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Chris Kraus on her radical 1997 novel ‘I Love Dick’

Almost 20 years after it was published, a new generation of women is finding kinship with the author’s radical first novel, ‘I Love Dick’. Here she speaks to Dazed

Blurring the lines of fiction, letters and memoir, Chris Kraus's first novel, I Love Dick, caused a sensation when it was originally published in 1997. Over the last two decades its popularity has evolved from niche and divisive to a crucial and widely celebrated feminist text. Published by Semiotext(e), from her own imprint Native Agents, I Love Dick established a new kind of genre, a form that lies somewhere between cultural criticism and fiction. Kraus was born in New Zealand, moved to New York at 21 and became immersed in the burgeoning downtown art and poetry scene, staging performances and making experimental films. She now lives in Los Angeles. Since I Love Dick, Kraus has authored the novels Aliens and Anorexia, Torpor, and Summer of Hate, as well as the collection of essays “Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness” and “Where Art Belongs”. A Professor of Writing at the European Graduate School, she writes about art and critical theory for academic publications and multiple magazines. Cited by Index as “one of the most subversive voices in American fiction”, her work has been praised for its “damning intelligence” and “savage humour”. Last year I Love Dick was published in the UK for the first time by Serpents Tail – and became available in paperback this month. Intrigued about the longevity of this radical first book, and its influence on both her own politics; and the politics of artistic and literary culture since, I met with Kraus at the apartment she was staying at in London, as part of a whistlestop tour around Europe.

I want to start by talking to you about the use of the first person in I Love Dick, and how that becomes inextricable from the politics of writing as a woman. Throughout history, the male ‘I’ has been ubiquitous, and the female ‘I’ deemed self-obsessed and narcissistic.

Chris Kraus: When I was writing the book it seemed very important to reclaim the ‘I’. Even now, when women use the first person, its perceived as a little sullied, compromised, not completely whole. No one blinks at the male ‘I’ because it is considered to be the universal. Because I was writing letters I didn’t have any self-consciousness about using the first person, the way you might in a diary. You’re not thinking about yourself when you write to somebody else, you’re talking to them. It was a breakthrough. The ‘I’ became effortless. During this period, I had started to edit the ‘Native Agents’ series for Semiotext(e). After three or four books, I realised they were almost all written by women and written in the first person. They weren’t memoirs – it was an introspective and adventurous first person. That was the kind of female ‘I’ that I was hoping to promote.

I Love Dick is a very witty book. However, these moments are treated with as much levity as passages that consider the history of women’s oppression. Notions of “high” and “low” subject matter are equally weighted. I wanted to ask you about your relationship to humour, particularly in relation to this word people use to describe the book, as “abject”.

Chris Kraus: I’m definitely trying to write passages of the book as comedy. When I wrote the book I was writing it through a kind of character mask. In the text between the letters, where I am talking about the characters in the third person as ‘Chris’ and ‘Sylvère’, I had set myself up to write a story – and hopefully, an amusing and entertaining one. To me, the book is much more a comedy than an exercise in the abject.

The idea of the abject ties into the initial reception of the book when it was first published. The book was criticised for being “confessional”. What was your reaction to that?

Chris Kraus: The word confession is so odd. As if any discussion of female experience, because it is so inherently shameful, would have to be a confession rather than a description. I was surprised that people took the book that way. It came out at the end of 1997, and by that point there had been the whole East Village transgressive art thing. People biting the heads off rats in a performance, or spattering HIV tainted blood at the audience. And this was a book about having an affair? (laughs) Has no one left a husband before?

Those criticisms also imply that there was no level of craft required in writing the book; that women writers are just splurging confessions and emotion and not thinking analytically about what they’re doing. There is a great deal of self-awareness and consideration of formal structure in I Love Dick. You talk about Kierkegaard’s “Third Remove” as a means to concurrently do something and analyse it at the same time.

Chris Kraus: Thank you. Well, that’s using form, right? I didn’t study writing. I studied theatre. When I started writing the book, I had a strong sense of things taking place in a frame. The space in performance is always framed. There can be a lot of wildness, but it is always bracketed. It’s not amorphous. There can be an incredible bandwidth of emotion and feeling within those brackets, but the fact that it is framed is giving it a form, and that alters the way that it is seen. It makes it more possible to see it.

The first person that you employ in I Love Dick manages to subvert the universal male ‘I’, by relaying an experience that isn’t singular, but broad and endlessly varied, just like female experience. I was moved by the passage where you watch Eleanor Antin’s films and feel this palpable sense of historical closeness, as if you have tapped into an unwritten shared moment of collective women’s history.

Chris Kraus: I was enraged at that moment about the obscurity of some of this history. 20-years-later, maybe some of this obscurity isn’t such a bad thing. Most of the art historical canon has been so rehashed and regurgitated that there is nothing startling or exciting about it. Obscurity and repression can make the work feel very alive, which means that people connect to it so powerfully all these years later. There was a retrospective last year of Carl Andre’s work at Dia Art Foundation. These women caught the train from upstate New York and had a ‘cry in’ in honour of Ana Mendieta. Afterwards, people wrote that they didn’t think they could get into it, but once they were sitting there and thinking about that history they were overwhelmed with grief and spontaneously started crying. How many same old stories, about people like Andy Warhol et cetera, can have such a powerful effect on people in the present? Due to the suppression of Ana Mendieta’s work at the time, the discovery of it now is that much more alive. Things can get retread to the point that you can’t even see them anymore.

“The word confession is so odd. As if any discussion of female experience, because it is so inherently shameful, would have to be a confession rather than a description” – Chris Kraus

What other women writers were you inspired by when writing I Love Dick?

Chris Kraus: At the time of writing the book, the writers who were important to me were the philosopher Simone Weil, Jane Bowles the fiction writer, poets Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, certainly Eileen Myles who I knew from around New York, the writer Ann Rower who I was friends with and whose book I published, and bell hooks.

I’m glad you mentioned Eileen Myles. I was reading her introduction to the 2006 edition of I Love Dick, and she discusses how other women writers, such as Doris Lessing, depressed her because the characters always ended up with a “loss of self” and “winding up pregnant, desperate or waiting on some man”. Were you equally dissatisfied?

Chris Kraus: Yes, those stories always had to be so sad. I think if you’re focusing on the lesbian narrative in fiction in the 20th century then that’s dreadful too. Up until the very end of the 20th century, those books always ended badly. For straight women, it was often not a very happy story either. Even the women we would most revere and admire in 20th century literature were quite louche, or they were alcoholics, committed suicide, or were exiled. They had really difficult lives. I wrote about Margaret Sanger recently and was fascinated. She was the founder of Planned Parenthood and originally an anarchic socialist. As a leftist she volunteered to work in public health in the slums of New York and immediately saw that the need for contraception was enormous. She provided and promoted contraception illegally and was indicted. She was married and had two small children, but she skipped bail and left them to go and live in Europe. How villainised now would a woman be for doing such a thing, for making such a choice?

The demonising and marginalisation of women runs through I Love Dick, you write about Jennifer Hanbury, Katherine Mansfield, Hannah Wilke, Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago, among many others. An anecdote about a biography of Elaine de Kooning presents a portrait of a period where women were completely worthless. The art world, in general, is evoked as a very hostile place for women.

Chris Kraus: It really was, and I wouldn’t say that has completely changed. Going around the contemporary art world now, so many of the people who create and support the career, the curators, gallerists, and dealers, are women. It’s common to see these incredibly dynamic and gifted women nurturing and maintaining the careers of male art stars. You don’t see that happening in the same way with women. A woman who is trying to work in that arena has a lot less support and tends to be on her own. The cultivation of the male celebrity artist, as done by all these gifted women, still makes me catch my breath sometimes.

The notion of the “male celebrity artist” sounds like one of the archetypes you use in the book, such as the Bataille Boys, or the Bad Feminist, the Art Monster, the Corporate Wife of the Avant-Garde… I could go on. Was that part of the intended humour too?

Chris Kraus: Yeah, they were part of cracking a joke, turning these characters into the archetypes that everyone knows they are. There are always archetypes. People are most at home with cliché and received ideas, in whatever form.

My response to the character of Dick was that he was also an archetype, that he represented men, rather than an individual. Following the original publication of the book, there was this obsession with who the ‘real’ Dick was.

Chris Kraus: I was surprised by the interest in the identity of Dick __. It certainly was never a book about that person. He was upset about it and sent a cease and desist letter when he found out that it was going to be a published. I was shocked, I called him up, I said this was never about you, why don’t you write an introduction, and everyone will think this is a joke we cooked up together. He was completely appalled by that. A friend of Sylvère’s wrote a piece for New York Magazine about the book and the cease and desist letter. The magazine had a clue about who Dick was, so they called him up, and he outed himself in order to denounce it. In order to say what a despicable piece of trash it was, he was quoted by his full name, which was never there in the book. I never named his published works. I changed his physical description and other biographical details. There was really no reason for his name to be associated with the book.

You initially published I Love Dick from the ‘Native Agents’ series you started at Semiotext(e). What moved you start your own imprint? It’s been very significant in terms of exposing audiences to writers who aren’t well known in the mainstream.

Chris Kraus: It seemed so necessary at the time. I was living with Sylvère and he was already publishing the Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents series – the little black books of French theory. They were so influential and desirable, they were like fashion objects in the art world; everyone had them tucked into their pockets. I knew all these great writers from my life before Sylvère, being in the East Village and at the Poetry Project, whose books really needed to come out. I thought if we could publish them with Semiotext(e) then some of that cache could get transferred. I started the series and we began to see it as an analogue to the French theory books. If Deleuze and Guattari are describing radical theories of subjectivity, this is its practice. I’m no longer the sole editor of Native Agents. Hedi El Khoti joined as a co-editor and we work closely on the fiction list. The Semiotext(e) theory books are much more about economic theory, discussing the present moment, the neoliberal condition, and how we got there. We’re interested in fiction books that describe the psychic experience of that. We just published Natasha Stagg’s book (Stagg and Kraus are in conversation in the latest Dazed issue - Spring/Summer 2016). Natasha’s book is about a young woman who works in a meaningless market research company in a mall in Arizona, and then becomes an Internet celebrity. It’s a new form of female subjectivity – one that is totally influenced by social media and the presentation of self in that form.

Do you think women’s writing is getting more exposure in the years that have elapsed since you published I Love Dick, in 1997?

Chris Kraus: Yes, thankfully, and in a much less ghettoised way. It’s no longer off in a niche called women’s this or women’s that. There are so many more books by women circulating. We are reaching a point where female writing is almost as universal as male.

“I’m not writing about feminism. I’m a woman writing about things” – Chris Kraus

In the last few years here in the UK there has been a surge of self-publishing, particularly by women creating feminist or queer DIY independent magazines and zines. These publications often aren’t about feminism in an explicit sense, it’s just the politics that underscore their engagement with the world and feeds into their perception of a multitude of subjects, on art, fashion, literature, politics, sport, anything! However, cultural gatekeepers seem to perceive them as niche, and have a feminist quota, rather than looking at the topics these editors or writers are actually engaging with. I think the same thing happens with exhibitions – often women’s art is all lumped together in the ‘feminist’ room.

Chris Kraus: It’s so messed up. I see that often applied as an adjective to my work too – ‘the feminist writer’. I’m not writing about feminism. I’m a woman writing about things. Even at symposiums, the tendency is that the women invited are there to talk about ‘women’s issues’. Can’t you find a female economist to talk about economics? Can’t you find a woman whose talking about warfare, or the Internet, or media? Why is it that the woman invited is always talking about something specifically female? It’s so insulting. As if they have no thoughts about anything else.

When was the big change in readership for I Love Dick? Did it gain more traction when it was reprinted again in 2006?

Chris Kraus: That was the big change, particularly due to the blogging moment, which was a powerful assertion of female work and female sensibility. All these brilliant women, who later became published writers, like Kate Zambreno, Ariana Reines, Jackie Wang, started mentioning the book on their blogs. The structure of the book itself also fell right into the blogging context. If the technology had been different in 1997, I Love Dick could have been a blog. People don’t blog anymore in the same way, but it’s momentum moved across the decade and has manifested in much more public, commercial and widely distributed forms, like Lena Dunham’s work, or Orange is the New Black. Mind you, even some of the critical discourse around Girls when it came out was so surprising to me. What’s so unusual or objectionable about a show about young women in that particular demographic and socio-economic niche? It was criticised as obnoxious. Ten years earlier, Rick Moody and Whit Stillman had been writing books and making movies about wealthy young people getting out of Brown or whatever school, and acting pretty badly and irresponsibly. No one criticised those works in the same way.

The Girls phenomenon brought an appetite for female-driven television and web series to the fore. We are also in the midst of fourth wave Internet feminism. Women are using platforms like Instagram to depict diverse representations of female bodies, or talking openly about stigma, oppression and mental health on Twitter. I Love Dick pre-empts that dynamic. I wondered if you felt there was a connection between the book, and your Lonely Girl Phenomenology, to something like Audrey Wollen’s “Sad Girl Theory””?

Chris Kraus: I love Audrey Wollen’s work; I really admire what she has been doing, taking sadness out of the ghetto, and allowing it to be part of a female presence. I see a real similarity in our projects. She’s not putting out all this stuff for the sake of airing her feelings, or some kind of therapeutic reason or confession. She’s using herself as a case study by politicising something that is particular to her and universalising it.

You have commented that I Love Dick laid the groundwork for all your future writing, but you have also said that you would never be able to write a book like that again. How do you write now and what are you currently working on?

Chris Kraus: I write differently. It was my first book and that feeling of confidence that I could write one was extremely important. My habits as a writer still haven’t changed that much. I had to run away to different places to write I Love Dick. I took the 500 pages of crazy notes that I’d been carting around with me for two years and rented a cabin in the desert. I’m doing that with the book I’m working on now, I have to take myself out of my normal life to write. This new book is very different. After my fourth novel, Summer of Hate, I realised I probably wasn’t going to write fiction using events from my recent past in the same way. My life is different and it doesn’t lend itself to that anymore. I’m writing a critical biography of Kathy Acker. It is extremely sourced and I’m trying to make it read like a novel. I never write ‘I’, but sometimes when I’m writing ‘she’ I feel like I could be. It’s like a séance between Kathy and me. I am working with the sources and internalising them in the same way that I used my own lived experience in the other books.

If you had to define Chris Kraus as one of your critical archetypes, now in 2016, who would you be?

Chris Kraus: The Jaded Writer (both laugh).