Few publishing phenomena in recent years have been as gratifying as Chris Kraus’s cult 1997 masterpiece I Love Dick becoming a signifier of Twitter and Instagram chic. The ‘lonely girl phenomenology’ it exemplified has now attained cultural status, with first person, inventive writing by women often enjoying centre stage.
It’s interesting, then, that just as the wider culture has caught up with her, Kraus has pivoted away, delivering ‘what may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker’ — the underground punk novelist who is still, even 20 years after her death, awaiting the recognition she deserves. Penguin’s newly published modern classic edition of her most famous work, Blood and Guts in High School, will help; but Kraus’s book is likely to have more impact.
Acker was, and remains, an outsider’s writer. Her work is still startlingly visceral, poorly attuned to a literary climate as sensitised as ever to transgression and discomfort. As Kraus remarks: ‘While the use of “the personal” by female writers has been largely redeemed, satirical excess has been pushed off the map.’
Kraus, who has admitted the ‘incredible frisson of feeling that often I could write “I” instead of “she”’ in this biography of Acker, finds her way into the life with ease. She begins, movingly, with the funeral and then focuses on the formative years in which Acker became the version of herself we now recognise. The research is painstaking, and Kraus clearly feels a heavy responsibility to pin down the facts, perhaps because, as she puts it, ‘Acker lied all the time’.
She is especially good on the development of Acker’s writing — from her early experiments cutting up the texts of others, through to her fashioning a new literature and self-mythology from the raw material of her emotional life. The question Acker posed through her work — ‘How to write fiction without moving relatable characters through an invented plot?’ — is still pertinent today, and her solution, a break with formal and stylistic convention, just as necessary.
In Acker’s search for a new way of writing, form was always the key. This approach was mirrored in her physical life: an interest in tattoos and bodybuilding, an apparent desire literally to reshape herself. Kraus is alert to the dangers of this philosophy. In the later stages of her career, Acker found her work ‘ignored at the expense of her image’, and watched bitterly as her more conventional peers soaked up the critical acclaim. As Kraus bluntly puts it: ‘No one was talking about these writers’ tattoos.’ Acker ‘had fully complied with the notion that branding her image was the best way of advancing her difficult work. Had she made a mistake?’
It’s a fascinating and uncomfortable question, especially in today’s cultural climate of Twitter, selfies and candid interviews at the expense of genuine interpretation, when writers are increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as brands.
Kraus is both present and absent in this book, creating an intriguing tension. For the most part, she relies on Acker’s remarkable letters, allowing her to speak for herself. Presented with a passage of text, or an early art project, Kraus is an erudite, often unconventional critic. But this emphasis on looking has a distancing effect. When Acker appears on the South Bank Show, Kraus pointedly resists any intrusion into her psyche. Instead, she offers a reading of the TV segment itself. The effect is compelling: we’re watching Kraus watching Acker. But it is also disorienting.
Kraus’s tight rein on herself becomes even more noticeable when her own world borders on Acker’s. Readers of I Love Dick will feel a charge of anticipation when Dick Hebdige and Sylvère Lotringer appear. But Kraus allows no bleed between these texts, never directly acknowledging the overlap.
Were the intimacy of the relationship not celebrated on the book’s back cover, no one would fault Kraus’s hesitancy to become her own material. In the end, her fidelity is to her project: the first fully authorised biography of Acker, giving the writer the serious treatment unjustly denied her for so much of her life. As Kraus says of her subject: ‘Didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?’
Kraus has found a position from which to regard Acker. Now we must rethink the position from which we read her.