The Revival of Chris Kraus and her Radical Novel ‘I Love Dick’

In 1997, Chris Kraus published an under the radar novel, "I Love Dick". 20 years later, the mainstream caught on. SLEEK speaks to her about feminism, failure and fame

Chris Kraus photographed by Christian Werner, courtesy of the photographer

Hello Chris, how are you doing?

Good morning. It’s the Trump Inauguration, and appropriately it’s dark, gloomy and raining.

The German translation of “I Love Dick” has just come out, and there’s been momentum building around the book 20 years after it was released. Why this resurgence?

Something changed radically two to three years ago, when the book started to be picked up in more mainstream circles, and the book was republished commercially in the UK. We had somebody at Frankfurt Book Fair selling the rights. So it’s come out in 12 or maybe 14 different countries – it’s come out in China, it’s come out all over the place. And there was a TV show that came out almost simultaneously, so it became more of a cultural phenomenon than a literary work.

Yes, all of a sudden women were instagramming themselves on the metro with it, Lena Dunham and various other it girls were heralding it as their bible…

Yeah. I had no control over that, there were all kinds of circumstances that made that happen. It has nothing to do with the literary merit of the book, it just fit into a niche of the moment and I embrace that.

“I am such a fabulator. I’m trying to get over projecting onto people what I want them to be” – Chris Kraus

It’s rare that something from the area of experimental fiction goes on to take over the mainstream. It’s a deeply unheroic book, in many ways.

It wouldn’t be a mainstream book if it wasn’t being read in other ways than I originally intended it. The political aspects of the book are overlooked in favour of its lifestyle aspects. There is nothing better than a coming of age story, right? And so it’s being read as a coming-of-age story of a middle-aged woman finding her own joy, overcoming the patriarchy, etc. That’s fine, I can’t deny that it’s not there. To be more positive about this aspect of the book, definitely things have changed for women. There is more modern feminism among younger women, and things that the book is talking about such as the whole question of male privacy being so sacrosanct. Women are rejecting the unspoken code of omertà about their experiences and partners.

People have blasted that to shit in the last five years, and long overdue! I couldn’t believe when “I Love Dick” came out Dick Hebdige actually threatened to sue because of the whole issue about it invading his privacy. That was the whole aegis of the book; the way these second wave feminists were tortured and berated, driven mad.

Belittled. 

Yeah, these crazy cultural double standards. The whole book was exemplary of the issue of women having the entitlement to describe the conditions of their own lives.

But I think that’s become important both in contemporary literature and in contemporary art-making. If you look at artists like Molly Soda or the Alt Lit movement, the confessional is at the heart of their practice, which I think helped this resurgence. 

I totally agree. While I was researching my latest book, a biography of the late writer Kathy Acker, I came across the artist Anna Maria Pinaka. She invented an interesting concept called ‘Pornographic’ to describe the work that is being made now. The idea pornographic is not, at it’s heart, anything to do with sex. What she describes as pornographic is art work that tries to talk about the emotional relations between the people in the sexual encounter. That’s still very taboo. You have the great clusters. The poet Ariana Reines is one of my favourite writers. In her second book “Coeur De Lion”, an epic poem, she describes the social relations between her and her boyfriend/lover that she has over the summer while she was at the European Graduate School, in great detail. So of course what’s more titillating to us at this point are not the graphic descriptions of sex – they’re everywhere – but in the account of what actually happens between two people.

I think what’s also very interesting is how The New Yorker credited you with inventing Karl Ove Knausgaard, which was a great turnaround. Normally men were credited with inventing women. So this is really ironic.

Yeah that’s pretty exciting isn’t it? I never thought of that until people pointed it out. The whole muse thing, I’m such a fabulator. I’ve always had this bad habit – I’m trying to get over it now – of projecting onto people what I want them to be. You idealise the image of that person. If you want to like that person, male or female, sexual or not-sexual, if you have an attraction or an excitement about a person, you kind of exaggerate it so that they’re larger than life so it ends up being nothing about the person at all. And everything to do with your own desires and sadness. Do you have that problem?

