Maggie Nelson on Criticism, Intentionality, and Pain
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On making connections between texts:
MK: I want to ask you a process question because the Works Cited section in your books is so expansive. Tell me about how you read and find connections in all sorts of texts and how you keep track of those connections.
MN: I read with a pencil. I read a lot of things that seem useful. Sometimes I teach the things I’m thinking about and so I’ve had cause to talk about them. And then I like writing other people’s words into my computer because it helps me understand what they’re saying or what I don’t understand about what they’re saying. So often I’ll go back and type all of the quotes in texts that were interesting to me. For this book I put them all into one big document, and then when I knew what the chapters were I’d differentiate by document. Then I’d print them out a lot and look at the connections between them, because often there might be something written about sexual freedom, say, but that seemed apropos in thinking about art or climate. So I wanted to have all of those things out. But it can be a little unwieldy, and it relies on memory and associative logic.
On rethinking positivity on pleasure:
MN: I love the Katherine Angel quote I have in the book where she says, “Sex can be a means of moving towards difficulty and pain.” That just seems so true to me. I don’t think it’s the only thing that’s true, but the idea that it’s moving towards positivity and pleasure reflects nothing I know about my own sexual history and most everybody I know. I think it’s really interesting and helpful not to accept unjust events or circumstances, but just as a psychological insight or maybe even as a road to forgiveness. Like, if I sought difficulty and pain and I actually found it, maybe something didn’t actually go wrong. Maybe I meant to go towards something that was difficult and painful, and I did.
On intentionality in critical response:
MN: Critical response is a consequence of how good or bad the work is: how introspective, how politically acute, how self-aware, all kinds of things. And all of that matters. That said, I think the art chapter also tries to draw a little bit of distinction between critical response and then campaigns that have to do with hopefully inflicting damage on someone’s career. The chapter is not really for or against, it’s just trying to say let’s not purport that all critical response is created equal. There are different activities we engage in with different goals, and we should ask questions of those goals and our motivations. And if we deem that we want to engage in those campaigns, I’m not against them either. I’ve seen some unclarity—or, put ungenerously, some obfuscation—about our goals and motivations, and I think we should be clear.
Maggie Nelson is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Argonauts. Her latest work of criticism is called On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.