chris kraus: when classic turns cult

Author of the cult feminist classic I Love Dick, Chris Kraus discusses the radical reception reissuing her revolutionary novel has had.

In 2015, when Serpent's Tail published Chris Kraus’ novel I Love Dick for the first time in the UK, almost twenty years after its original release, it caused a furore. It was praised as “one of the most important books about being a woman” ever written. Lena Dunham came out as a fervent fan-girl. The New Yorker ran over 3000 words on her. The literati collectively swooned. It was afforded the same reverence a long-buried Pompeian artefact might be, initially disregarded on account of being a domestic object, only to be excavated and polished up for 2015 and, in a new context, found to be a wondrously rare treasure that might change everything that came before it.

Photo by John Kelsey
Photo by John Kelsey

Kraus’ novels weren't always treated with such reverence. Running the inky division of letters, memoir and fiction I Love Dick, was met a frosty reception in 1977 when it was originally published by Semiotext(e) (from her own imprint Native Agents) partly because it defied categorisation but mainly because a woman wrote it. It’s a story that mirrored Kraus' own life and the fleeting affair she'd had with academic, Dick Hebdige too closely. After the protagonist, Chris, engages in a “conceptual” fuck with academic, Dick Blank, she enlists her husband in a twisted art project whereby they write letters to Dick. Eventually Chris leaves her husband, pursues Dick and her letter writing transforms into a new form of philosophy.

The “real” Chris was lamented as a classic female "crazy" and Hebdige issued a Cease and Desist. The fall out seemed to answer Chris' own question, which she poses in the novel: “Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question”.

Before reading the novel, it seemed to me people took Chris Kraus' writing very seriously. When her name would arise in conversation, usually it would go like this: a sharp intake of breath, lowered eyes, a hand to the chest, pause – “I Love Dick is so important. It changed my life." I wanted to stand up, bang the table and say, "Speak up will you, she's not to my knowledge!" Then I read the reviews. To what did I owe this demigod? One afternoon with the text and I had joined the ranks of second-wave Kraus converts, precocious students clutching copies on campuses and groupies proudly Instagramming themselves with the cover. I asked her why the novel has enjoyed a renaissance. “People are more inclined to get the joke now" she deadpans.

Kraus has also written Aliens and Anorexia, Torpor, and Summer of Hate, and a collection of essays, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness and Where Art Belongs. Kraus now lives in LA, is now is a Professor of Writing at the European Graduate School and contributes to myriad publications.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up?

On a good day, read and write diary.

What’s your first memory of writing?

Childhood apart, the excitement of writing feature stories for newspapers when I was in my late teens.  Sitting up late on a friend’s sun-porch, writing and rewriting, finding out what to say.

Can you describe to me, the room, or space in which you sit down and write in?

Vividly. There are two. Both small to medium sized, with wood blinds to block out the light when I work.  Cork board over the desk.  Candle on desk. Books – just ones pertaining to what I’m working on now. Some art, William S Burroughs screen print where I’m writing now. Try to force myself out for a walk when it gets too much.

What was growing up in New Zealand like?

Revelatory. A fixed sense of reality permanently shattered.  NZ was definitely an improvement over the blue-collar American suburb my family moved from. It felt cosmopolitan! It’s where I learned not to take yourself too seriously. I hope to write a long essay, or some kind of work, on NZ mid-century modernist writers like Frank Sargeson soon.

Why did you leave for NYC at 21 years-old?

Wanted to be an artist. Heard Patti Smith’s Horses, like 5000 other young women and moved to NY.

What were you like as a young woman at 21?

Gauche, earnest, a little intense. Not very sexy. Had a best girlfriend who did that.

What was the wildest thing you saw or experienced in the ‘70s in NYC?

On the periphery of the perennially celebrated club world. It took my breath away to see the elderly cashier at the Second Avenue deli in his short-sleeved summer shirt that revealed an Auschwitz tattoo.

Can you talk to me about the people you were hanging with (like Lee Breuer) and how they were impacting you?

Ruth Maleczek, his collaborated and one-time spouse, was much more of an influence. Ruth and Lee ran an informal school called ReCherChez … long critiques every Friday night, where Ruth and Lee, rather than we as their students, almost exclusively talked. It was kind of a family, but with some rigour too: art definitely what brought us together; drama within the drama occurred but was secondary.

