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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Great Writing but a Poor Set

In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays - Anaïs Nin

Anais Nin has been hanging around the periphery of my literary awareness for some time now. Perhaps it is the stigma of erotica or maybe it's just that she is crowded out by the towering reputations of other writers of her period like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Nabokov but, though I heard something of her, opportunity and inspiration took some time before bringing me to her. It was finally #ReadWomen2014--something I've taken on as a kind of mission, as I've discussed here before--that I finally picked up a volume of her diaries and this collection published towards the end of her life in the 1970's. 


As it happens, I am very happy to have found her. I keep the diary near the bedside for intermittent reading and found it every bit as interesting as its reputation. I may yet write a post on them when I have read a more substantial share of it--her very take on the art of journaling deserves attention--but today the attention is on the essays.


In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays has some great writing in it. She writes with prescience on the subject of feminism and gender studies, even if these thoughts have since been bowdlerized to suit the post-sexism, post-sexism crowd (it is that fine line between advice and policy). My favorite may be among the travel essays. "Port Vila, New Hebrides" gives us a view of a certain few islands in the South Pacific. Their dynamic landscapes are well suited for her rich descriptions though and they are even better for the rich personality of Nicolai, the world traveler and her guide into the intimate lives of the indigenous population.


My only complaint, and it is a not-insignificant one, is the careless curating of the pieces. It has the feel of a collection of cast-offs. There are essays, there are book reviews and movie reviews, there are speeches, there are diary entries and there are interviews. They come from publications as diverse as the Massachusetts Review, the Village Voice, and Playgirl. I thought it might be a sort of yearbook, Anais Nin, all the writings, 1973-74, but they had, in fact been culled over some years. 


Take the first section, "Women and Men". Apart, they are very good works, but they are to similar to be read one after another. I liked the first essay, then the interview, which touched on some of the same points, nothing surprising. Then the next essay, and the next, and there is occasion to stay close to the topic, but when assembling a collection like this you expect a representative sample. You see it weekly on talk shows, where politicians do five or six shows in a week. Meet the Press, Hardball, The Daily Show, etc. Each interview can be enlightening and entertaining, but the topic and the message are the same. It is useful to reach out to each show's audience, but if one person to take one guest and put together a reel of each interview it would be unspeakably tedious. Though I did enjoy a taste that in the segment on  John Oliver's show, "John McCain tells the same Joke Six Different Times in Six Different Places". To a lesser effect, and with a better message, that is the feeling I started to get.


Some of the pieces did come across dated, as any work might. The movies and books she reviewed have fallen out of public awareness, as I am sure many I like and review may in some years, it is an unfortunate cast of the die but one that does affect the reading. More unsettling is the travel essays. Anais Nin is wonderful with scenery but too often it seems that people become part of that scene rather than characters, especially the native populations in Africa and Asia. She casually mentions how Arabs ave been banned from the French resort in Morocco and how she is let in to tour a local household, these tours allowed by the disabled resident who needs the money. I like to think I see hints of awareness, something in the tone, the way of description as a dog whistle to the readers of Travel & Leisure. I can't tell.


I have been there. Even in Hawaii, endemic poverty and a notorious sex trade hover in the shadows of massive luxury resorts. The history of American involvement of these islands adds to the unease. We all fall for the trick, we want to fall for the illusion, and travel essays are supposed to support that, which she does. It is a subject that bothers me, and she is not terrible offender, but I think it is important to recognize these patterns.


That said, I greatly enjoyed being introduced finally to this author and look forward to reading more Anais Nin, and to finding something that fits better as a cohesive work. Please leave suggestions in the comments!