The smart money is on the diaries. Has been for decades. Consensus pretty much concludes that Anais Nin's fiction doesn't measure up, that it's too airy, convoluted, "poetic," interior—at best a fictionalized and diluted version of the diaries. What do we need her invented novels and stories for when we have the diaries of her actual thoughts and experiences? The diaries are the "real stuff."
But at the same time there are the critics of the diaries. Who see in them a self-justifiying, self-aggrandizing, self-mythologizing Nin, not always faithfully recording what "really" happened, often blind to her own faults while imputing faults and weaknesses onto others. They seem to expect in Nin's diaries a kind of legal testament, the truth and nothing but the truth, and they feel cheated and outraged when they don't get it. They willfully miss the keystone of Nin's aesthetic, repeated many times in the painstakingly clearest of terms, which is that there is no "truth" save the one that emerges from the intersection of the perception of ourselves—which includes our past lives, our dreams, our fantasies, and our desires—with events and people in the present. Like filters laid over each other, our resulting view of the world around us is colored by who we are and who we want to be. Nin quotes the Talmud in this context: "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are." In short, we create our realities. Nin believed this to be the case in her diaries every bit as much as she did in her fiction.
Therefore, one really shouldn't expect much more "veracity" in her diaries than they do in her fiction. Reality, in Nin's view, is necessarily, even desirably, fictionalized.
To say exactly what happened, who said and did what, is not only categorically impossible, it's not even the "truth." In fact, it misses the truth of what really happened.
If I have an encounter with someone, a simple transcription of words and actions won't record anything but the raw stage directions of the encounter. What's going on in my head, what memories are evoked, what desires raised and frustrated, dreams reawakened, tragedies relived…and the same for the other person…these are all a part of the reality of the situation. Without attempting to capture this otherwise invisible context, what happens between myself and the other is one-dimensional and true only in the narrowest sense of the word. It's like trying to give testimony in court and having the judge gavel us into silence every time we try to explain the "truth" of a situation, our answer hammered into submission with the preemptive order to reply with nothing more than a "Yes or No." Within such constraints, we can't help but lie and we know it. But to do otherwise, to answer outside those constraints, is punishable as contempt of court.
What Nin tries to do in her diaries is capture the multi-dimensionality, the open-endedness, the theatricality of her life—and by example, all our lives. Critics, cross-referencing and comparing her accounts with those of others as well as records of "objective" facts, have called what Nin does obfuscating and lying. But they miss the point, which is that we create our lives as we go along, both unconsciously and consciously. Conventionally, this is a far more acceptable practice in fiction than it is when writing a diary. But it happens in both.
By condemning Nin's fiction as being too introspective and at the same time condemning her diary as playing too fast and loose with the "truth," the critics have cast Anais Nin into a literary limbo. Not a major writer in the 20th century canon, her main biographer Deirdre Bair concluded, but somewhere in the second tier.
Nin always wanted her stories and novels to make her literary name. The diaries she considered just that…private diaries, records of personal encounters, behind-the-scenes workshops for her fiction and ideas. But it was not to be. Henry Miller pushed the idea that the diaries were the thing. And eventually, reluctantly, finding the roads to recognition and appreciation of her literary efforts blocked in every other direction, Nin came around to his point of view. So she became a prisoner, in effect, of the diaries, which she never intended for publication.
And, of course, when her fiction was celebrated at all, it was her pornography they praised. What she considered her "real" work never found appreciation.
But having read the five connected "continuous" novels of "Cities of the Interior" I think Nin's fiction has been grossly undervalued and unfairly maligned. As a result, it's simply not read anymore. I think it's due for a serious re-evaluation. I think the novels of "Cities of the Interior" better than anything in the diaries. They are, in fact, everything the diaries are—and more. They are every bit the crowning achievement of her life, art and ideas that she estimated them to be.