When you were training as an actress what did you learn about gender performance?

Not much. Gender never seemed to me like the leading card. The idea was to use what you had. Presence seemed more important than gender, and gender (perhaps because of my topless dancing experience) always seemed more like an affect to me. Ruth told me I’d never make it as an actress, and she was right. She suggested I start making films, because she thought filmmaking – montage, emotion, meaning via montage – was closer to my artistic process. I kept trying to change everything about myself, posture, voice, grooming – to be an actress, but to not much avail.

What is it we’re seeking through love and sex? What are the possibilities and limits, how are they conduits to expanded consciousness?

You go to great lengths to rubbish your career as a film-maker, why?

Just trying to crack a joke. The response to my films at the time was atrocious. Decided to take my critics at their word. Writing is very physical, even though finally transmuted through words.

When did you meet Sylvère Lotringer and how did your world change when you did?

I did my first real artistic work, a play, Disparate Action/Desperate Action, at ReCherChez in 1980, and wrote personal letters inviting ten famous, important people.  Sylvère was the only one who showed up.  We had a brief affair, and then re-met three years later, began working together on a theatre piece called I Talked About God With Antonin Artaud, and then films, and became close.

Can you tell me a bit about those feelings you've discussed previously, whereby you felt like the secondary person in your relationship with Sylvère?

It’s humiliating to be at a party or dinner and be completely ignored, even when you make a direct statement or ask someone a question. People would always look at Sylvère. I’ve seen the phenomenon repeated, reversed when attending art events with my ex-partner, or other close friends who are art world civilians.  And I feel very angry about this on their behalf.  People are dogs about power – especially in the cultural world. People in business and politics are a lot smarter: they know that if you want something, the best route is to make friends with the spouse. When I moved to LA and lived alone for the first time in a long time, it moved me almost to tears that people would look at me when we talked. 

Sensually how did LA differ as a location to New York?

I felt very alive. LA is more lonely, anomic, more open.  Less competitive, which I’ve always liked.

How does it feel for I Love Dick, almost twenty years later, to be spoken about in the context of words like “cult” and "seminal" when the initial reception was so mixed?

I’m flattered that people see it as seminal, though I don’t share that view.  I think the book came out of other traditions that influenced me a great deal: New York, and post New York School poetry, with its thousands of antecedents; Kathy Acker’s early work; performance art.  It all seemed pretty ordinary to me at the time: I wasn’t the first married woman to ever have had an affair.  It’s ‘revelatory’ aspect, the a clef and naming of known names, I later realised, was done brilliantly by Mary McCarthy in The Company She Keeps and other works.  The reception to her work was similarly polarised. I was happy about being a "troublemaker", bring it on! I don't care if people like my work but it’s nice when they do.

Can you explain the term "Lonely Girl Phenomenology"?

Possibly. For me, it meant coming home from the topless club at 4 in the morning, reading Merleau Ponty, and feeling as if he was describing my feelings exactly. See, also, Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl work.  

There are a few references to "Charles Bovary" can you elaborate on that please?

That’s Sylvère riffing on Flaubert, who was always one of our favourites.  Not just Madame Bovary, but also A Simple Heart, and Bouvard & Pecuchet. I think we stencilled Boulevard & Pecuchet on our pickup truck once, as if that was our company name.  

You were accused of invading Dick’s privacy, do you think that’s a fair assertion? He sent you a cease and desist and compared himself to Princess Diana...

Not at all. I never revealed his surname, the titles of his books, or other personal information.  His appearance and history were somewhat changed.  The Cease & Desist letter clearly came from a storefront lawyer, and we treated it like a joke.  A lawyer friend read the ms., and said, nothing to worry about there.  So we published the book.  Dick outed himself in a New York magazine gossip piece by giving a quote about how reprehensible the book was.  And yes, he compared himself to Princess Diana, as if the book was trading on his ‘celebrity.'

Photo by Reyaldo Rivera
Photo by Reyaldo Rivera

Why do you think I Love Dick has come back into favour, now?

People more inclined to get the joke now.  It’s a unifying experience now, not a polarising one.

Do you think of it as a Romance? A Comedy?

A comedy, a satire, a manifesto, a rant. A case study. I never saw myself as the kind of writer who invents characters and plots, so case study – the mandate to simply be accurate – seemed most fitting.

