Sarah Manguso is one of the severest writers working today. Because she’s a woman whose first two publications were poetry collections, critics sometimes frame her sensibility as “lyrical.” But they’re wrong: Her allegiance is to a far flintier ethos.
Manguso established a reputation for tightly controlled writing with 2015’s Ongoingness, a stark, compelling examination of her obsession with diary-keeping that didn’t include any actual journal entries. (The New York Times reviewer said the “slim as a Pop-Tart” book “offers crumbs.”) Yet its distinguishing aspects—an almost brutal brevity and moments of distracting self-satisfaction—are present in her earlier writing as well. Her first book of prose, 2007’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, consists of 81 entries that never extend beyond a page and mostly concern themselves with missed connections, frustrated desires, and minor existential horrors. “What will we do now that we know a word our teacher doesn’t?” she worries in No. 54, after her fifth-grade teacher incorrectly reads the definition of “wan.” In No. 17, she cries while repairing a broken espresso machine, “realizing that even if I haven’t convinced the others it’s part of me, I seem, at least, to have convinced myself.” You need never come to a Manguso book concerned that it will lack an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Her latest, 300 Arguments, is more of the same, but Manguso’s rueful observations and laments are now distilled even further. Containing as many passages as the title promises—sometimes merely a single line, sometimes half a dozen—it’s a collection that seeks to pierce readers’ minds with an arrow of insight. “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” she explains. The instruction could almost be taken as an expression of humility or—since modesty often includes deference—apology: Manguso wanted to create something other than she did. And yet whatever her own aspirations, she rarely concerns herself with what a reader might desire or expect. In the afterword of Ongoingness, she confesses: “I asked a few friends whether they thought I should excerpt the diary in this essay.” All of them said yes, but she proceeded as planned regardless: “I didn’t want to…so I tried to reason my way out of the task.”
In the abstract, this obstinacy is admirable: Doesn’t the best art happen when creators refuse to compromise? But Manguso, like most writers and most people, doesn’t have an uncompromising vision so much as she has an ego, of which she is both highly aware and fiercely protective. “[W]hen people tell me I should try to write this or that thing I don’t want to write, I know what they mean,” she says in the first of her 300 “arguments,” after listing some talented acquaintances who use their creative gifts in ways that no one else enjoys. Again, it’s half assertion, half apology, and all defense: You probably won’t like this, she seems to be saying, but I’m doing it anyway. And this is only the first entry in the book!