Kathy Acker (1947-1997) was a novelist, performance artist, playwright and essayist. Kathy Acker is
known for her postmodern, experimental, and sex-positive feminism. Her radical and at times
seemingly anarchic aesthetic stances made Kathy Acker a Punk icon.
On April 18, 1947 (or according to the Library of Congress 1948 and her obituaries 1944), Kathy Acker was born Karen Lehmann. Her parents, Donald and Claire Lehmann, were wealthy and Jewish. The couple did not expect the pregnancy, and Donald Lehmann left his family before Kathy Acker’s birth. Kathy Acker’s early life in New York’s Upper East Side was dominated by her strong-willed mother. Her mother remarried a man who has been characterized as passionless and ineffectual. Although the family was returned to a degree of respectability, Kathy Acker was raised in a household where she felt neither loved nor wanted.
As a daughter of a Jewish family with upper-middle class standing, Kathy Acker was expected to behave in a demure and polite way. As a way of trying to free herself from the stifling atmosphere, Kathy Acker explored her interest in pirates. She desired to be a pirate, but according to the logic of childhood, she knew that only men could become pirates. It was through researching pirates that she found a way to escape from her restrictive environment. Questions of the limitations of her gender suffused this research, Kathy Acker began to see textual pleasure as being analogous to sensual pleasure.
In her youth, Kathy Acker was officially known as Karen Lehman. The name she is known by was arrived at in a simple manner. Kathy was her nickname, and Acker was the surname of the first man she married. However, this fluidity of names (a phenomena that is not unique among women) represents the type of disjunctive and boundary blurring features that Acker investigated throughout her writing. Although Kathy Acker married twice, her bisexuality was widely known.
At Brandeis University, Kathy Acker pursued an undergraduate education in classics. She would later move to San Diego, California, in order to continue her studies. She would graduate from the University of California with her bachelor’s degree in 1968. She studied with Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin. Later she would study Classical Greek at the City University of New York. She abandoned the program before receiving a degree.
Her first published writings emerged from the Underground New York Literary scene in the 1970s. These early writings were marked by her experiences as a stripper. But her other influences included David Antin, Gilles Deleuze, William S. Burroughs, the Black Mountain School (especially the poets Charles Olson and Jackson Mac Low), Fluxus, French critical philosophy and French feminism. The extreme nature of her writing and poetics placed outside of the very limited and intellectually myopic world of mainstream American literature. Her work was embraced by small presses. These presses sought to create new modes of thought and understanding. Some of the presses to embrace the work of Acker include RE/Search, Rapid Eye, and Angel Exhaust. Many of her books have been kept in circulation by her association with the grand-dame of cutting edge presses, Grove. Towards the end of her life, the mainstream co-opted her writing and intellectual ability which provided Acker financial opportunity. In one particularly fascinating convergence, The Guardian newspaper had Kathy Acker interview the Spice Girls.
Kathy Acker was interested in writing as a performative act. To accomplish her goals, she blurred the boundaries of creation and plagiarism. She mixed autobiography and pornography through cut-up techniques. These methods resulted in the exploration of the instability in the female development of identity. She also used parallel characters in her novels and attacked the language using unconventional syntax. Her In Memoriam to Identity explores the resonances between the life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. She strains the construction of literary and social identity in this transgressive novel. Her work has been compared to that of Jean Genet and Alain Robbe-Grillet for her combination of biographical, sexual, violent and power motifs. Acker often constructed her experimental work in a manner similar to William S. Burroughs cut-up method. Aleatory processes were central to her work.
Her reputation is highly contested because of her manipulation of existing texts. Many see her manipulations as a skillful while others accuse her of straightforward plagiarism. Feminist scholars have also had trouble in addressing her work. Some view her use of violence as a way of exposing the sexual exploitation of women in Capitalism. Others argue that Kathy Acker is just operating in such a way as to support the inherent misogyny of Western culture.
In 1972, Kathy Acker’s first book, Politics was published. This collection of essays and poems was ignored by critics and the public. However, the punk rock community of New York embraced this work. It made her a fixture. In the following two years, she published her first novels The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses and I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining.
She was awarded the Pushcart Prize for her work of short fiction “New York City in 1979” in (coincidentally) 1979. After the seventies ended, she spent the early eighties in London, and it was here that she wrote some of her most critically significant works. In 1984, her novel Blood and Guts in High School was released in England.
