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After Kathy Acker: A Biography

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Kathy Acker: Rich girl, street punk, scholar, stripper, victim, media-whore ... and cultural icon. The late Kathy Acker's legend and writings are wrapped in mythologies, many of them created by her. Twenty years after her untimely death at age 50, Acker's legend has faded, but her writing has become clearer. A few years ago, the writer Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, fou Kathy Acker: Rich girl, street punk, scholar, stripper, victim, media-whore ... and cultural icon. The late Kathy Acker's legend and writings are wrapped in mythologies, many of them created by her. Twenty years after her untimely death at age 50, Acker's legend has faded, but her writing has become clearer. A few years ago, the writer Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, found that her own experiences were becoming more and more like Kathy's. She began writing about Acker 'through the distance, but with this incredible frisson of feeling that often I could write "I" instead of "she."' This is 'literary friction': The first fully authorised biography of the avant-garde writer Kathy Acker, by the woman who arrived on the scene straight after her, who shared some of her boyfriends and friends, and her artistic ambitions Using exhaustive archival research and ongoing conversations with mutual colleagues and friends, Kraus traces the woman behind the notorious novels, and places her at the centre of a kaleidoscopic artistic world.


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Kathy Acker: Rich girl, street punk, scholar, stripper, victim, media-whore ... and cultural icon. The late Kathy Acker's legend and writings are wrapped in mythologies, many of them created by her. Twenty years after her untimely death at age 50, Acker's legend has faded, but her writing has become clearer. A few years ago, the writer Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, fou Kathy Acker: Rich girl, street punk, scholar, stripper, victim, media-whore ... and cultural icon. The late Kathy Acker's legend and writings are wrapped in mythologies, many of them created by her. Twenty years after her untimely death at age 50, Acker's legend has faded, but her writing has become clearer. A few years ago, the writer Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, found that her own experiences were becoming more and more like Kathy's. She began writing about Acker 'through the distance, but with this incredible frisson of feeling that often I could write "I" instead of "she."' This is 'literary friction': The first fully authorised biography of the avant-garde writer Kathy Acker, by the woman who arrived on the scene straight after her, who shared some of her boyfriends and friends, and her artistic ambitions Using exhaustive archival research and ongoing conversations with mutual colleagues and friends, Kraus traces the woman behind the notorious novels, and places her at the centre of a kaleidoscopic artistic world.

30 review for After Kathy Acker: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    THE MOST IMPORTANT BAD WRITER OF THE 1980s (© some anonymous wag) I don’t like Kathy Acker any more than you do but you gotta admit she was pretty interesting. If ever any writer decided she was a writer because she wanted to be one, it was Kathy Acker. She wrote things she called novels and were for want of a better word accepted to be novels but she never bothered with such jejune matters as plot, character, lucidity, sense, good taste, humour, consistency or asking herself why anyone would eve THE MOST IMPORTANT BAD WRITER OF THE 1980s (© some anonymous wag) I don’t like Kathy Acker any more than you do but you gotta admit she was pretty interesting. If ever any writer decided she was a writer because she wanted to be one, it was Kathy Acker. She wrote things she called novels and were for want of a better word accepted to be novels but she never bothered with such jejune matters as plot, character, lucidity, sense, good taste, humour, consistency or asking herself why anyone would ever want to read this self-adoring blather. In consequence she got some eye-watering reviews, from which our jovial biographer Chris Kraus selects these gems, all from the reviews of Empire of the Senseless (1988) : Nasty and cantankerous, it is unredeemed by a moment’s wit… Kathy Acker’s new line in post-punk fiction is petulant, otiose, maudlin, sentimental, undisciplined and incoherent (The Independent) Amateurish drawings and a cast of transvestites, junkies, gay bikers, mutants and brutal policemen, with its emphasis on used needles, blood and feces, leather, discarded condoms, tattoos, pleasureless sex, incest and dreams of brutality… a very dated work (The Guardian) She has simply turned up the volume on a senseless, not to say meaningless, sequence of lurid images, randomly juxtaposed… Acker’s volume knob is now on max, but there’s no record on the turntable : that excruciating noise is just the needle screeching across the rubber mat (The Observer) The New Musical Express (previously quite a supporter of KA) said Empire trails its Acker-patented sub-Burroughs pseudo-Theatre-of-Cruelty entrails from page to page, a wounded lame dog of a novel that makes up for in gratuitous nonsense what it lacks in originality KATHICON She was a poor little rich girl punk poet princess who you have to kind of admire for sticking to her lifelong religion of hating everything mainstream and loving everything underground, countercultural and angry. Let’s just take her first long work, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by The Black Tarantula (1973). In this novel she began her lifelong method of plagiarising other books, which she called “appropriations”. She got a book on famous female criminals of the 18th century and simply transposed the accounts from third person to first person. She interspersed that material with her dream diary ramblings and then she sent out each chapter as it was finished (with NO rewriting, NO second thoughts, another lifelong rule) by mail to 600 people in the NYC art world. (She got this mailing list from another artist). I mean, fair play, that’s quite radical. A CONCEPTUAL LEAP KA’s aggressive defenestration of plot and character and so forth and her insistence that such fictional basics just do not relate any more to how life is experienced by the majority of people, and, moreover, are the products of patriarchy, turns her books into unreadable verbiage for me. (She even hated Donald Barthelme.) But it does remind me of the abstract artists of the 1910s and 20s and later. They said their paintings were no longer OF something, they were now THE THING ITSELF. You are no longer to contemplate a representation of something else when you look at a painting, you are to contemplate the painting itself. It’s not of anything, it’s it. Whether you think that’s a good thing or just another brick in the wall is a discussion for a different day. A MONSTER CALLS This biography is so warts ‘n’ all that by page 200 there are pretty much nothing but warts. Kathy Acker is revealed to be a true egomaniac. Barry Miles (William Burrough’s biographer) gives an account of Kathy in London in 1983. Barry and his wife invite Kathy to stay with them while she finds her own place. Shortly after moving in with us, we introduced her to Peter Wollen and they began an affair – in our living room. [Peter’s wife Laura Mulvey] was unaware of what was happening. Because of this their affair was conducted entirely in our flat. It was an intense, loud affair and it meant that Rosemary and I couldn’t use our living room and they were either necking or fucking or having the kind of intense conversation other people cannot join into. Even when he was not there she would choose to do yoga in the middle of the room when we had friends over, never wash up the dishes, and possibly worst of all, fill the flat with the smell of patchouli oil… I remember one day rosemary ran screaming from the flat, yelling she couldn’t stand it any more. Kathy was unaware that anything might be amiss. Someone else with a similar tale : I’d be working in an office at a fairly low level and Kathy would ring my work number. And if Kathy wanted to talk, she wanted to talk. And that could be ninety minutes. She had no concept of the fact that if you were working in an office and you had a boss and you were taking a ninety-minute personal phone call without someone having died, you were gonna get into trouble ACKERLITES Yes, there were fans of Kathy, lots of them, for a while. One comedian described them as Ackerlites. Here’s one British voice: Suddenly, here is this astonishing American woman, incredibly glamorous and punky, kind of street. But obviously at the same time talking an intellectual language that in London was like being from another planet. She was suddenly connecting the idea of being a writer to all of these points in the subculture. And then points in critical theory, which none of us had ever heard of THIS BIOGRAPHY Well, yes, it does often descend into a horrible interchangeable list of Kathy’s constant compulsive moving from place to place and from sex partner to sex partner, you would need a large Excel spreadsheet to keep track, but it’s a nice very readable account of a strange person, a famously “difficult” woman and throws a lot of light on whatever the countercultural literary world was in New York and London from the 70s to the 90s. Maybe I could ask Chris Kraus to consider Andrea Dworkin for her next project?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

    A deeply unsettling account of a talented but tortured artist. Kathy Acker described as a fashionable post-punk feminist novelist lived her life in extremes. Never shy in her attack on society with her unabashed sexuality her writing drips with energy, raw and powerful, sexually explicit, violent and uncensored. She aggressively and actively pursues fame and notoriety, aligning with people latching on to them, then spitting them out when they no longer serve a purpose. This was an intense read. A deeply unsettling account of a talented but tortured artist. Kathy Acker described as a fashionable post-punk feminist novelist lived her life in extremes. Never shy in her attack on society with her unabashed sexuality her writing drips with energy, raw and powerful, sexually explicit, violent and uncensored. She aggressively and actively pursues fame and notoriety, aligning with people latching on to them, then spitting them out when they no longer serve a purpose. This was an intense read. Kathy was a true avant garde persona, her image provocative and polarising. This biography is littered which much of Kathy's writing to get a full clear picture of her artistry. A must read for true Kathy aficionados but could be a chore to sit through if not familiar or interested in her work. Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for my advanced readers copy.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Meike

