Event Recap: Capacity for Tenderness in ‘The Argonauts’

Author Maggie Nelson, special guest Miranda July, and host John Freeman had an honest and deep conversation about theory, genre, time, tenderness, and the May CBC selection.

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John Freeman kicked off the May gathering of the California Book Club by describing Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts as a book that “moved sideways and crab-walked through veins of intimacy and theory.” He called it a “triumph.” When Nelson joined the gathering, he asked about her work as a theorist in residence at CalArts and the possibilities that theory holds for “creating and enlarging spaces for freedom.”

Nelson explained that she’d called the book autotheory and that the term had gained ground, but that it came out of feminism and critical race theory, which had developed “out of struggles whereby thinking conceptually and theoretically was always part and parcel of a struggle and a survival.”

In response to Freeman’s praise of the book’s opening pages, she commented on their “staging of registers.” Trained as a poet, she said, “In poem land, you’re always taught that a poem teaches you how to read it at its outset. I think the same is true of prose, especially prose where you’re really announcing what the genre is going to be—how this book is going to move, what its speed is going to be, how much heat it’s going to have.… I wanted in the opening to start with the needle in that vein rather than poking around for a while.”

Freeman asked Nelson to talk about naming social aspects of erotics, including sex and gender, in The Argonauts. After some discussion, Nelson noted the book’s “extraordinary journey” after being published in 2015, and “any book that steps out on its limb and is speaking in a period of time is going to look and read very differently at different moments in time, depending on the discourse. I think that’s exactly as it should be. That’s what books are: in time.”

Most of Nelson’s prior books reached a very niche audience, so when she was writing The Argonauts, she imagined it would do the same. It had been rejected as too esoteric by publishers like FSG: “You talk about Wittgenstein. You’re talking about gender theory. Everybody immediately is like, ‘No one’s going to read this beyond your 12 friends.’”

Freeman asked Nelson about the role of narrative in her book. Nelson responded, “A lot of pain can come from feeling trapped in the story that we don’t see how it can change. I was interested in how we can go about changing story, for ourselves.… That is an aesthetic task as much as it’s something else.” After discussing her use of other genres in earlier books like Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts, she said she’d worked with the paragraph and with the anecdote in The Argonauts: “I’d write out the anecdote, and then I’d try to blow it up a little bit. Blow up where you thought it would naturally end at.… I would think, Where else can this veer?”

When filmmaker, artist, and writer Miranda July joined the conversation, she and Nelson talked about how they’d met at a George Saunders reading right around the time that The Argonauts was published. For a while, they’d had kids in the same class at school, and they’d given birth at the same time and had had traumatic experiences, which they put into their respective books.

July mentioned that she’s working on a book that she’s asked Nelson to read a draft of and commented that one of the differences between making films and writing books is that with film, there are feedback screenings, but books are finished in whatever way the author would like. When rereading The Argonauts, July was “hit by how vulnerable it is—was—and I had, like, a sad thought: Would anyone be this vulnerable now? You always convince yourself…you make yourself dumb again in order to write.”

Noting the kinship in their writing, Nelson said that “one pushes towards, like, the transgressive or the audacious but not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of making something that feels truly new happen.” She explained that lately she’s begun to have less worry about the present and felt more of a feeling like, “I’ve just got to make what I should make while I’m here because I’ll be gone soon enough. The work will change in different time periods, so the worst thing would be if it didn’t ever exist, because then there will be no chance for it to have a different moment.” She remarked on the effect of Twitter and algorithms on artistic work.

Freeman asked Nelson to comment on pregnancy and abortion in light of the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. Following that discussion, he noted that while she’d written a lot about cruelty in other books, tenderness is a big part of the register of The Argonauts, describing it as “a linkage point of interdependency.” He asked Nelson how, in a time of war, you can keep your "capacity for tenderness unweaponized.”

Nelson pointed to the workers at reproductive health care centers, saying, “They’ve been in the fight and they go every day with care and tenderness to the fight.… It’s the compassion and tenderness for the people that we perceive as enemies that is sometimes the much harder route to go.”

Circling back to her earlier comment about blowing the anecdote in The Argonauts, Nelson said, “There were a lot of anecdotes in the book that could end, What a jerk! Can you believe this guy? Part of blowing that up was, that was not, to me, the end point. That’s the beginning point to figuring out how we are to be in this world together.”•

We hope you enjoyed this conversation! Join us on June 16 at 5 p.m., when Steph Cha will appear in conversation with Freeman and a special guest, the author Tod Goldberg, to discuss her powerful crime novel Your House Will Pay. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register here.

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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