All the Lonely Women: Maggie Nelson, Olivia Laing + Durga Chew-Bose on Welcoming Solitude

Three contemporary female authors explore the loneliness of modern life.

maggie nelson olivia laing durga chewbose on loneliness

Literature and loneliness go together like [insert iconic food pairing of choice here].

Maybe it’s because reading and writing are inherently solitary pursuits. Maybe it’s because dark, gripping tales of isolation and angst are intriguing—who doesn’t have a weakness for a brooding protagonist (sup, Mr. Darcy)? Or maybe it’s because writing on the subject of loneliness is a means of capturing the universal: almost everyone on the planet has felt or will feel lonely at some point in their lives.

Classic literature is full of memorable loners: characters like Arthur “Boo” Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye are, at this point, integral parts of most high school English curriculums. And we’ve seen that ladies can be lonely too, from Miss Havisham of Dicken’s Great Expectations to Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical, clinically depressed protagonist of The Bell Jar. Part of the reason these novels are classics is that their authors’ characterizations of misfits are so memorable—their discomfort with the world at large visceral and raw, prickling off the page.

lonely women in literature
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But loneliness isn’t always tragic, as it’s often made out to be. And being alone isn’t something inherently shameful or damning, although in society there’s still a certain stigma attached to it. Loneliness is confusing and complicated and difficult to unravel. And as our perception of what it means to truly be alone changes in the age of the Internet, iPhones, and location tracking, we need new literary life rafts that account for these changes and feelings.

Lucky for us, several stellar nonfiction books have been published in the past 10 years by women who have used their writing as a means of charting experiences with profound loneliness. Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, and Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose are gorgeous, contemporary works that delve into the complex and tumultuous state of feeling totally alone in the world. Although they’re all nonfiction books, each author has a distinct and richly evocative style of writing, which allows you to get lost in their words and narratives much like you would a novel.

“I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”

— excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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Nelson’s Bluets is technically a book of poetry, although, like her memoir The Argonauts, it really defies categorization. A meditation on the color blue and its role as a motif throughout the author’s life, Bluets is a wrenchingly beautiful and painfully personal work, written in the wake of a major heartbreak. Collecting blue mementos and memories was one of Nelson’s first ways of dealing with loneliness: a “way of making my life feel ‘in progress’ rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette.” The book is written in fragments, which Nelson claims were rearranged countless times before arriving in their published order. This blurs the chronology of the memories and anecdotes for the reader, as instead of reading a linear narrative, we are simply reading a jumble of random thoughts and poetic phrases that the author has crafted into a whole. This isn’t to say the book feels disorderly or chaotic; instead, it’s evidence of how the author pieced herself back together, fragment by fragment, after experiencing tragedy. Nelson is an award-winning poet and I was astounded by how much she could do within a few short sentences, her choice of words without fail deliberate, delicate, and powerful. She bares her soul with exacting precision, getting to the truth of each matter without ever indulging in exactly more words than necessary. But perhaps her biggest feat is always coming across as totally raw and honest, no matter how esoteric or deeply personal the topic.

“The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed. I don’t suppose it was unrelated either, to the fact that I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.”

— excerpt from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City

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I’ve actually been reading Laing’s The Lonely City at a snail’s pace because it’s basically my perfect book: a memoir by a female author crossed with the best art history textbook you’ve ever read. It’s my unicorn, and I don’t want to finish it. The Lonely City begins as a memoir, as Laing introduces us to her life as a recently single British expatriate attempting to make a home in New York City—which, for all its glitz and refusal to sleep, is a notoriously isolating place to settle. Unlike Nelson, Laing revels in deep dives, walking in circles in around a subject in order to get to the heart of it. The way in which Laing peels back the many complex layers of her particular loneliness in the city—being so close to people in neighboring apartments, yet completely cut off from them by walls; feeling invisible on a crowded street; not understanding American cultural cues or references; being heartbroken—is masterful and compelling.

