Icon: Anais Nin
“There is no one on earth truthfully interested in other’s work if he himself is a creator - no one. I am more interested in my own writing than other people’s.”
Anaïs Nin’s literary credentials are somewhat contested. To some she is a pioneer of life writing and an early purveyor of women’s erotica; to others, a self-indulgent adulterer with a penchant for smut. A Cuban-French author, bohemian, and serial heartbreaker, Nin’s published journals spanned decades, providing a rare woman’s perspective on male artists of the era. For me, her status as a female icon comes from her deliciously salacious prose and incorrigible insistence on herself as a worthy topic, a preoccupation so strong that her own biographer accused her of “monstrous egotism and selfishness, horrifying in its callous indifference.”
Nin was a confessional writer before confessional writing became the primary way for women writers to make a living, working in an idiosyncratic blend of memoir, literary criticism, philosophical insights and frank eroticism. She was ruthless in her exploration of the self, writing extensively about mental health, sex, queerness, abortion, her psyche, and her many lovers, a list including John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal and both Henry and June Miller. She faced heavy criticism during and after her lifetime, derided as self-obsessed and vacuous, with one journalist branding her “a monster of self-centeredness whose artistic pretensions now seem grotesque.”
Accusations of sexual impropriety have some grounding - she committed both adultery and polygamy, slept with her psychoanalysts, set up her own practice and then slept with her patients - but Nin remains iconic for her willingness to openly live “only for ecstasy… neurotic, perverted, destructive, fiery, dangerous - lava, inflammable, unrestrained.” Her work is a valuable contribution to the legacy of confessional nonfiction as a vehicle for female narratives, her life a defiant rejection of the limitations set out for women. If we can admire male writers for their boldness, their scandalous lifestyles and their self-obsession, we should celebrate Anaïs Nin for mastering the form.
Words by Lucy Uprichard
Lucy Uprichard is a Montreal-based writer and researcher interested in issues relating to women, the LGBTQ+ community, mental health issues and pop culture.