300 Arguments, the most recent book by poet and essayist Sarah Manguso, is marketed as a collection of essays, but that genre isn’t quite accurate. Neither, though, is poetry or fiction. Some reviews have referred to the book as a collection of “fragments,” another wrong word. Manguso has written, just as the title suggests, 300 arguments that, despite their length—often no more than two or three sentences—are complete cases. Originally, the book included seven sections, with the seven section titles ‘The Self, Others, Desire, Art, Work, Failure, and Death.”
“The section titles were a strong scaffolding that, in the end, I was able to remove,” Manguso wrote to me over email. “I didn’t want anything extraneous in the book.”
Manguso has succeeded in that goal, and not just because of the lack of section titles. Her economical sentences are an example of the power of brevity. Many of the book’s most memorable arguments are just a single sentence long. Manguso was kind enough to answer my questions via email. Her answers are below.
Perhaps the most obvious question—why a book of three hundred arguments?
I wrote about 200 pieces with my back turned to the book I was trying to write, and have been trying to write for a long time, a book about whiteness and Boston and my family and hate. I can’t articulate the subject even now. But the arguments—those were small, complete works, and I loved the control I had over their small forms; I loved also that I wasn’t trying to write things that were similar in any way but length. There are accounts, manifestos, aphorisms, myths, regrets, apologies, jokes, and something I overheard in a cafe. I wrote most of the book before I thought it could be a book.
Beyond the impetus to write this book, can you tell me about the experience of its coming into being? What was the writing process like for the arguments?
Sometimes I tried to write one very quickly, or half a dozen at a time. Mostly I just waited until something nagged me, and then I tried to reduce the feeling to a sentence or three. Toward the end, when I was almost at 300 usable arguments (there quite a few others, 100 at least, that went into a different folder), I read some of my own work and some of my favorite works by other people to see what I disagreed with or felt strongly about, and tried to write arguments about those things.
I’m interested in your choice to use the word “arguments.” When I first heard the title I considered other moderns works of aphorisms, and what artists chose to call their aphorisms. The subtitle of James Richardson’s Vectors is “Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays.” Jenny Holzer uses the word “truisms.” I’m wondering if you can tell me how you decided on “arguments.”
The Richardson and Holzer works are very important to me. I also like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas very much. For my own, book I wanted a word that could accurately describe each of its units.
Here’s what my diary says:
I should start writing a collection of tiny things I can write one of per day. Aphorisms.
Write a section into Ongoingness, then throw down a bunch of aphorisms. Like that the form will admit aphorisms, recollections, ruminations, and research.
Follow-ups are hard to write. Siste Viator and The Guardians were quite hard to write; their precursors were effortless. What if I wrote a “new” form next, the book of aphorisms I’ve always wanted to write? What if I “went” smaller? Feel jolly, considering it. A hundred words a day—it feels possible!
I wanted to write either a book of aphorisms or a long book designed to appeal to the common reader, so I guess I’ll do the former now and the latter, maybe someday.
Start collecting aphorisms for potential collection provisionally called Small Arguments. May as well exhaust every minor genre before attempting the big book.
Work on the aphorisms in tiny moments throughout the day. It should probably just be called The [insert color?] Notebooks or something.
Write the hundredth aphorism, then immediately delete a handful. Think about the title Five Hundred Short Essays.
Something that stands out to me in all your books is how deeply satisfying they are, despite the fact that they aren’t “big books” (I’m putting this in quotes, because I think your books deal with big ideas and I don’t necessarily think the page count of a book is what makes it big or small). There isn’t a single argument in this book that left me confused or wanting more. So, I’m very curious to know: What was your editing process like for this book?
First, thank you for sharing your judgment about big books and small books; I wish I could internalize that.
Some came easily and some needed a lot of time before they were ready. It wasn’t unlike preparing any of my other books except in my having to put 300 things in order—I’ve never had that many things to put into order before.
One of my favorite argument in the book is “I never joined Facebook because I want preserve my old longings. And also yours.” I don’t want to ask you “can you expand on this argument,” because I do feel you’ve said all there is to say. I am curious to know, however, why you want to preserving old longings. What is important about doing so?
Longing is hot, or at least very warm. There’s no heat in being satisfied.
I’ve read that Jenny Holzer doesn’t really—or at least doesn’t always—believe her truisms. I got the sense that the 300 arguments you wrote are things you stand behind and actually believe in. Am I correct in thinking that? Are there arguments in the book that you now disagree with or have a strong counterargument for?
I have some wavering regret for a few arguments, depending on the day. Since the book came out I’ve found myself having to read passages from it aloud to an audience, but when I get to an argument that feels nauseating, I just skip over it and read the next one. In that way it’s the easiest of my books to read from; if I get to a hard paragraph in a different book, it’s harder to pretend it isn’t there. “I’m going to skip a paragraph now,” I guess one could say.
One thing that really stands out to me about this book is how much the content of it changes for me depending on my mood. I’ve reread a few times now, and each time it’s a little bit of a different experience. How did your experience writing of the book change depending on your mood?
So for you it’s a mood book, like a mood ring. I can tell you that it is always satisfying to get a sentence right; I never have to think about it again. Sometimes my mind feels quite clean, if I’ve gotten everything out of it, translated it into sentences. It always fills up again, of course.
Last question: what books and writers are you enjoying right now?
Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essays, J. D. Daniels’s debut, and Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, which I just taught last week.
Photo: Andy Ryan