The autotheorist’s latest book is a best-of collection of essays equal parts academic and personal

In the opening interview of Maggie Nelson’s Like Love—a collection of essays and conversations spanning 18 years—Wayne Koestenbaum anoints her (with foresight, in 2007) the head of her own academic movement: “The School of Maggie.” It’s a perfect title. The School of Maggie is unpretentious and welcoming. Dropping honorifics and formalities, Nelson is less a figure of study (although she has a career that commands such respect) as she is a guide. All that’s not to say her scholarship isn’t serious. There is work to be done and lots to learn.

Throughout the book’s 330 pages, Nelson lays out an extended syllabus for her students. In chronology, each section introduces a new reference. These introductions take various forms, from written correspondence with Björk to a review of Fred Moten’s Black and Blur. Similarly, the margins of The Argonauts, her 2016 memoir, include references to writers/philosophers/artists who influence her thinking, a practice not lost in Like Love. As an autobiography, The Argonauts often included practical thoughts about herself and those she loved. More serious, academic analyses (on art, literature, music, and more) help craft a “livable life” (a phrase Nelson lifts from Judith Butler) within the pages of this newest anthology too.

The author frequently invokes the ideas of her contemporaries and predecessors in a manner that avoids any ego-driven relation to the much more gauche “namedrop.” For example, she extensively quotes Hilton Als (whose language is also repurposed for the book’s title) in her tribute to him. “I’m quoting at length here not to shirk my own verbal duties, but rather to show you that it’s one thing to theorize the workings of identity and desire, as so many have done,” she explains. “It’s another to set those workings loose in language and let them rip.” After drawing them in, indeed she does let her subjects rip, making an introduction between them and the reader. Giving each reference ample room to breathe, Nelson opens alternative literary paths for audiences to dog-ear and study on their own time.

She recognizes that it’s silly for writers to posture themselves as intellectual islands. Extending beyond scholarly pursuits, she knows one can’t exist without a broader communal context. As such, she devotes a significant amount of mental horsepower to considering modes of relation. Solidarity/friendship/mentorship/love (some triangulation of communication and relationship-building, writ large) is central to her work.

“Often described as a writer of autotheory, this collection hinges a bit more on the “theory” side than the “autobiography” one of the portmanteau.”

Genuine community building, as Nelson knows, is not smooth. Interacting with people is often messy, full of awkward pauses, cross-talking, and disagreements. In the spirit of this truly communal vision, she is unafraid to examine awkward topics. She airs her issues with the en-vogue “politics of care.” She laments some of the ugly difficulties inherent to parenthood across the book, notably in her review of Tala Madani’s Shit Mom > No Mom. Eulogizing her friend Lhasa de Sela, Nelson admits there is a “smugness” in writing about the dead.

Her openness to discomfort is unique. Rather than remaining solely in the domain of traditionally critique-able issues (which she, of course, does when talking about misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.), she also ventures into more indeterminate moral spaces, such as the seductive appeal of Prince’s Purple Rain movie despite its misogynistic dumpster throwing of characters. Nelson is willing to learn from the complexities of being a deeply-thinking person. She is less concerned with correctness than with understanding. Kindly, she shares the knowledge won from venturing into this dangerous arena with the reader.

Like Love’s power comes from accommodating the bumpy road that leads towards personal growth. Ending each essay with the year it was written, the collection tracks the shifts in Nelson’s life across time. In the beginning, Moyra Davey asks if there’s any shame tied up in her intensely autobiographical writing. She says, “I don’t really think of my writing in a matrix about shame… That’s not really the tradition of writing that interests me the most… it’s true that I don’t feel a lot of shame these days. Or, rather I don’t feel shame around certain subjects that seemingly make others tense.” Four years and 112 pages later, she writes “I am not saying it is easy to stop employing shame—in fact, I probably think about this so much precisely because it comes so naturally to me, as it’s what was taught to me, as was taught to my mother by her mother, and so on.” In both quotes, Nelson does admit that, like everyone, she experiences shame, but she does so with the added nuance of self-awareness. Although not contradictory statements, slight discrepancies in her conception of shame typify an ethos found across the book. To her, change, growth, and development are inevitable and there’s no use hiding it. Resisting the academic tendency for certainty and impenetrable reasoning, Nelson affords herself a more human approach to learning. As such, we see the author as a character, developing as the pages progress, unlike in a traditional non-fiction book. Motherhood, time, and commercial success are but a few factors influencing a newfound relationship to her work.

As a collection, Like Love is a uniquely all-over-the-place effort from Nelson. Her last book, On Freedom, devoted 288 pages to the titular topic. Although she draws on a catholic range of references, her final product is focused in its thesis. This collection is new territory for her. Each piece can stand alone as its own polished and focused output. When placed together, however, there are some inconsistencies. Often described as a writer of autotheory, this collection hinges a bit more on the “theory” side than the “autobiography” one of the portmanteau. Yet, memoiristic qualities emerge in these gulfs between sections. Nelson is a thinker—one of our best. But she doesn’t shy away from being a person, as well. Like Love is a powerful mini-retrospective, giving the reader a glimpse of Nelson’s academic, personal, and ever-changing thought processes.