'I Love Dick's' Author Wants More Unlikable Female Leads
We caught up with Chris Kraus on the 20th anniversary of her cult classic that's now a TV show by Jill Soloway.
Photo courtesy of Semiotexte
I've lost count of the number of times I've foisted a copy of Chris Kraus's I Love Dick on unsuspecting friends over the years. My guess is that it's in the low double digits. I Love Dick is one of those books that radically reshapes the way you think about the conventions and possibilities of literature—part epistolary novel, part memoir, part art criticism, it captures an emotional landscape rarely seen in fiction. Now, her 1997 cult classic has been adapted into a television show by Jill Soloway, premiering May 12 on Amazon.
Beyond I Love Dick, Kraus is a filmmaker, professor, and author of three novels (2000's Aliens and Anorexia, 2006's Torpor, and 2012's Summer of Hate), several collections of criticism, and a new biography of Kathy Acker, coming out this summer. What makes Kraus so powerful to her devout, eccentric readership is her intelligence, emotional acuity, and willingness to be challenging on the page: "I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world," she writes in I Love Dick. For Kraus, emotions carry their own critical substance. Sadness, lust, domesticity, and abjection function in her work as intellectually legitimate subjects of consideration in and of themselves. By weaving the personal into political, historical, and philosophical material, Kraus subverts the respectability politics of "likability" that still burden female narrators today.
Kraus is also a powerful advocate for the writing of other women. In Aliens and Anorexia, a sequel of sorts to I Love Dick, she rescues the theorist Simone Weil from patronizing obscurity, anointing her the "most radical philosopher of sadness." In the forthcoming Acker biography, Kraus goes beyond the feminist writer's bad-girl image in order to show the tireless intellectual effort within her literary work. And as an editor at Semiotext(e) and the founder of its Native Agents imprint, Kraus has helped to establish a new canon by publishing work from new or undiscovered writers, including Michelle Tea, Fanny Howe, and Natasha Stagg.
Last month, Kraus was in New York for a conversation with Eileen Myles at the 92Y. The next morning, I met her at her hotel room where she had a coffee and croissant waiting for me. Over the course of an hour, we spoke about I Love Dick, the challenges of political art, and Kathy Acker.
Watch Broadly Meets 'Handmaid's Tale' Author Margaret Atwood:
VICE: I was wondering if you could tell me about your process. In I Love Dick, for example, the writing of the letters becomes a sort of meta-narrative of the text. It almost reads like the book writes itself.
Chris Kraus: It doesn't write itself. When it came out, people acted as if the book had magically appeared on my pillow just because I'd slept with Dick. I was writing letter after letter, but I didn't know until I was almost finished that really what I had done was write a book. After I finished the last letter, I rented a cabin out in the desert, took 500 pages with me, and wrote the third-person narrative that connects the letters. At that point, I was casting it as a comedy: Chris and Sylvère were like Punch and Judy characters. I tried to adopt the tone of an 18th-century romantic comedy. The letters were naïve and spontaneous, but the final format was very intentional. There's nothing really that personal about I Love Dick. Who hasn't had an affair? Who hasn't had a crush?
But there's also a way in which that hysteria is so compelling. I think you're right when you say that it's a book about being in your 20s. I'm at the end of it now, there's a way in which this whole decade has felt like a pantomime routine.
Torpor is more a book of your 30s, and Summer of Hate is a book of your 40s.
What was interesting to me about Summer of Hate is that it is the most traditionally novelistic of any of your books. It is also the most overtly political.
It's a very different subject matter. It's not set in the intellectual world of New York or Paris or LA. It's set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Phoenix, Arizona, in 2005 and 2006, the height of the Bush years. You'd go to the bank, and all the tellers were wearing American flag lapel pins. Everywhere was this cavalcade of flags. Bush was on the TV in every lobby. It was a complete barrage.
There is this part in Summer of Hate when the character based off Eileen Myles is speaking with the Chris character about the political situation of that moment. She says, "Isn't it weird, how nothing coming out now even mentions what's going on?" This stuck out to me. So much of "protest art" can fall so easily into kitsch or moralizing. It can be difficult to approach the world that we live in artistically, which is why I think a lot of artists shy away from it.
I think things have changed a bit since '05, '06. No one in the art world was talking about the present. It was as if none of these things were happening: the roundups of Muslim suspects all over the country, mass incarceration, even the big search for weapons of mass destruction and the incredible deception of the war. It was years before people started to talk about that. The art world was busy talking about the "political" in the abstract. But now everybody is talking about it. Still, it remains to be seen what effective channel will emerge in the present.
