Kathy Acker is a difficult subject for a biography, largely because, as Chris Kraus notes at the outset of her book, she ‘lied all the time’. Every bit of Acker’s life tended to be fed back through the creative mill, becoming a part of either her experimental writings or her other great project, the invention of Kathy Acker: a pixie-cropped, tattooed, muscle-strapped icon of rebel literature whose confrontational autofiction broke ground, allowing other artists to make the mess of their lives into the medium of their work. Maggie Nelson, the Riot grrrl feminist punk movement and Kraus herself (whose novels cross the boundary between fiction and truth) all have their debts to Acker. But to understand Acker and her piratical, pornographic output, it helps to revisit the culture she belonged to: mid-20th-century America, and the artistic demimondes of New York and San Francisco especially.
Kraus supplies two anecdotes that, though they don’t involve Acker herself, serve to frame the times and attitudes she wrote against and out of. The first is an account of Chris Burden’s 1972 performance piece TV Hijack, which took place around the time Acker was first experimenting with DIY self-publication (producing works such as Politics and The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula). Burden, Kraus writes, ‘appeared on Phyllis Lutjeans’s cable TV interview show and surprised her by holding a knife to her throat. Lutjeans refused to press charges. Later, she’d explain how his assault “taught her a lesson”: her desire to anchor a show was driven by her own “ego and pride”’. For Kraus, this episode is typical of ‘an era when people seemed eager for “lessons”’.
The second anecdote concerns Steven Trull, a lover of Acker towards the end of her life. He later adopted the pseudonym Janey Smith, after the main character of Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, and became an important figure in the alt-lit scene – a notorious figure, too, when in 2013 he published the fairly self-explanatory ‘A List of Writers I’d Like to Fuck (or Be Fucked By)’. Kraus discusses this list and the backlash against it, which was led by women and trans people on the list who saw the juxtaposition of their names with porn images as an example of rape culture:
Acker had famously launched the most scabrous, hyperbolic attacks on both public and private figures in her earlier work. She had no qualms about revealing the most intimate details of her encounters with named lovers and friends, and no one – at least publicly – minded that much. The Trull/Smith ‘Fuck List’ debacle provides a stunning example of how much mores have changed over two decades. While the use of ‘the personal’ by female writers has been largely redeemed, satirical excess has been pushed off the map.
As Kraus deploys them, these episodes suggest a change from morally engaged extremism in the 1970s to the prudery of now. But there is another aspect at least as interesting. Burden didn’t just physically threaten Lutjeans, but by his own account ‘told her that I had planned to make her perform obscene acts’; Trull, similarly, co-opted unsuspecting others into sexual scenarios that he, as the ‘artist’, controlled. In that context, the difference is that Lutjeans took her medicine and even presented herself as a collaborator in Burden’s art (albeit a terrified one), while in the 2010s women were less enthusiastic about being coerced into serving as props for a man’s nob-waving performance.
It’s odd for Kraus to overlook the sexual dimension here because, as she points out, the defining quality of Acker’s life was the tension between her femaleness and her ambition. Acker’s extensive use of autobiographical material in her work was distinctive but not unique. Her gender made her notable, but not singular. Her standout feature was that she was a woman seeking a certain kind of greatness at a time when that greatness meant maleness:
Acker had no shortage of female contemporary writers throughout the 1970s. Outside the downtown New York scene, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Janet Frame, and dozens of others published semiautobiographical novels with strong female narrators. But … while these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.
Is it true that Acker was the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’? It’s a designation that seems to screen out of history Mary Wollstonecraft, Gertrude Stein, Germaine Greer and any number of other women who have lived radical lives while writing radical words. But it’s also one that would perhaps have appealed to Acker, who saw herself in a particularly male lineage of artists (Burroughs, Bataille) even while her male peers often treated her as definitively female: an object for the fuck list. ‘Beneficiaries of second-wave feminism’, Acker and her female peers ‘were equal participants in a culture that still played by macho, heterosexual male rules. What could they do with their freedom?’ One can cavil with the idea of being an ‘equal participant’ in a culture whose rules are against you, but the question is pertinent.
Early on, Kraus records how in the mid-1970s Acker tried to reconcile herself to the mores of the sexual revolution: in her diaries, ‘she touchingly struggles to transpose the Buddhist precept of “nonattachment” to the “non-grasping” behavior her culture demanded of heterosexual females’. But Acker realised – and this is probably the illuminating insight of her work – that her sexuality could be weaponised. In 1974, she collaborated with the poet, musician and conceptual artist Alan Sondheim on Blue Tape, a kind of porno turned power struggle in which she aroused and challenged Sondheim until he was demolished. Sondheim reports that he found the experience too painful to have ever watched the tape of it, but for Acker it seems to have been a revelation. ‘She came to believe that sexuality formed the essence of selfhood, and she wrote about this over and over again.’ She had also learned the trick of turning a relationship with a man into art fodder, something that Kraus has done in turn, notably in her novel I Love Dick. (Pleasingly, Dick Hebdige – allegedly the Dick – makes a couple of cameos here.)
Blood and Guts in High School (reissued to coincide with this biography) is a case in point. It opens with a series of exchanges between ten-year-old Janey and her father. They are in a sexual relationship and he is withdrawing from it. It is shocking and gratuitous for sure, but somehow more shocking is that Acker based this section extensively on the dissolution of her relationship with her second husband, Peter Gordon. By putting his words in the mouth of an incest-raping father, she puts her ex distinctly at a disadvantage. The novel itself is a disjointed riot of cut and paste, obscene illustrations and masochism: Janey is raped, prostituted and finally gets cancer (horribly presaging Acker’s own death in 1997), though even that suggests more of a narrative line than truly exists. It’s invigorating and profane, leaving you both appalled and exhilarated by the time you get to the final poem: ‘Blood and guts in high school/This is all I know/Parents teachers boyfriends/All have got to go’.
Acker’s parents got rid of themselves – her father by absenting himself before her birth, her mother, when Acker was an adult, by suicide. She dealt with her teachers by adopting a savagely plagiaristic style that demolished her literary antecedents. But she kept the boyfriends: Acker was a pioneer of charting female experiences (abortion, rape, prostitution) and seemed to need to see herself in relation to men to be creative. Taking us from Acker’s early ambition to the celebrity she attained in the 1990s and her isolated death in the hands of fiction dealers calling themselves ‘alternative therapists’, Kraus’s biography catches the thrilling paradoxes of a human who lived at the edge of self-revelation and self-mythology. To borrow Austen’s description of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice (another character who breaks the rules of sex to bend the world to her will, even if she doesn’t ultimately secure a happy ending), Acker was ‘untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless’.