For voracious readers and literature aficionados, the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant announcements are always exciting, even if you'd never expect to win one yourself. The recipients — scientists, artists, scholars, and, of course, writers — are awarded $625,000, and their work gains some much deserved recognition. And we readers are devoted fans; when a writer we admire is crowned a "Genius," the honor can feel ... well, personal or even validating, as though the grant quietly acknowledges: Yes, readers, you have good taste. So, for all my fellow poetry/genre-defying nonfiction fans, congrats! This year, the MacArthur Foundation recognizes a true innovator, idol, and inspiration: Maggie Nelson.
If you're a regular Bustle Books reader, odds are you've heard of Nelson's work. A poet and a critic and a nonfiction writer whose work addresses issues related to queerness, sexuality, domestic life, obsession, and motherhood, Nelson told the Los Angeles Times that she sees a great tradition of writers who mix the personal and the analytical being honored by the MacArthur Foundation. And Nelson is firmly in line with those past "Geniuses" like Anne Carson and Ben Lerner, writers who defy categorization. Nelson's work is writing. All of it is different; all of it is good.
The author of five books of nonfiction, her most recent, The Argonauts, was touted as one of 2015's best books by more than a dozen publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, GQ, and this one. She is also the author of several volumes of poetry and poetry scholarship.
The MacArthur Foundation says of Nelson:
Maggie Nelson is a writer forging a new mode of nonfiction that transcends the divide between the personal and the intellectual and renders pressing issues of our time into portraits of day-to-day lived experience. ... In all of her work, Nelson remains skeptical of truisms and ideologies and continually challenges herself to consider multiple perspectives. Her empathetic and open-ended way of thinking—her willingness to change her mind and even embrace qualities of two seemingly incompatible positions—offers a powerful example for how very different people can think and live together. Through the dynamic interplay between personal experience and critical theory, Nelson is broadening the scope of nonfiction writing while also offering compelling meditations on social and cultural questions.
In a 2015 interview with The Rumpus, Nelson spoke to the hybridity of her writing. She said:
I have to admit, I often think that hybridity is the historical literary norm, and that any rigid idea of genre, or the impulse to staple a writer into any one form, is the true anomaly. Perhaps for this reason, I can’t really answer the chicken/egg part of your question. But I can say that whoever I am as a writer is just an extension of who I am as a person more generally, and generally speaking I am a person impatient with obedience or stodginess.
Nelson joins a class of "Geniuses" that includes writers Claudia Rankine, Sarah Stillman, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Gene Luen Yang, and Lauren Redniss.