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Like Love by Maggie Nelson review: wise, genre-defying observations from a very sharp thinker

Maggie Nelson delves into the work and minds of other artists to create a deft and polyphonic book

Like Love: Essays and Conversations
Author: Maggie Nelson
ISBN-13: 978-1911717027
Publisher: Fern Press
Guideline Price: £20

While I was reading Maggie Nelson’s latest book, Like Love, for this review, I went to hear her speak in New York. Reading Nelson is magical; hearing her speak is electrifying. It is clear to me – yet again – that she is one of the sharpest thinkers today.

Like Love is a collection of essays, of intimate conversations and communication with some of our most radical minds such as Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Sarah Lucas, Bjork, Wayne Koestenbaum and Tala Madani, mapping Nelson’s writing and friendships, over more than 20 years, arranged chronologically. So much of Nelson’s writing has been about love and longing, and so the book’s title is apt.

Nelson’s writing so far has defied labels, stretching form and genre, unafraid to confront the messiness of life with themes of violence, embodiment and queerness, whether it be in The Art of Cruelty, Bluets or Jane: A Murder, and we see these recurrent themes here too. It is a tough choice but Argonauts, for me, is one of her best works. It showed me the slipperiness and depth of her thinking, as she writes about love and life, about tenderness, motherhood and marriage, while not shying away from brutality and coarseness.

How can we confront danger in our lives and not be afraid of it? And why is it important to step outside our comfort zones in order to be better: better artists, mothers, partners, lovers or just better humans?


Nelson is delving into other artists’ minds in Like Love, but also delving into her own, as well as tangentially into adjacent conversations and communications with other artists. The result is a polyphonic assemblage, which in less capable hands could have become chaotic but here it is graceful and aesthetic, deftly crossing boundaries and definitions, a concordant symphony.

In her meditations and reflections on others’ works, we see her expansive mind at its best, seamlessly springing from one theme to the next, ever-generous in her assessment of others.

In her writing on Eve Sedgewick’s posthumous collection, The Weather in Proust, Nelson mines the difference between “knowing” and “realising”, the way we often pride ourselves on our “quicksilver capacity to absorb knowledge” but impatient and unable to hang out for an inordinate amount of time before we can truly “realise” this knowledge and know what to do with it. Reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Nelson astutely draws out the themes of openness and curiosity, and the importance of paying attention to “our collectivity as well as our individuality”.

In her Q&A with Nelson, Darcey Steineke called Nelson’s writing “open-minded”. Nelson’s supple thinking is admirable in the way she cracks open binaries and draws out the ambivalences of any topic, be it reproduction, love, sexuality or the way we make and observe art. It is her willingness to be open to new ideas, to see the world in an interconnected, capacious manner, that pulls me in.

In conversation with the artist Carolee Schneemann, there is so much justifiable frustration at the 400 years of patriarchy, the invisibility of women in the art world, the way demonisation and censorship have marginalised some bodies more than others. “Why do men hate women?” Nelson asks Schneemann, while wondering if the question was becoming “too tautological”. Without a pause, Scheemann replies, “Never. I will never grow tired of that question.”

Nelson is at her best collaborating, communicating, conferring with other creatives, trying to delve into how they create, what they feel and how they seek pleasure. This book is about poetic friendships, “the craving for connection that art conjures, frustrates and possibly exists to satisfy”. Our culture often encourages solitude and we can be led to believe that we need to be in competition with others in order to stand apart. But Nelson thrives off these interactions, each idea pulsating and throbbing with potential, and we can take it where we want. She trusts her readers to read between the lines and, in doing so, we become better ourselves in many ways.

In her talk, Nelson emphasised the need to look for magic as we grow older, since magic isn’t as easy to come by. I found after listening to her and reading this unflinching meditation on how we live, that I was thinking more expansively and felt more alive to the potential of magic when it happens next.

There are incredible passages in Like Love. Summarising them, selecting snippets, I am perhaps only really pretending to know this book. But only when I sit with this knowledge for quite a while longer will I truly realise what to do with it all, and how to even begin to apply Nelson’s wisdom to my own life and work.

Pragya Agarwal’s latest book is (M) otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman