the power of cult feminist writer kathy acker

Chris Kraus’s new book, a biography of the cult writer, replaces Kathy Acker in the rightful place in the canon.

by Anastasiia Fedorova
24 August 2017, 10:22am

Mark Baker

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

When a writer becomes a cult figure, it's often for something more than their writing. Their style or their attitude, their sex life or personal life, and often, their death. The images of the cult writer survive as readily as their work. The fable of their life as big as what they've actually written.

Kathy Acker for example. Immortalised in photographs as readily as we remember her work; punky, butch, sexy, tattooed, cropped hair, astride a motorbike. An American punk poet in London for much of her life, spurned usually by the literary world. Her work mixed pop culture, punk rock, radical feminism, and experimental literature. To use a cliche, it's more relevant than ever. Most of your favourite radical-pop-feminist literary experimentalists working in the digital age can probably trace a germ of influence back to Kathy, who died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 50.

Kathy Acker remains a largely underground literary figure. In the post-digital world of today, we are convinced that anyone's creative output is carefully preserved — but women slip into oblivion more often than men, especially if they're punky, experimental, radical feminists. I Love Dick writer Chris Kraus, a feminist cult figure in her own right, has taken on the task of summing up Kathy's importance and putting her in her rightful place in the canon, in her upcoming biography After Kathy Acker.

To picture how different the world was was Kathy Acker started out, it's enough to simply mention that her breakthrough literary work was distributed through post. Acker wrote The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula in 1973, which was printed monthly and mailed to a list of prominent people in the art world, a list she got off an artist friend Eleanor Antin. It was cheap, it was DIY, it created both an enigmatic persona and a keen audience. The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula established Acker's experimental approach to writing: sections from her personal diaries were mixed with fragments from cheap paperbacks about murderesses, underwear ads and 19th Century crime novels.

"Kathy Acker remains a largely underground literary figure. In the post-digital world of today, we are convinced that anyone's creative output is carefully preserved — but women slip into oblivion more often than men."

The two works which followed — I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec — followed the same pattern. Acker's subtly fictionalised first person accounts of working in Times Square sex shows and strip bars of San Diego; her health issues, her lusts and sexual encounters, her fears, ambitions and memories sharp and ruthless. Juxtaposed with fragments from various literary sources rewritten verbatim, these experiences created a completely new type of narrative which still, years later, feels mind-blowingly experimental. "At age 30, I was working in a cookie shop. There was absolutely nothing in the society that in any way made it seem possible for me to earn my living as a writer," Acker once said. "I was, & still am, the most non-commercial of writers. I said, if X doesn't exist you have to make it exist. You just imagine it."

Acker has always been a taboo breaker. Her most acclaimed novel Blood and Guts in High School opens with an exchange between the 10-year-old protagonist, Janey Smith, and her father, who is also her lover. The book is -- obviously -- not an easy read: the narrator constantly shifts and jumps from the first to third person, there are cut up dialogues and poems, obscene drawings and dream maps. Or for example, in her 1986 novel Don Quixote the female protagonist has an abortion and sardonically quips -- "I like it when men take care of me."

Compared to Acker's output anything labeled remotely experimental today seems weak and conformist. Our whole culture, in fact, seems incredibly sanitised and hypocritical, especially when it comes to talking about female experience: we're used to habitual online slut shaming and nipples being censored on Instagram. The topics of menstruation and abortion are still taboo. All these contemporary issues crop up in Acker's work.

"Disinclined toward conventional narrative but determined to write constantly, producing a book at least every two years, Acker worked and reworked her memories until, like the sex she described, they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth. This was the strength, and also the weakness, of her writing," Chris Kraus surmises in After Kathy Acker.

"We're used to habitual online slut shaming and nipples being censored on Instagram. The topics of menstruation and abortion are still taboo. All these contemporary issues crop up in Acker's work."

The book traces the transformation of experimental artist into literary rock star, an emergence of a carefully crafted identity. Kraus goes through Acker's archive, her diaries, letters and postcards, and accounts of friends and lovers — following her moves between New York, California and London, unravelling artistic and sexual crushes, casting a look over her motorcycles and Vivienne Westwood coats. "A 1982 portrait shows Acker wearing an artfully deconstructed hand-knit sweater. Her fingers taper into long, manicured nails and a slim feather trails down to her shoulder from one of her multi-pierced ears," she describes in one passage.

From the very beginning of her artistic career, Acker deliberately fictionalised her biography, constantly repeating and reinventing various details. But today her myth exists within the world which is a myth in itself: the fictionalised universe of 1970-80s New York and 1990s London. At the hand of Kraus, it's more more than just a backdrop — Solana Beach parking lots, the lesbian BDSM clubs of San Francisco, the dingy sex shows of Times Square and lofts of New York truly become alive. "More than four decades later, it's almost impossible to imagine the texture of daily life in 1970s New York. Memoirs and novels, photography exhibitions, ephemera, and archival blogs summon a vision of unrepeatable freedom and danger," Kraus writes. Even more importantly, the cityscapes are populated with the era's prominent artists, writers and musicians, including notable female creative pioneers — Constance DeJong, Bernadette Mayer, Martha Rosler and Eleanor Antin to name a few.

In the recent years Chris Kraus herself has become a cult figure and feminist icon. Her novel I Love Dick, originally published in 1997, is more popular than it's ever been, with TV adaptation released in May. I Love Dick explores the narrator's obsession with the eponymous cultural theorist Dick, and skilfully merges autobiographical and fictional. Kraus originally started her career as an experimental filmmaker, and all of her books also inevitably deal with the experience of being female in male-dominated cultural spaces.

Read: Forgotten moments in pop culture: When queer academic Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls.

In Kraus's 2006 novel, Torpor, there is a scene which reflects perfectly the controversial nature of Kathy Acker's fame. It's 1991 in Berlin, and three men are trying to compose a list for a literary anthology of "who's hot within the American counterculture". Kraus's first person narrator (who shares, as always, a lot of her traits) points out that there aren't any women on the list. Embarrassed, one of them ventures: "How about Kathy Acker?"

"The image she's invented for herself is every bit as radical and striking as her writing," Chris writes. With her shaved head, red ruby lips and muscles, she shows off her tattoos in vintage lingerie. At other times, she wears a muscle-shirt and boots and rides a Harley. Her photographs are everywhere: The Face, i-D and Interview. And better — still — one of her books has just been banned in Germany as child pornography," she continues. "Of course, if there has to be a woman, Acker would be it. Her books seduce and challenge heterosexual men; her photos just seduce them."

This passage sums up perfectly the issues Kathy Acker's feminist contemporaries has had with her persona, the way, posthumously she became more than just a feminist writer too, all those problems that circle when a writer becomes more than just a writer.

But After Kathy Acker proves that there was something grander and more meaningful about her and her work. It was feeling of kinship, creative, personal and historical, that drove Kraus to write Acker's biography. And for all feminist artists, writers and cultural figures, both of the past and present — there is still a unifying common cause of fighting against obscurity and oblivion.

After Kathy Acker is out on 31 August from Allen Lane.

kathy acker
Chris Kraus
after kathy acker