Josie Mitchell talks to Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, about her new biography, After Kathy Acker, which looks at the life and work of the artist twenty years after her death. They discuss New York in the 1970s, the sexual content of Acker’s work and the author’s complex generosity.
Read ‘The Fashion of Kathy Acker’, an extract from the biography, here.
What drew you to write a biography of Kathy Acker? What made you feel that you could write this book?
I first thought about writing the book in 1998, shortly after she died. I was shocked that her life had ended so soon, and in such a relatively obscure, lonely way. But, luckily I didn’t: the book I would have written then would have been too sentimental. In 2014 I thought about writing the book again, partly in reaction to the extremely mythologized vision of New York in the 1970s and 80s depicted in memoirs, novels, photo exhibitions and films. I realized then that I might be the perfect person to write her biography: we’d known many of the same people, had many of the same cultural influence. As a writer, I felt I could understand her process and formal strategies, and the way she used image and branding to build her career.
Mitchell: When did you first come across Acker’s work, and what impression did it make on you?
Kraus: I read Acker’s early work when I moved to New York in the late 1970s. Her early writings and novels were around the East Village, in small press editions. They were very well known, and somewhat notorious. I inhaled these works, and they went straight to my heart. I was less interested in her later work. But I came to appreciate it more when I reread it, researching the book.
Mitchell: Like Acker, you were in New York during the 1970s, what, if anything, do you recognise of the city she describes in her work?
Kraus: Acker’s very funny in her early work – she hyperbolizes wildly – but it was all very recognizable: the Jewish grandmother who controls everyone with her money, depicted as a retired courtesan straight out of Colette, and the perennial boyfriends who come home with Janey and never see her again, were total tropes of that time and place. The slum descriptions are more generic, but Acker nails social anxieties in a way that nobody else really did.
In her writing, e.g. her early novel Blood and Guts in High School, Acker portrays relationships with men as painful but necessary. Though she’s ambivalent about men and their problematic behavior, Acker is a woman who desires and fucks men. This sex-positive feminism is perhaps less radical today than it was in the 70s. What was it like to read her work back then?
The sexual content of Acker’s work wasn’t unusual at that time. Vito Acconci masturbated under a bridge in front of gallery viewers, Carolee Schneeman filmed herself and her partner having sex. What was shocking was the bluntness and total disclosure she used to describe relationships, the social behavior within the aftermath of the ‘great sexual revolution’, which, her writing suggests, didn’t serve women all that well.
Biographers and historians often complain that their access to their subject is impeded by family and friends. They can refuse to share information and documents, or offer access to estates, often in the belief that they are protecting the deceased. (I’m thinking, for example, of Janet Malcolm’s battle with the Hughes’s over her biography of Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman). It seemed to me, reading your biography, that you faced a different challenge: Acker’s friends and family were quite obliging, whereas Acker herself was the challenge. You say that she fictionalized her own story in ways that are ‘hard to fathom’. How was this challenging as a biographer? And to what extent is this book about uncovering the ‘real’ Kathy, compared to recording and celebrating her many self-mythologies?
There’s no ‘real’ Kathy, and I think that any biography that sets itself up as definitive is false. The Kathy Acker in my book is a hologram, synthesized from the research: letters and diaries, archival materials, her writings, recollections of her associates, colleagues and friends. I wanted to establish some basic facts, like when she was born, where she went to school, how she supported herself, when she received her inheritance, etc. These are all verifiable facts, but people’s accounts of the same times and events differ wildly. Gathering these multiple, often contradictory, perspectives on Kathy’s activities and the artistic worlds that she moved through was a big part of what interested me. I didn’t know Kathy. The journalist Jason McBride is working on another biography of Acker, and I’m sure ‘his’ Kathy Acker will be very different from mine.
Acker died twenty years ago at the age of fifty. Since then, her writing has become associated with what people might now term ‘autofiction’, a form of semi-fictionalised autobiography. Which, incidentally, is also true of your own writing. What would you say is Acker’s legacy? How has she been influential on other writers, and is it tied into the idea of autofiction?
I think Acker hasn’t been influential enough on writers during the last decade or so! People haven’t known her work very well, but hopefully this will change soon. Penguin and Grove are both republishing her novel Blood and Guts in High School, with other books maybe to come. What’s radical about Acker’s work is its directness and emotional intensity, arrived at through formal means. She’s talking straight to you . . . but her writing is very deliberate, and conceptually framed. Kathy and I – and other writers, especially New Narrative writers like Dodie Bellamy and Robert Glück – have dipped into the tradition of autofiction and first-person writing, from Catullus and Propertius to Japanese myths, to Colette and the Beat writers, all of whom create intimacy between writer and reader through deceptively simple means. Autobiography was never Acker’s goal, and it wasn’t mine.
In her biography of Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar admits that, knowing of the problematic things Highsmith did and believed, Schenkar begins to dislike her. In her introduction she writes that Highsmith ‘wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her would have called her a generous woman.’ How did your own relationship with Acker change as you got to know her better? Do you like her?
Actually, Acker could be tremendously generous to those she didn’t perceive as a threat. When she first arrived in London, she hosted a kind of open salon for younger women writers in her apartment. She was an incredibly generous teacher, accepting and challenging at the same time, there’s no debate among her former students about that. But – partly because of the rules of the game at that time, and partly because of her own disposition – she was fiercely competitive, even annihilating, of any writers, especially women, who were her peers. Someone asked me during a q & a after a reading if I liked Kathy, and I said no. Everyone laughed . . . but really, liking a subject of a biography isn’t the point. I admired her to begin with, and as I continued researching and writing the book, I admired her more. She was obviously brilliant, she was courageous, and she had an incredible work ethic. The ‘choices’ she made in her personal life that might seem unwise to us from the outside were never destructive of her writing life, which she valued above all.
I wonder, what do you imagine Acker would think of your biography?
Sadly, I don’t think she’d like it that much.
After Kathy Acker is available now.