I haven't found that channel yet in my writing. But my ongoing work with Hedi El Kholti and Sylvere Lotringer, as co-editors of Semiotext(e), has always been an attempt to respond to the present. It's a highly curated list, almost a manifesto. Each of our books, whether fiction or critical theory or activist writings, offers a new perspective, a new way of thinking, understanding, and living.
One thing I've struggled with is writing about people I'm close to, even if I abstract them and fictionalize them. You wrote two books in which Sylvère is a character, even going so far as to inhabit his voice in your writing.
What do they call that in academia? Intersubjectivity? That's a Simone Weil thing. She defines beauty as that which moves you to see something without wanting to possess it. To let it fill you completely and see it as if you aren't there. I love that. I'm a Pisces, maybe that explains it. You absorb so much of those close to you on a subliminal and psychic level that eventually you have to manifest it.
"The great feminist philosopher Shulamith Firestone proposed a 'smile boycott' in The Dialectic of Sex, and it's not over yet. This feels like a final frontier: to be able to present a realistically imperfect, conflicted, and contradictory female protagonist."
What led you to write a literary biography of Kathy Acker?
Well, frankly, there've been so many cheesy memoirs about that period, the 70s and the 80s. The history feels false. I'm never going to write a memoir myself, so writing about someone else, who was active during those years, seemed like a way of writing a more truthful, alternative history. Writing about Acker's life was like composing a chronicle.
And she had a remarkable life. It wouldn't have worked if she weren't interesting. But tracing her life allowed me to move through those different cultural moments and, in the process, to write about a lot of people who have been written out of history. Because that's what art history and the canon always does. For every star, they have to kill 99 people.
Read More: Kathy Acker's Weird, Sexy, Touching Emails
That was one of the delights of the project: seeing the plethora of personalities, some of whom were familiar names, like Jackson MacLow and Eleanor Antin, and some of whom were totally unknown, like Pooh Kaye.
Really, what you're always trying to do when you write, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, is to capture the texture of time: what it feels like to be alive at any given moment. Pooh Kaye was very well known during those years. But these memoirs often edit other lives and careers to tell a singular story.
That was another thing I liked about it. It was refreshingly unsentimental, partially because you were so tightly focused on her career.
If you're going to write about a writer, why wouldn't you write mostly about their career? That's why you're writing about them.
In your conversation with Eileen Myles at the 92Y, you said that the project of writing a biography about a literary contemporary was something new for a woman writer to endeavor.
That's something men often do. A younger writer will study the successes and failures of a recent antecedent, as a way of clarifying his own project. Rick Moody did this brilliantly in his reading of William Gaddis. But I can't think of an instance where a female writer has staged this kind of encounter with another writer a generation, or half-generation, before her. And that seems like an important frontier: the freedom to be both appreciative and critical, without worrying if people will say, "Oh, she's just jealous," or, "Oh, she's just copying her." People personalize everything when it comes to women. Still.
I have been thinking about how rare it is still for a female narrator or writer to command the same space as a male one—the space to fuck up, to be annoying or neurotic, to obsess about her feelings, to be flawed, contradictory, human. What does it mean to have a "female I aimed outwards toward the world," as you wrote in Torpor?
I agree with you. Definitely this mandate for a likable female narrator is a feminist question. We're conditioned to make ourselves "likable" in real life. The great feminist philosopher Shulamith Firestone proposed a "smile boycott" in The Dialectic of Sex, and it's not over yet. This feels like a final frontier: to be able to present a realistically imperfect, conflicted, and contradictory female protagonist. If the "I" is aimed out, towards the world, it isn't pandering to the audience and craving approval at all times.
I wanted to ask you about the adaptation of I Love Dick. What has it been like to see it being taken out of your hands and being given new life?
It's definitely weird to see Kevin Bacon look at Kathryn Hahn and say, "You're Chris Kraus!" But I've detached from the book. I appreciate the show, but the adaptation doesn't concern me personally. Jill is an incredible director, and she couldn't have cast it better. I really admire the writers who work on the show. But an adaptation has to bring something new to the source material. Otherwise, it's not going to work.
The Chris character in your books is always concerned with her position as an outsider, and how her work is read or not read in mainstream academic circles. What is it like now to see your writing turned into a major TV show?
It was never my dream. My dream was just to be read seriously as a writer. I never imagined having a book being made into a TV show. But it happened. So what can you do except welcome it and enjoy it?
Follow Julia Bosson on Twitter.