Yes I  do. Particularly when I was younger. Later, I became more aware of the danger of it and consciously tried to stop it.

We’ve just created the whole kind of male muse phenomenon, maybe just from doing that too.

“The political aspects of “I Love Dick” are overlooked in favour of tis lifestyle aspects” – Chris Kraus

I came to your work through “Where Art Belongs” and your critique of the anti-individualism of art criticism, of art and the MFA system. Are you still convinced that art criticism can be a personal narrative? 

That’s easy – I didn’t invent this. It’s just that things got so skewed in the other direction of people thinking in this completely different bodied, socialist and abstract way of art in the last ten or fifteen years that it seemed radical and new.

I was writing a column for an art magazine, “Artfest”, in the late 90s and early 2000s. I had just moved to LA and I really didn’t know that much about art. I still don’t, actually I have a very limited knowledge of great art, but I had to come up with a column every three months! So what I did was I ended up writing about all the conditions around me, combining a description of the arts with everything else that I was doing and seeing and thinking and feeling. It was about discovering LA and a lot of it was about living alone for the first time. But I copied that from Gary Indiana, he did something similar in the “Village Voice” in the 1980s – he copied it from Jill Johnston, who did that in the late 50s and the early 70s. And I think if we go back into history and art criticism, we can talk about Proust doing that and the damn radical depiction of visual art that’s contained within some of the books in “In Search of Lost Time”. I mean there’s a great tradition of writers embracing and describing and understanding and interpreting visual art, and it doesn’t have to come from a purely technocratic and theoretical place.

But I feel that’s very rare now, I feel like the Bataille boys, as you described them, won. Every single young writer that approaches me wants to write ‘theory’.

There have been efforts to bring it back, though. Maria Fusco, an Irish writer, started a magazine a few years ago called the “Happy Hypocrite”. This is exactly the kind of writing you’re talking about.

It’s just Germany is the capital of theory, really.

Yes, absolutely. Germany has “Texte zur Kunst”, right?

Yes (laughs).

SLEEK would be the opposite pole of Texte zur Kunst?

Yeah.

I did a thing with Ariana Reines for Texte zur Kunst this year. The questions were just so obtuse and theoretically unjust and soft for me. I can’t think that way. It’s not that I can only think about my own little life, but when I think about larger things, I like to think about larger things in simpler and more human ways.

“You can’t have philosophy and not speak the language of philosophy. The problem is when people import the language of philosophy into talking about culture” – Chris Kraus


But how does that relate to your work with Semiotext(e)? That is very theory heavy.

Sylvère‘s (Lotringer) idea was always to publish only primary philosophical work, and not secondary interpretive texts. He called it theory-proof. We are publishing just the essential texts themselves. I can’t think of a book that Semiotext(e) has published that I’m not proud of. You can’t have philosophy and not speak the language of philosophy. The problem is when people import the language of philosophy into talking about culture.

I’ve got one last question: On failure. Do you think ideas of failure and the results of failure have changed?

I think maybe failure is a feminist question. Women, although demographically in most countries females are not a minority, they have always been treated as a minority. And any minority, any person who speaks from a minority place, is expected to be exemplary. An intellectual woman couldn’t possibly be sexualised in any way. Women were supposed to be perfect. So for women to refuse to pretend to be perfect, is this accused of being a failure? Does failure substitute the word human?

It’s what damaged Hillary Clinton as well, this double standard.

Right. The cultural heroes of the 20th century were allowed to be so imperfect. Look at Fassbinder. He was a cocaine addict, right? Fassbinder, Genet, we can think of ten more. They were hardly role models. They were incredibly flawed. But so long as Genet could write a great book, so long as Fassbinder could make a great film, that was all that was asked of them. This isn’t true for women.

The cliché of the flawed genius is a male cliché. 

I would rather accept Polanski’s pedophilia than expect all artists, all genders, to be perfect people, because we’re not. People are a mass of contradictions.

Frances Stark
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