Many consider Blood and Guts in High School to be the work in which Kathy Acker establishes herself as a significant writer. As in many of her works, Kathy Acker explores sex and violence in this work. The sex and violence in this work is considered by many to be the most extreme in Kathy Acker’s oeuvre. The story revolves around the nymphomaniac Janey Smith. This character is incestuously in love with her father and then sold into sexual slavery. In this work, Acker riffed of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Germany banned Blood and Guts in High School for the extremity of its content. Kathy Acker would exhort some small revenge on the weak-stomached German judiciary by publishing the judgment in her book Hannibal Lecter, My Father.
When she returned to the United States, the San Francisco Art Institute employed Kathy Acker as an adjunct professor. After this, Kathy Acker found employment at many institutions of higher education including the University of California-San Diego, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, the University of Idaho and Roanoke College.
In 1996 Kathy Acker flew to Berlin with fellow San Francisco author Alan Kaufman to appear in the Berlin Jewish Cultural Festival. Also appearing there with Acker and Kaufman were Allen Ginsberg and Jerome Rothenberg. Doctors diagnosed Kathy Acker with breast cancer in the spring of 1996. They performed a double mastectomy. The invasive procedures that Acker was subjected to shattered her belief in conventional medicine. She wrote ►“The Gift of Disease” for the The Guardian. In this work, she explains how the mutilation of her treatment caused her to reject the passivity that normal patients were expected to possess. Acker sought treatment and knowledge from alternative healers including herbalists, acupuncturists, psychics, and nutritionist. She argued for a disease paradigm in which the illness was a teacher and the ill were learners. Kathy Acker died within eighteen months of the beginning of her quest for alternate treatments. Her last days were spent in a cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.
*Adapted from The European Graduate School biography of Kathy Acker.
Kathy Acker reading from The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978)
at Western Front on February 2, 1977 | 17:47 min
Kathy Acker interviews William S. Burroughs
part 1/3 | MagivangaMagazine23, 1982 | 11:57 min
Documentary about Kathy Acker in 1984 where she talks about her writing and her life
in New York. The programme was produced by Alan Benson and broadcasted
on Dutch television., 1984 | 46:31 min
Kathy Acker at the ICA London [Institute for Contemporary Art], 1986 Interviewed
by Angela McRobbie. Uploaded for educational purposes. 1986 | 40 min
A multi-layered work featuring animation, archival footage and interviews with the likes
of William Burroughs, Carolee Schneemann and Richard Hell,
Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker by Austrian artist Barbara Caspar
and co-produced by Annette Pisacane (Nico Icon)
and Markus Fischer. 2008 | 84 min
Who´s afraid of Kathy Acker Teaser, Documentary by Barbara Casper, Trailer,
writer, poet, punk literature, Blood & Guts in High School, Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream,
Hannibal Lecter, My Father, Pussy, King of the Pirates, William S. Burroughs,
Susan Sontag ... 2010 | 1:25 min
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ABOUT "THE ACKER AWARDS"
The Acker Awards is a tribute given to members of the avant garde arts community who have made outstanding contributions in their discipline in defiance of convention, or else served their fellow writers and artists in outstanding ways. The award is named after novelist Kathy Acker who in her life and work exemplified the risk-taking and uncompromising dedication that identifies the true avant garde artist. Acker Awards are granted to both living and deceased members of the New York or San Franisco communities. The cities were chosen for their historic linkage as centers for the avant garde. In time, though, communities in other cities will be asked to participate. The providers of the Acker Awards are Alan Kaufman (San Francisco) and ►Clayton Patterson (New York City). The recipients were determined through extensive discussion with members of the arts communities in both cities. This year's recipients will have the opportunity to both nominate and vote for future recipients of the Acker Awards.
