While Anaïs Nin has a large and enduring fan-base (witness the traffic on the dedicated blog run by Paul Herron, also the most recent publisher of Nin’s diaries and erotica), she has not received the attention that, perhaps, one would expect. Especially since the early 2000s, Nin has most often appeared in comparative studies; an exception here being Helen Tookey’s incisive monograph Anaïs Nin, Fictionality and Femininity: Playing a Thousand Roles from 2003. This lack of focused recent studies on Nin is mostly due to the trashing of her reputation in the 1990s by her biographer Deirdre Bair, in combination with the vociferous reception that greeted Nin’s unexpurgated diaries Incest: From a Journal of Love (1992) and Fire: From a Journal of Love (1995). A prevalent disdain for Nin’s literary and personal style has meant that studies of her work since the 1990s have often adopted a defensive rather than affirmative position toward their subject.
Writing an Icon: Celebrity Culture and the Invention of Anaïs Nin begins with a scene from 1992, arguably the year that Nin’s fortunes once again began to fade, following an earlier fallow period in the early 1980s when it was revealed that much that had been presented as truth in her bestselling edited diaries was, in fact, a heavily redacted and sometimes fabricated version of Nin’s life. Jarczok opens with a review in the Los Angeles Times that paired Madonna’s then recently published Sex with Nin’s Incest, and argues that this coupling was a way of “promoting” Nin, “the forgotten cultural icon with the help of a celebrity who was then at the top” (1). It is a provocative opening salvo in a book that has as one of its aims the unpicking and parsing of Nin’s reception and cultural location, often via Nin’s immediate milieu (Henry Miller, et al), but also via more unexpected yet productive pairings as with Madonna. Jarczok’s central claim is that tracing the rise and fall of Nin’s status as a celebrity “is a great way to learn more not only about Nin herself but also about American culture” (4). Writing an Icon treats Nin as a “case study” for late twentieth and early twenty-first century American culture with the rationale that by “looking at which version of Nin prevailed or was privileged at a given time, the dominant cultural movements, together with the ways in which they produced the Nin that met their own needs, can be identified and examined” (4).
Jarczok begins with a broad consideration of celebrity, particularly literary celebrity, in the twentieth century. She argues that Nin’s self-crafting in her diary ultimately found its outlet in her public performances at the peak of her fame in the 1970s. In the first chapter, Jarczok also traces out a useful history of Nin’s reception, particularly tracking the way that Nin’s diary has moved through various hands, all of which have shaped it differently. In Chapter 2, the focus is on the connections between Nin’s various textual private and public personae, with Jarczok going some way toward excavating the reasons for Nin’s popularity in the late 1960s, having labored under obscurity prior to that time. Chapter 3 considers the shaping of Nin’s celebrity within the context of second wave feminism, with a thorough delineation of the mixed responses to Nin’s version of femininity, although a rather simplistic presentation of the politics of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Chapter 4 considers Nin’s “afterlife” – in particular, the biographies that came out in the 1990s, and what Jarczok refers rightly to as “the ever-growing eroticization” of Nin’s image (144). Finally, Jarczok ends with a somewhat frustratingly brief look at Nin’s reception and reimagining in the twenty-first century.
Jarczok’s approach to Nin, one where she posits the versioning of Nin as a series of lenses onto twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultures, is somewhat valid. Given the intense reactions Nin has inspired since the 1970s – reactions that veer from adulation to opprobrium – it makes sense to posit her as a kind of cultural barometer, albeit one that only measures extreme responses. But it is also an approach that is freighted with risk; it both gives Nin too much weight as a cultural signifier and affords too little space for close readings of her work. Jarczok rightly criticizes the way in which a focus on the more salacious aspects of Nin’s life since the 1990s has occluded close attention to her writing, so it is a surprise not to see more sustained reading of the works themselves here. The book functions well as a revised and detailed history but does little to push critique of Nin’s actual writing forward, borne out in Jarczok’s conclusion that Nin the writer has become “of secondary importance” since the 1990s (204). This seems a strange approach to take, bearing in mind the evidence that Nin’s writing generates and mobilizes extreme critical discomfort – a discomfort that Jarczok clearly identifies but only investigates in broad terms.
All that said, this is a diligently researched and mostly cogent reading of Nin’s reception and it is particularly well executed when it comes to parsing Nin’s reviews, her self-construction via her diaries and public appearances. Writing an Icon: Celebrity Culture and the Invention of Anaïs Nin serves as a good reference guide to Nin’s career and reception history and it goes a long way toward explaining the checkered nature of both.