Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Genre etc

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It makes me think of the instability of a literary work, that it is always being understood or subverted through and by other work one has read. Where does meaning come from? The following paragraph is quoted all over the place, another jab, at one level, at the conventions of realist fiction.

“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”

The sentence clearly functions as a performative utterance, but also captures the struggle many have with contemporary narrative fiction, the sort of fiction that David Shields inveighs against in Reality Hunger. It is stuffy and confining.

Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth (clue: very little).

7 thoughts on “Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Genre etc

  1. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth.
    Amen to that! Or whatever one might say if one is not a church-goer… Very wise words indeed!

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  2. I have spent half the day thinking about a response to this post. I have not read Maggie Nelson at all, let alone this book, and every time I think I should, I encounter something that reminds me that, as someone suggested to me, I would likely want to throw it against the wall.

    Naturally I have been engaged in some very targeted and specific essay/memoir reading in and outside of a queer context and I have come to think that essay/memoir is best the closer it conforms to truth, as subjective and misguided as that may be (which is often the most interesting and informative quality of good writing in this genre). In having said that I eschew many of the hallmarks of “crappy” memoir or creative nonfiction, which strike me as falling into the same trap as what you describe as “crappy” fiction (and, don’t get me wrong I understand and don’t disagree with your reaction to such fiction) but Nelson’s quoted statement, such as it is, would likely trigger a wall-tossing moment on my behalf.

    So what makes essay/memoir writing unreadable for me? Aside from the misguided effort to superimpose a false narrative and emotionally manipulative denouement (a charge equally applicable against so much fiction), writing that is overly confessional, self-indulgent and whiny. Or vindictive. Or that fails to recognize healthy boundaries and respect for others, especially present/past partners, parents and children.

    Tomorrow my review of Scott Esposito’s The Surrender will go live at Minor Literature(s). This is one intelligent, honest and yet entirely respectful piece of writing. I am also reading a book called Proxies by Brian Blanchfield which I ordered the moment I read about it at Music & Literature. That is an intentional collection of off the cuff essays written with out fact checking. He muses, draws on experiences, makes wonderful observations (shades of Barthes’ Mythologies). At the end of the book he lists relevant “corrections” to his original essays which, in itself, adds another layer of interest for what it says about the accuracy of what we remember.

    So being true, in essay writing, is for me subjective and personal. Fictional writing implies, as Peter Handke noted when writing A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, the freedom to “make things up”. Facts impose restrictions. There is a truth in fiction, but it is of a very different nature. Both are ways of exploring the great themes we are drawn to in literature, but for me there needs to be a line between the two (that space we might call autobiographical fiction).

    Sorry for the long winded response and thank you for triggering these thoughts for me which are mine of course, likewise for the little they are worth. 🙂

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    • So what makes essay/memoir writing unreadable for me? Aside from the misguided effort to superimpose a false narrative and emotionally manipulative denouement (a charge equally applicable against so much fiction), writing that is overly confessional, self-indulgent and whiny. Or vindictive. Or that fails to recognize healthy boundaries and respect for others, especially present/past partners, parents and children.

      I understand these terms but instinctively recoil from what seems to me a position that risks excluding some fascinating literary nonfiction, if that term is broadly acceptable. One day I visited a provincial branch of Waterstones that presented a section labelled as misery memoirs. I’m certain that I’d have found many of the books in that section “overly confessional, self-indulgent and whiny”. But if I was to use your boundaries as my rule, I’d have also missed out on Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, Rousseau’s Confessions, Cheever’s Journals, Alan Clark’s Diaries, and I could continue at quite a length. In each cases, these writers present work that is deeply problematic and breaches at least one of your boundaries. In each of the instances I’ve listed, there were moments when I almost cast the book aside but in pressing ahead I received valuable insight into another consciousness, which is a large part of why I read anything. Though non of those books constitute my desert island books, I am still thinking about them and they way they explored existence.

      My preference is to dispense with what David Shields call the minimum security prison of genre classification and talk about forms of writing, reading and thinking. I certainly don’t want to erect new definitions to understand the nuances between imaginative, journalistic and lyrical styles of essaying. Let the subject find its form and style.

      As to truth in nonfiction: I shy away from any notion that the purpose or definition of autobiographical writing is to give voice to a true story. There is no such truth. All autobiography is at best just one version of events. Memory is unstable and slippery. What does truth even mean in autobiographical work: that it only counts if it can be corroborated by independent sources? Truth is a shifting state of mind rather than a measurable outcome. As Foucault wrote, we narrate ourselves into being. Any writing of the past is a rewriting or re-performing of a lived past. There is no unity of self but especially no unity between a writer and his or her protagonist, even in nonfiction. To assume that unity is to forgo the huge emotional, psychological and intellectual changes we undergo over time.

      Incidentally, you must of course decide whether Nelson’s Argonauts is worth your attention but, for what it is worth, it breaches none of the boundaries you list to make an essay unreadable. Nelson is excruciatingly sensitive to others. She explores complex issues with intelligence and joy, and in a way reads theory and literature with her life.

      Thank you so much for your considered comment, and forgive my long response.

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      • Thanks for responding Anthony. You got me thinking and I think I was reacting to a triggering of the confessional memoir type of writing but also the school of creative non-fiction that is often taught in MFA programs and dominates journals here in Canada. I absolutely agree with what you say about the self. I am a very existential minded person keenly aware of the limits and fragmentedness of my experience. To hold the constraints of my “truth” (what I think I know, as subjective as that is) as my own measure, guides where I come from when I write and why I see what I write as non-fiction even when, as in the piece I have coming in the Seagull catalog, what I end up with looks nothing like essay at all. My writing about myself is performative but grounded in my own experienced truth. I have carefully stripped out any of the messy stuff in the editing process (and the Minor Lits essay had a number of sections trimmed out – none of which I did not already know in my heart did not belong).

        I appreciate your challenging me to think about these things. It can only enhance my reading and writing. As a side note, I just received an email from Robert Gal, the Slovak writer who is my mentor. He told me that my when he first read my essay he wondered why it was so abstract when the experience is so concrete. In returning to it he sees that the balance is just right, reminding him at times of his favourite writer – Beckett! Wish I could quote that and put it on my website. Must be doing something right.

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  3. “Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely.” I found this very interesting and congenial. I’ve read a little of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts (as well as the whole of Bluets) and although I’m out of my comfort level some of the time (I don’t regret this at all), I am so enthralled by the prose and the perspective. Do I mind not knowing what is fiction and what isn’t? Not at all. Any (true) story has many versions and memory has its own way of organizing what is important to the subsequent telling of a tale after the experience is in officially in the past. Like roughghost, I think I am a bit weary of the notion of “creative non-fiction”. Non, in contrast to what exactly? And “creative”? Oh, please. There are so many strategies and architectures just waiting for us to find them and use them and make new things with them. The Argonauts asks us to put aside our expectations of families, intimacy, and binary definitions of sexuality. For which I am thankful. And if some of it is embellished, to get closer to the truth of an experience; if some of of it mis-remembers or reconstructs, well, yes.

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    • Michael Frayn described us as significance-seeking creatures, and it is undoubtedly in that spirit, as well as the forces behind marketing departments, that we have this obsession with genre and labels. If the writing is fine and true to itself, that is sufficient for me.

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