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"THE ACKER AWARDS" COMMUNITY
Kathy Acker | Author Marina Abramovic | Performance artist Kim Addonizio | Poet and author Brett Amory | Artist Jon-Paul Bail | Artist Don Bajema | Author Jack Boulware | author and festival director Ed Bowers | Poet and author Jim Brodey | Poet Steve Cannon | Author, poet and gallerist Cynthia Carr | Biographer and journalist Jerry Cimino | Museum curator, cultural historian Joe Clifford | Author and musician Sue Coe | Artist Ira Cohen | Photographer, poet Joe Coleman | Artist Duo Von Dagrate | Author, poet, artist, activist Steve Dalachinsky | Poet Frederique Delacoste | Founding Publisher Joe Donohue | Author, poet, publisher, historian Sammy Dwarfobia | Artist Janis Eidus | Author John Farris | Poet and author Jim Feast | Author, editor Crystal Field | Actress, Director Dorothy Friendman | Poet Jane Ganahl | Author and festival director Charles Gatewood | Photographer Charlie Getter | Poet and activist Justin Giarla | Gallerist, curator Matt Gonzalez | Artist and activist Daphne Gottlieb | Poet Daniel Higgs | Singer, musician, painter, poet Bob Holman | Poet and producer Fred Jordan | Editor Evan Karp | Poet, journalist, organizer Alan Kaufman | Author, Kristina Kearns | Literary activist Brenda Knight | Author, editor, publisher, historian Ron Kolm | Author, editor, organizer Konstantin K. Kuzminsky | Poet Richard Kostelanetz | Artist, author, critic Peter Kwaloff | Performer John Lane | Poet, author Laurie Lazer | Curator, gallerist J. Brandon Loberg | Poet, editor, cultural historian Boris Lurie | Artist Judith Malina | Actress, dramatist, theater, activist Peter Maravalis | Author, editor, activist Country Joe McDonald | Singer, musician, songwriter Jack Micheline | Poet and artist Peter Missing | Artist Deborah Munk | Curator Eileen Myles | Poet Andrew Paul Nelson | Poet, musician, philosopher Maria Neri | Director of Special Events,
Orensanz Foundation, Ph.D. in Social Work
Felice Newman | Publisher Harold Norse | Poet and memoirist Thomas Nozkowski | Artist Alice O'Malley | Photographer Fran O'Neil | Artist Al Orensanz | Director of Operations,
Orensanz Foundaton, Ph.D. Sociology Jerry Pagane | Artist Klara Palotai | Community Support Patricia Parker | Dancer, Vision Festival,
Community Support ►Clayton Patterson | Photographer, archivist,
activist, historian, museum director,
co-founder of THE ACKER AWARDS Felice Newman | Publisher Harold Norse | Poet and memoirist Thomas Nozkowski | Artist Alice O'Malley | Photographer Fran O'Neil | Artist Hapi Phace | Performer Peter Plate | Author Eddy Portnoy | Non-Fiction Writer Diane di Prima | Poet Jose "Cochise" Quiles | Artist Elsa Rensaa | Artist and photographer Barney Rosset | Publisher Sam Sax | Poet, teacher, organizer Amy Scholder | Author and editor Hubert Selby Jr. | Author MM Serra | Photographer and activist Rami Shamir | Author Laura Shepard | Curator Jon Siegel | Poet, actor, activist Jess Silva of FOX&Woman | Singer Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Performance artists and community activists Michael Sladek | Filmmaker Justin Smith | Curator, gallerist Patricia Smith | Poet and teacher Winston Smith | Artist Dash Snow | Artist Chuck Sperry | Artist Annie Sprinkle | Author and performer James Sullivan | Author, journalist, historian Silja j.a. Talvi | Author, journalist, editor William Taylor | Poet and author Michelle Tea | Author, poet, teacher, organizer Silke Tudor | author and journalist V. Vale | Author, publisher, cultural historian Oscar Villalon | Author, editor, critic William T. Vollmann | Author Carl Watson | Author and poet Spider Webb | Tattoo artist Ruth Weiss | Poet Zarina Zabrisky | Author Nick Zedd | Filmmaker
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Portrait Kathy Acker - Poète Maudit
By Chris Kraus
Published in: SPIKE ART MAGAZINE, Autumn 2014
When Kathy Acker first appeared in the art world of the late 70s, she quickly became notorious as a risk-taker and literary outlaw. In the seventeen years since her premature death she largely disappeared from the map, but now her books are once again circulating among a new generation of readers. Chris Kraus writes about the renewal of interest in this controversial punk icon.
