Photo: Mark Von Minden
Photo: Mark Von Minden

Maggie Nelson’s Six Nonfiction Writers

The six writers listed below aren’t known, at the moment, primarily as writers of “creative nonfiction,” for lack of a better term (I’d rather say: interesting prose that bears witness to fact, life, and the problematics of having a body in spacetime), but their forthcoming publications, online writing, or chapbook publications make them some of my favorites in the field.

Christina Crosby has heretofore been known as an academic; Liebegott is most well-known as a novelist (The IHop Papers, Cha-Ching!) and a TV writer (Transparent); some, like erica doyle and Simone White (and Ali Liebegott too) are known as poets; Rebecca Reilly and Chelsea Hodson are just starting to publish. Wherever they hail from, I think of them as part of what Eileen Myles has described (in her essay for the Liverpool Biennial) as “a moment… in which a lot of things that people like are beginning to need to happen in the same pieces of writing and those things may be gossip, theory, sexual description or simply an implication that it’s there or just happened (art).” (Myles also notes that “while the most feeling-oriented scholars have been calling for this collusion for a while it’s in the hands and minds and on the computers of poets that all this continental shift is truly happening,” and surely it’s no accident that poetry plays a big part in the writing of all those I’ve listed below.) In any event, I look to these writers as my teachers, and will read anything they publish, in any genre.

1. Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain by Christina Crosby

Crosby is a professor of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies who, in a previous life, authored a book on the Victorians and “the woman question,” but nothing in her past could have prepared readers for her memoir Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain, forthcoming from NYU Press.

Body Undone chronicles a 2003 bike accident that left Crosby quadriplegic at age 50, and its harrowing, grueling aftermath. The story is devastating, but Crosby’s powers of articulation, her ethical convictions, her deep knowledge of politics, literature, and culture, her queer commitments, and her dedication to using language to convey the farthest limits of embodied experience combine to make Body Undone a transformational read, one that underscores the basic facts of our interdependence, precarity, and capacity to sustain each other.

2. proxy by erica doyle

I don’t know if proxy counts as nonfiction per se—published by the great belladonna* books, it’s prose that circulates under the rubric of poetry, which means that distinctions between fiction and nonfiction blessedly need not apply—but I include it here because I think it can and should be dragged across categories, and gain readers from all quarters.

I chose this book last year as the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and I will repeat here a bit of what I said there: “The prose poems of proxy are crystalline per each, but together they constitute a sort of erotic page-turner, in which the stakes are none other than the capacities of the human heart (its want, its mess, its deceptions, its bright shames, its fever to be known); the experience of inhabiting a propulsive human body, through all its proprioceptions, phantasms, and smash-ups with others; and the relation of language to each, how to get it down. But doyle does more than get it down. Every surprising, beautiful, take-no-prisoners sentence of proxy reminds me how inventive language might expand our experience of our flesh, make it new, deepen our connection to it.”

3. Pity The Animal by Chelsea Hodson

Originally published by Future Tense Books, then picked up by Emily Books, this is Hodson’s first chapbook, and it is bracingly good—wild and chiseled, both. In a culture seemingly unable to understand submissive female desire as anything but a misogynist’s wet dream or the inevitable undertow of “liberation,” Hodson’s bold experiments and assertions feel refreshing and welcome.

The book reminds me of Catherine Millet’s classic The Sexual Life Of Catherine M.—another book I truly love—but Pity The Animal has its own youthful, American verve, as well as its own dedication to parataxis and precision. Hodson says she is now working on a collection of essays; I can’t wait.

4. The Frugal Addict’s Guide To Christmas by Ali Liebegott

This one’s kind of a tease, because Liebegott only made 50 of these chapbooks and I got #7 for Christmas (not to brag). But it is to say that Liebegott is hands down one of the funniest, most audacious and original writers at work today (I would say, “in American letters,” but Liebegott’s writing shreds the animating pretentiousness of such a phrase).

There’s no one I’d rather have as my guide to the insane cul-de-sacs of American culture, or of the wasted mind, as in this passage from The Frugal Addict: “When you’re drunk, you’re the hurricane moving through a room destroying everything in your path. Sometimes you acknowledge it. Sorry I just fell through your coffee table. Sorry I put my drunk dick in your wife. But when you’re on acid you feel sober except your surroundings are chaotic. Sorry my dick became a pigeon and flew into your wife’s vagina. Sorry I dove through your coffee table. It’s the doorway to the Promised Land.” Her forthcoming hybrid/narrative poem The Summer of Dead Birds is going to be amazing, too.

5. Repetition by Rebecca Reilly

This “poetic memoir” of the author’s self-imposed exile in Paris during a trying time is one of my favorite books ever, and it isn’t even out yet. (It comes out in April 2015, from Four Way Books.) It’s a smart, serious, lonely, layered, gorgeous howl of a book, as brilliant on grief, depression, anger, and the difficulty of reckoning with one’s past as it is meticulously attentive to strangers, landscape, culture, and beauty. Profoundly engaged with literature and philosophy, Repetition patiently earns its claim on transformation and love. Translucent and transcendent, Repetition is Reilly’s long-awaited first book, and it’s well worth every moment of the wait.

6. Essays on Harriet by Simone White (The Poetry Foundation’s April 2014 guest blogger for Harriet)

White is known primarily as a poet (she’s published a chapbook called Unrest with Ugly Duckling Presse and a collection, House Envy of All the World, with Heretical Texts), but after reading her essays on Harriet, I’m looking forward to reading as much of her ruminative prose as she will put on offer.

White was a lawyer who changed fields to study for a Ph.D. in Literature at CUNY; she now brings to her writing a range of legal, political, literary, lyrical, and lived knowledge, along with an incisiveness marked by candor and care. As she puts it in her introductory post, “One day, I’m going to stop trying to introduce myself and my poetic projects and I’m going to get/ find myself real comfortable with my latecoming, mysterious, unprofessional, subjective, undemonstrative, black, theoretical, unsourced (sources suppressed), embodied writing practice.”

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