The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

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Freedom On Her Mind


Poet, critic, writer, and MacArthur fellow Maggie Nelson says she knew she was “biting off quite a bit” when she decided to write about freedom. The idea for her 10th book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, publishing in September with Graywolf, began when she was working on 2011’s The Art of Cruelty. “Writing that book,” she recalls, “I noticed that if you focused on the sibling or cousin concept, the first thought of cruelty’s opposite would be kindness. “But once I started to think about cruelty as being compressed space or choices, humiliation or violence, its opposite seemed to be freedom. Then I became interested in writing about it. There’s no more vexed word, with all the things freedom means to different people.”
Nelson is excited about On Freedom, her first book since the pivotal and successful The Argonauts, which won the 2015 NBCC award in criticism. The intro to On Freedom, she says, “swoops through the four spheres I wanted to write about in a concrete and contemporary way: art, sex, drugs, and climate. As a writer, I don’t feign interest in things that don’t move me, and these four are important to me.”
She goes on to explain that art is a natural fit: she’s taught art and writes about art. She calls art, along with sexual freedom, her “most native ground.” Her chapter on drugs is “more niche, esoteric, but as a sober person I’m interested in substance abuse—the idea of being enslaved, enthralled.” And climate “is what’s on everyone’s mind. This took the longest to write, because I read a lot about it.”
Ethan Nosowsky, Graywolf’s editorial director, was a big fan of Nelson for years.
“Maggie and I were in touch after she’d been awarded a fellowship from the Creative Capital Foundation, where I was a consultant for some years,” he tells me. “She’s a writer who published a bunch of books and writes in a critical mode that’s also lyrical. The Argonauts caught both, and at Graywolf, we really got the book. We understood it, knew how to publish it, pitch it, talk about it. It’s a conversation about gender and family that came at the right moment.”
Nosowsky and Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae knew about On Freedom when Nelson and her agent, Janklow & Nesbit partner PJ Mark, attended Graywolf’s 45th anniversary gala in September 2019 in Minneapolis, where Nelson was a featured author. “The Argonauts did really well for us, and we really wanted to publish Maggie’s next book,” Nosowsky says. “We had a lovely conversation, during which Fiona and I made a case for Graywolf acquiring the next book whenever Maggie was done with it, when Maggie pulled a copy of On Freedom out of this big bag she was carrying!”
Graywolf, Nosowsky adds, “made it clear that we would stretch to make a competitive offer. This book is a contribution to the cultural conversation. Maggie takes the loftiest ideas and tethers them to the ground; she makes important things legible and there’s warmth to her writing. Also, she doesn’t come to answers but poses questions. The book is full of thinking and feeling. She’s appreciative of human messiness: a 21st-century intellectual.”
A two-book, North American rights deal was announced in January 2020, for what Nosowsky calls “a very substantial advance for Graywolf.” (The second title will be a collection of essays.)
Mark has been Nelson’s agent for 15 years, since The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, about the murder of her aunt. He and Nelson are in sync on the new book. “Maggie and I speak the same language,” he says. “She’s been writing this book since 2015; I knew she was trying to untie the knots of freedom.”
The manuscript was finished in fall 2019, but Mark was seeing pieces as early as 2016 and they were discussing it. “Maggie,” he says, “is extraordinary. She’s a broad thinker; for her thinking is an ethical act. She gathers sources and unpacks them and wrestles with the world in a way that most writers cannot. Instead of a hot take, she pulls across fields and genres to make something new. Every book invents something new.”
Mark tells me that there were only conversations with Graywolf. “Maggie was happy with the publishing relationship. She’s been published by both large and small publishers and found an amazing collaboration with Graywolf. It made sense to stay with them.”
On Freedom sold to Jonathan Cape in the U.K. in a major deal and will publish there simultaneously with the U.S. release in September. To date, the book has been sold in 18 other foreign territories. The plan, Mark says, is to take it to the 2021 London Book Fair in June.
“The practice of freedom—i.e., the morning after, and the morning after that—is what, if we’re lucky, takes up most of our waking lives,” Nelson writes in her intro. “This book is about that experiment unending.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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