And this is all before she even gets to the meat of her book, in which she examines famous (and not so famous) artists who also struggled with loneliness. Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol are the first two she features, and they set the template for the rest, as she wanders unrushed through different decades, neighborhoods, and genres of art, taking detour after detour to explore different figures in these artists’ lives (her exploration of Valerie Solanas, Warhol’s would-be assassin, is particularly compelling). But somehow, she always ends up back where she needs to be, tying every loose thread together and weaving in her own story seamlessly. Laing’s writing and incredible research introduced me to artists like Henry Darger, a janitor from Chicago whose brutally beautiful paintings were discovered only after his death, and Klaus Nomi, a Bowie-like performance artist who was one of the first victims of the AIDS crisis. She is impeccably thorough and beautifully descriptive, and I would recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in art history and/or the city of New York.

“But living alone is the reverse of mastery. It’s scuttling around in surrender while hoping you don’t stub your toe, because living alone is also a series of indignities like bouncing around on one foot, writhing in pain. Living alone is an elaborately clumsy wisening up.”

— excerpt from Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood

I lived alone for the first time when I was studying abroad in Paris, and one night while scuttling around my apartment in the dark, I stubbed my toe. Really, really badly. It was 3 A.M., my roommates (who I barely knew) were dead asleep, and my toe was gushing blood all over the hardwood floors. I didn’t have a Band-Aid. In a panic, I stumbled back to my room, cut a tourniquet out of the shirt I was meaning to turn into a crop top, and tied it tightly around my toe. It worked. By morning, the bleeding had stopped. I felt as proud and relieved as I had felt terrified and alone the night before. Leave it to Chew-Bose to use this exact scenario as a means of perfectly illustrating the crushing, confusing, and thrilling experience of living alone.

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I followed Chew-Bose on Instagram before I had read a word of her writing. Too Much and Not the Mood is her first book, and everyone on social media seemed to be reading it, devouring it, obsessing over it. And for the most part, it lives up to the hype, and the many, many Instagrams of its purple, cream, and gold cover. The book opens with the essay “Heart Museum,” which unfurls over 92 pages in a lyrical avalanche of prose. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what it’s about—Chew-Bose’s writing is nearly stream-of-consciousness, as she free associates from one topic to the next, making leaps and bounds before brilliantly bringing everything back together. Every page is sprinkled with heart-stoppingly lovely turns of phrase, and I often found myself actually gasping and mumbling “Oh my God” to myself because sometimes, Chew-Bose so ingeniously captures a feeling with startlingly precise and creative language that it makes you stop in your tracks. However, sometimes the lyricism of her writing becomes too much of the focus, and the essay can meander into overwrought territory.

Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford reads "The Bell Jar" in the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You."
Focus Features

But never is she sharper and more affecting than when documenting the particular loneliness of being isolated by skin color; by language; by experience. Loneliness is implicit in essays like “Part of a Greater Pattern” and “D as In,” in which she discusses the difficulties of growing up as an Indian woman amongst white Canadians, or in “Gone!” where she touches on her childhood after her parents’ divorce, or “The Girl,” in which she perfectly captures the disconcerting feeling of when a partner is in love with the idea of you, instead of the person you are.

Loneliness is most explicit in “Since Living Alone,” as she ruminates on the benefits and challenges of occupying your own space, especially after cohabiting with roommates or a partner. Living alone can imbue you with independence and agency; it also throws into sharp relief who you are, and whether you like that person or not. “Since Living Alone” is exactly the right amount of personal and poetic—if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, you will feel support and empathy, but so too will you feel totally transported.

These books are important because they situate loneliness within a modern context, and through the eyes of women. Each book and author are unique, but together they help give readers a sense of direction and hope—as well as permission to be scared, vulnerable, miserable, and low—as they navigate the inevitable ups and downs of living.

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Written by Justine Goode

Liberal with em-dashes.