Kathy Acker died on November 30, 1997 at an alternative cancer treatment center in Tijuana. She was 50 years old. She’d published eight books in twelve years since 1983, when Grove Press editor Fred Jordan discovered her self-published books in a pile of submissions. Jordan – also the editor of William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett – decided that she was just what the legendary avant-garde publishing house needed to carry its tradition forward into the 80s. Written in the late 70s, her collaged, confrontational novel "Blood and Guts in High School" meshed perfectly with the grim post-punk zeitgeist of the Reagan era when it appeared in 1984.
Within the poetry and art world circles she emerged from in the late 70s, Acker was considered to be extraordinarily strategic, competitive, and media-savvy. At the outset of her career, she ridiculed "hippy male poets" and second wave feminism. Later, she’d embrace queer theory and declare herself the bisexual, spiritual daughter of "hippy male poets" like David Antin and Charles Olsen. But by the end of the 80s, Acker had arguably ceased to be the best judge of her own writing and image.
By 1995, the writer who was known as "America’s most beloved transgressive novelist", as per Spin magazine, had become less than enchanted with her own persona. As she wrote to media theorist McKenzie Wark, who she’d met on tour in Australia that summer: "… the KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do. It’s media, Ken. It’s not me. Like almost all the people I know … I’m part of a culture that doesn’t want me. … Our only survival card is FAME."
As she entered middle age, rather than distance herself from the physicality and sexual content she’d become known for, Acker had chosen to amplify it in both her writing and life. Citing the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima as an influence, she dedicated herself to weight training, tattooing, and body modification.
Published in 1996, her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, was, in its time, not well received. As an anonymous writer snarked in Kirkus Reviews: "her interest in bodily fluids persists, as does her thematic concern with incest, whoredom, cross-gendering and death. In Acker’s tiresome world, homeless people, masturbation, body piercing, and S&M are good; patriarchy, rationality and morality are bad." The New York Times review concluded that she had "raised literary masturbation to an anti-art form".
Seventeen years after her death, through no particular efforts of any publicity or digital marketing machine, Acker’s work has begun circulating again, largely among people too young to have read it the first time around. Her name pops up on Tumblrs and Favorites and influence lists. The chromium urban-decay covers of her Grove Press books can be spotted in young women’s hands at gallery openings, on buses and trains. Writing on Dazed Digital this summer about how her aspirations changed from being a writer’s muse to being a writer, Gabby Bess, the founder of the online zine “Illuminati Girl Gang“, urges her contemporaries to "read Kathy Acker". In a recent informal survey of contemporary writers about "books that changed my life" conducted by n+1, Acker’s name recurs as a primary influence. Enough time has passed that her extravagant biography – which was by turns her best asset and worst liability – has faded, leaving only the work.
cker’s compositional strategies – her juxtaposition of conversational transcripts, real and fake correspondence, a roving first-person narration, and characters bearing art-world friends’ and acquaintances’ actual names – are not very different than strategies used by Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Sheila Heti and other contemporaries who’ve been hailed as avatars of the post-Internet age. Acker’s advancement of a contradictory feminist subject who’s not necessarily seeking "empowerment" also resonates strongly with Kate Zambreno, Ariana Reines, and Dorothea Lasky. And Acker’s brutal self-humor resonates powerfully with what theorist Anna Watkins Fisher calls the "adolescent drag" of artists like Amber Hawk Swanson and Ann Liv Young. Acker’s writing is aggressive, disjunctive, contemporary; and, perhaps most importantly, she does not always appear as a likeable character. The debate that she stages in "New York City in 1979" could easily take place today:
“Bet – […] We’ve to start portraying women as strong showing women as the power in this society.“
“Janey – But we’re not.“
And she continues on the next page:
"Janey has to fuck. This is the way Sex drives Janey crazy: Before Janey fucks, she keeps her wants in cells. As soon as Janey’s fucking she wants to be adored as much as possible at the same time as, its other extreme, ignored as much as possible. More than this: Janey can no longer perceive herself wanting. Janey is Want.“
This, together with about half of her fiction work, was composed and independently published over a decade before her commercial debut with Grove. Acker dropped out of Brandeis University and married Bob Acker, a graduate student when she was 19. Together, they moved to San Diego, where the University of California, San Diego, was, for a brief moment, establishing itself as a post-68 cultural mecca, like the École Pratique des Hautes Études in France. She became friends with David and Eleanor Antin, who were both teaching there.
