Maggie Nelson Writes Books Like She’s Hosting a Party

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Maggie Nelson. Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a book of borrowing and sharing. She credits other thinkers generously, divulges openly, and writes so exquisitely that everyone always seems to be lending their copy to someone else (I don’t even remember who has mine). When Nelson spoke at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week, moderator Lorin Stein said he’d given the book away so many times that he was now on his third.

At the event (part of the Eat, Drink and Be Literary series) Nelson answered a strange bouquet of audience questions, many of which seemed to be excuses for the question-askers to describe how meaningful Nelson’s work had been for them. There is something daring in the intimacy of Nelson’s work, and it seemed to invite readers and fans to speak freely — about shame, jealousy, pregnancy, the movie Fame. Her books, five works of nonfiction and four books of poetry, are light in your hands but heavy and powerful in all the nonliteral senses. Bluets is 112 pages; at 160 pages, The Argonauts — her last book — is an exhilarating tour de force drawing on queer and feminist theory as well as the personal narrative of Nelson’s family.

Nelson and I spoke after she received her MacArthur Foundation grant last year. At one point in our conversation, Nelson mentioned identifying with Foucault — who, when asked to describe his sexuality, said, “I identify as a reader.” Perhaps that’s a helpful way to examine Nelson’s own work: absorbing can be intoxicating. We talked about her writing and her readers while a cute-sounding dog named Billie barked in the background.

I want to bring up an observation I’ve made about The Argonauts, and Bluets a bit too. Particularly among young literary​ queers, they’ve become prominent signals — on bookshelves, but mostly on the internet, The Argonauts is the book see I more than any other in people’s profile photos.
Hahahaha that’s so funny! I love it! Ah, it’s so cool! It’s so cute. I love it.

Is this surprising?
I have seen this happen to other books, generationally. I think on The L Word they brought in Autobiography of Red. There are a lot of polemical tracks about gender and sexuality that you could pull up for a profile page, but there is something both precise and messy about the kind of community that is both pictured and embodied in The Argonauts. What’s been happy-making to me is to see how many people seemed happy or recognize themselves, if not in particulars, in the nuance of living a life that’s all happily and occasionally unhappily fucked-up about gender and sexuality. It’s happy-making to me when that nuance is as much a call to community as something that would be more clearly defined.

It’s also really cool, generationally. I spent most of my life being a young writer. I’m 43. That means there are a lot of people now who are half my age who come out and who read me and make me feel old, but it feels great.

It’s really exciting to move from the person who you feel like was always there. You know how it is to be a young woman: People are always like, Are you allowed to use this copy machine, and you’re like, I teach here goddamnit! You’re constantly waiting for when you’re just not going to be infantilized. There is something about growing up as a writer and seeing that reflected in people younger that makes me feel really happy and feels sort of sweet.

What I love too, if this sounds self-aggrandizing I don’t mean it to be, but I think my work has moved through all kinds of sexualities and expressions. I like the idea of Bluets as a queer book even if the object of affection in it is a gendered male. And I like the idea of The Argonauts as a straight book — not as a straight book, but I like it that with so-called straight people, it might speak to their concerns about family making. I like that traffic in places that are both likely and unlikely.

Have you seen anyone reading your books in the wild that you weren’t expecting?
No … I was at 192 Books a while ago and two people were talking about me and I was so frightened that I would hear something I would never be able to recover from that I left. That was the only time that has happened. The things we say about other people when they’re not around. Already there is a violence to it. So I was like, Oh God, gotta get out of here!

What was the most nerve-racking idea you pursued in your writing?
They all have been nerve-racking. The Ür-book of nerve-racking is Jane: A Murder about my aunt’s murder. That book took eight years for me to make peace with the fact I was writing it. That book is a book that taught me about the bad idea. Every day, I would kind of come home from a movie or the library and I was like, I shouldn’t do it, I don’t like it, it’s scaring me. And then I would go back and do it the next day. Sometimes it seemed like a good idea. Writing a book about the color blue seemed like a good idea and then I wrote it and it started to seem like a bad idea, given all the things that were flooding into me. I teach sometimes, and it’s really scary for young writers to just commit. Nothing really sounds good in the abstract: I’m going to write a book about heartbreak. Everyone is like, ugh, snore, tell me something I haven’t heard. It’s only in the writing of it that a book becomes interesting, because it has to be a good book.

You’ve talked about your books as accidental. Do you see books you write as fated?
I guess I do, which is silly because they’re fairly volitional. But often as you’re finishing with one question you have usually produced another, just the way that you extrude clay through a hole. You got your piece but you left this big bunch of shit and then you want to make something, you go back to what you left behind. In that way to me, it feels like a fated flow, because I don’t often invent. I don’t clear out everything and go, Oh, what in the whole world would I want to write about?

When people ask how long a book takes to write, it’s always a hard question. The Argonauts is 20 years of reading feminist and queer theory. When did I start writing it? I don’t know! It couldn’t exist. And with the color blue, I have been collecting blue things since I was 17. They feel fated to me in that way.

Writing is writing, right? You have to write the words, but there is so much thought. I wouldn’t have been collecting blue things, if in the back of my mind I hadn’t had the question: What does beauty mean? What comfort do these blue things give me? That was a difficult question that I might have asked when I was 18, collecting blue glass. I amend that question over time, by the time you go to write, you probably have a lot of thoughts about it without knowing you have.

With The Art of Cruelty and also Jane and The Red Parts, you often write about things that could be called “shocking,” but you don’t seem to want to shock or turn people away. Do you ​aim to be inclusive​ with your writing​?
I don’t think about aim very much, so it doesn’t matter to me. People can be included or excluded. Some people might think my writing is really pornographic or sexual. People might think I’m incredibly reticent or prudish. I tend to surround myself with fairly extreme people; I enjoy them. I am often quite surprised if something seems shocking to people, which sounds coy. I really don’t mean it to be; it’s just the truth. So I think it’s because of all those gradations of things, and because of subjectivity and response, depending on people’s life experience, it would be a fool of an errand to include or exclude, because you are already trying to determine who might come to the party. And I think you just present the party and people can do what they want with it.

What a hostess attitude! I will take that metaphor as a literal guidance.
Eileen Myles was my teacher — she always talks about poems as parties and it really got under my skin. I think it’s a lovely way of thinking. This is not what you’re getting at per se, but there was a salon at Barnard that was done last year on The Argonauts. The opening conversation, which I thought was really interesting, was: Is there a place for black maternity within The Argonauts? I think about that question: How do you construct something that stays true to its autobiographical experience, in this case, but it feels spacious, so other experiences that don’t match it exactly aren’t getting warning signs that the party is closed? I am really fascinated by it. My partner Harry has a tattoo that says — it’s from Édouard Glissant — on one arm it says, “Our boats are open”; on the other it says, “and we sail them for everyone.” It’s something we talk about a lot. How to make something very specific and very granular and very idiosyncratic, that somehow feels like an open boat? It’s kind of a great mystery.

Maggie Nelson Writes Books Like She’s Hosting a Party