‘Like Love’ by Maggie Nelson, Reviewed

In the author’s collection of introductions to other people’s books, reviews, interviews and commissioned essays for art catalogues, the action feels absent, somewhere else

Is writing in the writing itself, or in the sharing, and discussion, of that writing? Different versions of this question arise while reading this collection of 30 texts, written (whatever that means) between 2006 and 2023. It includes introductions to other people’s books, reviews, commissioned essays for art catalogues and interviews with other writers. It doesn’t represent Maggie Nelson’s ‘main’ writing. ‘You never really know what’s the main thing and what’s a digression,’ Nelson admits in a discussion with poet and writer Eileen Myles. ‘We just have the pretend idea that the real work is somewhere, and it never is. There’s no there there.’ This book, then, is the decidedly elsewhere, with Nelson’s responses to the writings of Ben Lerner, Natalia Ginzburg, Fred Moten and Judith Butler, a bit of music (crediting good teenage sex to Prince) and a hefty chunk of contemporary artists such as Nayland Blake, Kara Walker, Carolee Schneemann and Sarah Lucas, among others. That most of these texts, in their original form, acted as prefaces and introductions gives the book a dislocated feel, in which Nelson’s obligation to avoid spoilers means that the action feels absent, also somewhere else. On page, the tone is friendly, academic, probing but semiformal; the writing often doesn’t feel as lively or as searching as Nelson’s essay collections – in part because most of the texts gathered here are responses to a given prompt, whether a book or film or sculpture: the answers, in a sense, are already there.

At its best, this book is a conscious performance of community: gathering moments of thinking out loud, generously sharing influences and readings. In other places, it is a conscious performance of writing that community: circular, name-droppy. Perhaps appropriately, then, some of the most pointed insights included here are those of Nelson’s collaborators and interlocutors. In the exchange between Nelson and Björk, the musician closes by musing about what the future philosopher, in the Nelson model, should be: not someone who produces an extended pontificating ‘guitar solo’ but ‘someone like you who collects the writings of our species, merges it and distils it into a human form adding diaries and emotional responsibility’. Perhaps Like Love is best viewed as a test drive for where the writing will be.

Like Love by Maggie Nelson. Fern Press, £20 (hardcover)

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