In his poetry workshops and classes, Antin obliquely discouraged his students from writing naïve autobiographies by urging them to appropriate freely from other autobiographical texts. Acker’s first published work, “The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula“ (1973) is heavily drawn from the university library: dusty nineteenth-century tales of convicted murderesses, juxtaposed with pulp and porn fiction, modernist novels, and her own diaries. As she wrote to the poet Bernadette Mayer from San Francisco the following year: “I figured out that I’m nobody (i.e. I’m everybody) until I have to answer questions, take a stand. [T]he trick is to take stands in ways that deny any possibility of answers.“ She was seeing “possibilities for all kinds of language: poetical and mathematical & propaganda etc. … Why not be polemic? Why shouldn’t writing be everything?“
While textual appropriation, cut-ups, and the deployment of chance were by then twentieth-century tropes, Acker’s work stood out, juxtaposing seduction, directness, political diatribe, and poetic truth into a seamless picaresque style with charm and aggressive wit. Eleanor Antin had just completed “100 Boots“ (1971–73), a series of postcards mailed to about six hundred names in the art world. Acker borrowed the list and sent out serialized zines of her books. By the time she moved to New York in 1975, people knew who she was. Sol LeWitt, William Wegman, Ted Castle, and Leandro Katz teamed up to produce bound editions of two Acker works, “Black Tarantula“ and “The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec“ (1975). As Katz recalls, "The people I frequented liked her work. I adored her irreverence, and in many ways, there was much affinity with my work as a poet, making texts with dictionary definitions and working with Charles Ludlam, who would compose full stage plays with appropriations from movies, plays, ads, dirty jokes."
As her career progressed during the 80s, Acker sought out sci-fi writers like William Gibson as friends, and set out to write more deliberately narrative books, adopting an often somber, mythopoetic style, drawing from Japanese fables, the lives of Rimbaud and Verlaine, and ancient Greece. The sexual content of her work became more Bataillean, removed from the daily lives of herself and her friends and pitched towards the realm of the "sacred sacrifice". As she told Sylvère Lotringer in a 1989 conversation, while her novels were still built from other texts, “[t]he irony is gone. I’m not so interested in pulling them apart. … I want to learn from them about myth.“ She was seeking a sense of wonder, and through intense physical training, body modification, and tattooing, she was using her body as text. “I WANT ALL THE ABOVE TO BE THE SUN“, she wrote in “New York City in 1979“. “The idea“, she remarked to Lotringer of her earlier work, was “that you don’t need to have a central identity, that a split identity was a more viable way in the world“.
And this, as the renewed influence of her work seems to prove, remains true.
Chris Kraus is a writer and critic based in Los Angeles.
Among the most important of Kathy Acker’s books are "Pussy, King of the Pirates", (1996); "My Mother Demonology", (1993); "Hannibal Lecter", "My Father" (1991); "In Memoriam to Identity" (1990); "Literal Madness", (1989); "Empire of the Senseless" (1988); "Don Quixote" (1986); "Blood and Guts in High School" (1984); "Great Expectations (1983).
After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus review – baffling life study Chris Kraus is unable to sort fact from fiction in this hymn to
the late post-punk provocateur
By Rachel Cooke
Published in: The Guardien, London on Mar 21, 2018
‘Performing was what made her tick’: Kathy Acker in 1995. Photograph: Bob Berg/Getty Images
Chris Kraus, who is nothing if not artful, begins her strange and ultimately futile book about the writer Kathy Acker by noting that what follows “may or may not be a biography”. As statements go, this sounds unerringly (if somewhat predictably) postmodern: in an instant, we’re on the alert, wondering what Kraus, a novelist whose fictions might be described as warped memoirs, might have done with the facts of someone else’s life. But do not be misled. Its function is, in reality, more prosaic than this. While most biographers regard the unpicking of untruths as central to their work, Kraus has a different approach. As the reader will shortly discover, her opening line is a get-out clause. If Acker did indeed lie “all the time”, as she also asserts, Kraus doesn’t necessarily see it as her job to dismantle those deceptions. At best, she is too credulous. At worst, she is haphazard, even lazy.
