and raised in Marin County, California, Nelson studied at Wesleyan University and CUNY Graduate Center. Her books include Jane: A Murder (2005) and The Red Parts (2007), which focus on the murder of Nelson’s aunt near Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1969; Bluets (2009), a collection of prose-poems; The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), a critical study of aesthetics and cruelty named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; and The Argonauts (2015), a genre-bending memoir listed as a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award. She won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2016.
Nelson teaches English at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Since 2001, Maggie Nelson has published five books of non-fiction, four books of poetry, and received some of literature’s highest honors. And yet…
Maggie Nelson: You hear the same things all the time. “Disjunctive, what’s she getting at?” “Digressive, no strong thesis.” “Too personal, self-indulgent.” You get used to the litany of things that people who don’t like your writing don’t like. But the people who do like it, typically those are often the same thing. That’s exactly about it that they do like. They just think it works.
Nelson’s books are deep dives into subjects that have consumed her at various points in her life. Jane, a collage of poetry, prose, and documentary sources, exploring the life of Nelson’s aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 at the age of 23. 2009’s Bluets, a meditation on suffering, grounded in an analysis of the color blue. 2011’s Art of Cruelty, which explored humanity’s well-documented attraction to cruelty and violence, as expressed through art. All of Nelson’s works are defined by her sharp critical eye, focused equally on society at large and on her own, inner world. But despite her proven ability to braid seemingly disparate threads into cohesive finished product, her pitches are still often met with skepticism from publishers.
Nelson: Whenever I’m kind of heading in a direction, formally, that’s interesting to me, or that feels that I have too much going on, and someone tells me it can’t resolve that way, I usually really buckle down.
AJC: That’s what I was going to say.
Nelson: And I insist that it can be done. With The Art of Cruelty, there are a lot of artists and a lot of thinkers in that book, and really trying to whip them into shape, and find the chapter shapes that could hold…Like, “I want to write about cruelty and art via effacement, and I have 24 pieces of art that involve defacement or effacement that I think belong. So how can I get this chapter written in such a way that someone finishes it and feels like all those things belong in this chapter, and not like their head was in a blender?”
Nelson’s attention to craft is so acute, that her process has only become more challenging over time.
Nelson: I think it used to seem really fun in my 20’s and stuff, and now it doesn’t seem quite as much fun anymore.
AJC: Why? Because the bar is higher?
Nelson: Yeah, the bar is higher. I’m not entranced by my own rhetoric or good sounding words. I think, when I started as a poet, I would just be more amazed—not always, but, you know. The rush of beautiful words was very exciting. I think I’ve also become, in working more in non-fiction, I’m more stringent about how good the ideas are, as well as the language.
Maggie Nelson’s most recent book, 2015’s The Argonauts, may have been her boldest idea yet. The memoir examines the limitations of love and language by delving into her own story of building a family with her fluidly gendered partner, Harry Dodge.
Nelson: That book, in particular, tries to give a kind of swirling portrait of a relationship between two people, in which both characters stand on shifting stands, as it were. But it’s definitely about—it’s connected to broader issues, but through the lens of two individual people, you know.
(passage from The Argonauts):
A day or two after love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase, “I love you,” is quote, “like the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name,” end quote. Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time, but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as quote, “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new,“ end quote. I thought this passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
But for as intimate as the anecdotes may seem, Nelson is quick to remind us not to take for granted, her ability to edit, obfuscate, and exclude however, she sees fit.
Nelson: I don’t really experience the writing as, like, a rush of confessions, as much as I’m thinking, “why did this particular story stick in my craw so much, and how does it relate to this broader point I’m interested in?” So it doesn’t feel like a bared soul to me. It feels like, the book that needed to be written, you know? I don’t personally feel very exposed by the things I write. I think I make a lot of decisions along the way, and I’m kind of an aesthetic. It’s a kind of trick as a writer to do to yourself, where you stay very focused on aesthetic decisions, or structural decisions, as a means of allowing yourself to be writing whatever content might be coming out.
But while she doesn’t believe in self-censorship, Nelson does prioritize consent when exposing other people’s private lives to public scrutiny.
Nelson: If you give people the benefit of the doubt of sharing something before publication, the kind of violence of feeling like something has been done unto them, they didn’t know about or see coming, is mitigated by spending sometime in discussion. I’m happy to do that.
Maggie Nelson is now one of the most highly regarded non-fiction writers of her generation. And though her topics may vary wildly, one thing is likely to remain the same.
Nelson: I really like books. I think there is always a book there, if you’re just willing to keep discarding the dead ends and keep following the new.