Dick is the strong, silent type – is his ‘mystique’ face value?

Yes, you can project onto Dick whatever you want. “Dear Dick” becomes “Dear Diary.”  But having Dick, at first, as a real or imagined addressee, made it possible for me to overcome the self-consciousness that previously had made writing impossible for me. Letters were the most convenient way. Passion in the letters, and sang-froid, tongue in cheek narration.

Chris' romantic and creative determinations seem bound together. Are yours?

Not any more. Dick an inoculation against future obsessions.

In what most notable ways are you as a person, different from the person you were when I Love Dick was first published?

Each of my books is written from a different place, and the reason they aren’t more frequent is it takes time to arrive at that place, and more time still to figure out how to write from it.  Already, by Aliens & Anorexia, I realised I couldn’t write completely from the ‘outsider’ position any more – that would be false.  For better or worse, I’ve been taken somewhat seriously in the art world, and have tried to rise somewhat to that level of gravitas in my art writing. Now maybe I’m trying to shed it, a bit.  

You’ve been almost raised inside the “art bubble”, what did you learn?

It’s where I put myself, and I learned not just the politics of art, I hope, but the internal process as well. I like to try to understand people’s work from the inside out, not merely positioning it within an art historical framework, but empathising with the artist’s process: how they arrived at the work, what the work is trying to DO.

Who did you discover succeeds in the art pantheon and why?

When I wrote I Love Dick, I was bitter and disillusioned by the number of great and significant artists who’d passed under the radar.  I’m less attuned to this now, having become more of an art world ‘insider’ – what I notice now is the importance of persistence.  And, I hate to say it, but often male artists are more profligate with this persistence: making lots and lots of work, rather than getting stuck on one track. If you make enough work, eventually it will become inevitable. 

Great female artists and writers are incorporating emotion and thought in a way that completely transcends the small, petty ‘personal.’ 

What has been your greatest personal struggle?

I felt desperate when I was 25: Would I still be an artist when I was 35?  30 or so seemed like the critical, cutting-off point. You either prevail, or become a lawyer or therapist. Meeting Sylvère made it possible for me to continue trying long enough to prevail.

What for you is a “meaningful life”?

To do something you believe is important, that touches other people’s lives.  

Talk to me about the phrase “academic groupie”…

The way that people position themselves around power is transparent, annoying, but finally funny. I wasn’t anywhere near the ballpark, didn’t have the language, connections or tools.  Fan-girl more like it.  

Female writing and artistry is still almost always prefaced by gender. How do you think we break that down?

Persistence. I just blurbed a great, new book by Rachel Nagelberg, The Fifth Wall, and saw it as falling within a new and exciting tradition of female philosophical fiction. Gender in this case becomes a strength. Great female artists and writers are incorporating emotion and thought in a way that completely transcends the small, petty ‘personal.’ Bela Tara’s The Turin Horse, I think of that movie, the movie of death and the anthropocene, over and over again.  

Do “love” and “sex” feel trivial as subject matters?

If they end there. The more interesting question is, what is it we’re seeking through love and sex? What are the possibilities and limits, how are they conduits to expanded consciousness?

Why do you talk openly about your own sex life?

It’s the one I know best.

Why do you write about middle-life love?

Cause that’s where I was when I wrote about it.  Sadly, because I started writing so late in my life, I never wrote a book of young love. I envy my students for that.  

What would you say to the idea that “difficult women” are fashionable now?

Are they?  The same archetypes repeat over and over: from German Expressionism to the endlessly replayed NY of the 70s & 80s images, everyone loves the crazy girl. 

Have female artists come on leaps and bounds in terms of finding new ways to insert themselves into the literary or art worlds...?

I think, leaps and bounds. I look at people like Dayna Tortorici and Elizabeth Gumport in n+1, and am in awe.

What are your hopes for your artistic and personal legacy?

I’d like for people to read and enjoy my books.

What are you currently reading?

Peter Handke’s beautiful Short Letter, Long Farewell.

How do you relax?

Drinking a glass of tequila now while I answer these questions.  But usually: a bike ride or walk.  

Do you have any bad habits?

I smoke when I write but don’t tell my health insurance carrier.

Do you have any regrets?

Many.

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