Or is she precisely clear about her relationship to Acker. Her publisher, Allen Lane, trills that she and her subject were friends as well as contemporaries. Is this true? Kraus doesn’t go into it, though she does write rather breathlessly of having seen Acker read in New York in 1980 (“with porcelain skin, deep-red lips, eyes made even wider with heavy black makeup, she’s both of this crowd and above it”). Nevertheless, the two women were, and are, intimately connected. Among Acker’s many lovers was Sylvère Lotringer, the cultural theorist to whom Kraus famously used to be married (and who appears, like Dick Hebdige, the sociologist and another friend of Acker’s, as a character in Kraus’s controversial novel, I Love Dick). Kraus often quotes Lotringer, whether on the subject of his and Acker’s supposed experiments in sadomasochism (“Lotringer has no recollection of these BDSM sessions”) or on the period when she was dying (“her legs were like sticks”). But nowhere that I could find does Kraus note that he is her ex-husband.
Kraus is clearly fascinated by Acker: no one in their right mind would spend so long in Acker-land, where German sadists can train women to orgasm at their command and vibrators are an essential writing tool, unless they were to some degree beguiled by her. But read on and the suspicion grows that there is a weird tension between her admiration of the alternative scene of which Acker was once part – in the early 80s, Kraus writes, “the Lower East Side was a quadrant of culture beamed all over the world” – and Acker herself. It’s not only that so many of the stories she tells about her are so hilarious (impossible to believe that Kraus doesn’t know that the majority of these anecdotes are way beyond satire). Rather, it’s that she singularly fails to make a case for Acker the writer. “Incredibly, critics of all kinds have embraced discursive first-person fiction in the last years as if it were a new, post-internet genre,” she writes, in what will be her best shot at a summary of her subject’s place in the world of letters. “[But] these contemporary texts owe a great debt to the candor and formal inventiveness of Acker’s work.” This isn’t just feeble – it’s barely even halfway true.
But I’m running ahead of myself. Who was Kathy Acker? Born in 1944, she grew up on New York’s Upper East Side, where she was raised by her stepfather, Albert Alexander, and her mother, Claire Weill Alexander (she never knew, and seemingly never wanted to know, her father, who abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, though the absent father would become a theme both in her writing and perhaps in her busy sex life, too). Privately educated, she attended Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, which is where she met Bob Acker, her first husband and first escape route. Bob, now a retired attorney, “graciously” replied to Kraus’s emails, but apparently had very little to say about Kathy, for which reason it is left to her to imagine her subject’s “ambivalence” at finding herself “a young wife during the Peyton Place era”. The word “ambivalence”, however, hardly seems to cover it.
By 1971, Acker was back in New York where, in order to fund her writing, she was performing with her boyfriend, Len Neufeld, in a live sex show. Well, it beat filing and at least there was a certain creativity in coming up with scenarios (in a favorite routine, she played a patient confessing her Santa Claus fantasies to her aroused psychoanalyst).
One day, she would long to be known as more than the “post-punk plagiarist”
Acker would come to regard this work as exploitative, but that didn’t stop her working, later, as a stripper. As one friend put it: “I never saw Kathy work a [regular] job. Ever.” It wasn’t only that she was entitled. Stripping was performing and performing – the various versions of Kathy Acker – was what made her tick. She lived a restless, itinerant life, moving ceaselessly between the west and east coasts of America, Paris and London (where she shacked up, briefly, with the music journalist Charles Shaar Murray). What was she looking for? Fame, mostly. One day, she would long to be known as more than the “post-punk plagiarist” – her novels, with their themes of sex and violence, are random assemblages that combine both pastiche and elements of the work of others – but in the beginning this would do just fine and she made sure her look matched the description: buzz cut, leathers, muscles, tattoos (also, labial piercings).
You could say that hers is a story of style over substance and you’d probably be right. Wading through Blood and Guts in High School, the 1984 novel that (oh so briefly) made her – Penguin, having moved the goalposts for Morrissey, has now seen fit to republish it as a modern classic – I wondered again at Acker’s reputation: so high with the likes of Jeanette Winterson and other groupies, so low with everyone else. All I can do is line myself up with the non-groupies. “SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME… President Carter needs THREE HOURS OF STIMULATION to ORGASM…” Dear God, it’s dire.
Acker died at an alternative cancer center in Mexico in 1997; following a mastectomy the year before, she turned her back on western medicine, putting her faith, instead, in alternative healers, astrologists and an antioxidant diet. “Her reasoning here wasn’t flawless,” writes Kraus, drily, of Acker’s insistence that American chemotherapy was too expensive for self-employed writers (in fact, she had plenty of money, having inherited quite a lot from her grandmother). At this point, I thought I saw – again – the flash of Kraus’s knife. It was shocking, but sort of delicious, too. But perhaps I was mistaken.
She ends (and what a relief it is when that moment comes) with what I can only describe as a little hymn of identification with Acker. In a book full of baffling, queasy-making things, this is surely the most befuddling of all. Kraus, whose own novels are rather good, is so much the better writer, even if, this time around, her id seems sometimes to have wrestled her ego to the floor.
• After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy for £15 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
FLPPYTHECAT on Sep 4, 2017 at 10:13am | I'll be giving that a miss then.
CHASHURLEY on Sep 4, 2017 at 11:34am | This is the third review in the Guardian, why?
WASSERFALL on Sep 4, 2017 at 2:55pm | Because when the Guardian jumps on a thing it squeezes it until the pips squeak, rather like a teenager with a new favourite record who plays it on repeat for days at a time.
SBMFC on Sep4, 2017 at 2:59pm | Observer, weekday Guardian, Saturday supplement.
Wasserfall | 4 Sep 2017 15:54 | The biographer has been plugged into the national grid, Chris Kraus with Acker as also-ran.
CYNICALBUGGER on Sep 4, 2017 at 11:54am | Perhaps "edgy" junkie-chic and the lauding of what sounds like a painful case of borderline personality disorder to go with the bipolar illness in the unfortunate Ms Acker has had it's day? it seemed tired by the mid-80s to me, but slumming-it art ponces have kept this sort of thing going FAR beyond it's sell-by date. I have nothing but sympathy for the unfortunate artist (though she sounded hard work); the vampires who tried to monetise her and reinforced the pathology, not so much.
SOPHIEMILY on Sep4, 2017 at 4:10pm | I think the writer of this biography is ok but don't like the books subject. I will write a review slagging off this subject, whilst avoiding any cogent criticism and say that her supporters are brainwashed cultists or lacking in empowered ego. Then I will pick up my cheque from the Guardian for essentially doing zero work, apart a quick flick through 'blood and guts' and perform an extended rant giving vent to prejudices seemingly void of any cognitive activity.
Given that this is the substance of the review one might ask - is this a metafiction ? Is this a satire either of Acker herself in terms of her engagement with society or a satirical critique of Kraus via a dark relection of her interest in Acker ? Is this an attempt at a postmodernist engagement with post modernism ? And if not what possible value does this review actually have ?
MALMBORG IMPLANO on Sep 4, 2017 at 5:16pm | Acker is an artist who meant nothing to anyone other than her friends, but boy, did she have some influential friends. They made a thing out of her despite her complete irrelevance to anyone outside her circle.
ALANA WALLACE on Sep 22, 2017 at 5:52am | Huh? I was 9 years old when Kathy Acker died (in other words, hardly in Acker's circle), and I have trouble thinking of a single literary or artistic-minded female friend of mine who isn't deeply interested in Acker. Nearly every woman I know in NYC (myself included) is attending Chris Kraus' talk about the book tomorrow.
MATISSA on Sep 5, 2017 at 4:21pm | a bit of a flippant, straight-laced review, little feeling for either of its subjects .
Politics (1972) Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula (1973) I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974) Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978) Florida (1978) Kathy Goes To Haiti (1978) N.Y.C. in 1979 (1981) Great Expectations (1983) Algeria : A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1984) Blood and Guts in High School (1984 Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986) Literal Madness: Three Novels (Reprinted 1987) My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini Wordplays 5 : An Anthology of New American Drama (1987) Empire of the Senseless (1988) In Memoriam to Identity (1990) Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991) My Mother: Demonology (1994) The Stabbing Hand – spoken word guest appearance on alternate mix of song by Oxbow included on reissues of album Let Me Be a Woman (1995) Pussycat Fever (1995) Dust. Essays (1995) Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996) Bodies of Work : Essays (1997) Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998 Redoing Childhood (2000) spoken word CD, KRS 349. Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective (pub. 2002 from manuscript of 1973) Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker (Acker, Kathy)Sep 12, 2002, New York City in 1979 (Penguin Modern) Feb 22, 2018 Kathy Acker (1971-1975), ed. Justin Gajoux and Claire Finch, critical edition of unpublished early writings from 1971-1975 (Éditions Ismael, 2019, 656p.)