    "...she consistently sought situations that would result in disruptive intensity for all parties involved. (...) Yet, like the rest of her writing and her life, her vulnerability was highly strategic. Pursuing a charged state of grace, Acker knew, in some sense, exactly what she was doing. To pretend otherwise is to discount the crazed courage and breadth of her work." Kathy Acker was the first woman who not only deliberately set out to become an icon of the avantgarde literary scene, she actual "...she consistently sought situations that would result in disruptive intensity for all parties involved. (...) Yet, like the rest of her writing and her life, her vulnerability was highly strategic. Pursuing a charged state of grace, Acker knew, in some sense, exactly what she was doing. To pretend otherwise is to discount the crazed courage and breadth of her work." Kathy Acker was the first woman who not only deliberately set out to become an icon of the avantgarde literary scene, she actually succeeded in securing a place for herself next to her heroes William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet. This biography by Chris Kraus is incredibly well-researched and large parts are intricate attempts to interpret Acker's texts in the light of the author's personal experiences and convictions. And not only did Kraus investigate Acker's adventures from today's standpoint, she was herself part of the scene she describes, and her ex-husband Sylvère Lotringer (who features in her roman à clef I Love Dick) even had a three-year affair with Acker before he met Kraus. Despite this close personal connection (which is not explicitly discussed in the book), Kraus is rather successful in walking the line between keeping her distance and empathizing with her protagonist. Known to be intense and volatile, Acker was often a challenging character to keep up with, even for her family and friends. Throughout her career (and frequently in her private life), Acker pursued a concept of radical subjectivity. She created her own myth, "a position from which to write", as Kraus puts it: "(...) the lies weren't literal lies, but more a system of magical thought" and "(...) the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker's writing lies in its exclusion of all viepoints except for that of the narrator." One of her most important topics which is present in all of her writing is the female body and female sexuality: "She came to believe that sexuality formed the essence of selfhood, and she wrote about this over and over again." Sex with men and women, her work in a live sex show and in porn, BDSM, tattoos, piercings, PID infections, abortions etc. - unsurprisingly, much of her work did not fail to shock, and her classic Blood and Guts in High School was even banned in West Germany for being pornographic (it's not banned anymore though). Acker's style was deeply influenced by Burroughs cut-up technique, a literary counterpart to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, and the technique of textual appropriation, meaning that she used other literary texts, intersected them with her own writing or overwrote and shifted them in elaborate pastiches. For those Germans out there: When Helene Hegemann was involved in a huge plagiarism scandal some years ago concerning her novel Axolotl Roadkill (English translation available), she said that her model had been Kathy Acker. Acker's reason for working with appropriations still sounds fiercely postmodern: "I write by using other written texts, rather than by expressing ´reality´, which is what most novelists do. Our reality now, which occurs so much through the media, is other texts." Kraus' research is impressive, her literary interpretations sound very convincing, but after reading the book, Acker still seems to be an enigma - which might not be Kraus' fault, but an accurate depiction of a fragmented, often contradictory character. Kathy Acker died twenty years ago at age 50 from breast cancer.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    "I could've been Kathy. Kathy could've been me." This is as much a compendium of Acker's writings as it is a biography, and Kraus has pulled together a vast amount of material from the archives and from personal interviews to supplement the texts. Together we're given, appropriately enough, a kind of collage of Acker: fragmented, contradictory, intelligent, sleazy at times, that mix of high and street culture, of literary sensibility and counter-culture that suffuses through Acker's thought and w "I could've been Kathy. Kathy could've been me." This is as much a compendium of Acker's writings as it is a biography, and Kraus has pulled together a vast amount of material from the archives and from personal interviews to supplement the texts. Together we're given, appropriately enough, a kind of collage of Acker: fragmented, contradictory, intelligent, sleazy at times, that mix of high and street culture, of literary sensibility and counter-culture that suffuses through Acker's thought and work. Acker herself remains an enfant terrible, though the concerns of her texts (narrative structure, identity, sexuality, gender and writing) are increasingly mainstream. With its vibrant depiction of the 1960s/1970s New York art scene through to the more stable 1990s when Acker refused treatment for breast cancer, this is a fine and fitting tribute to an artist who constantly pushed herself, pushed boundaries and helped to reconfigure what a text might be. Thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley.

  5. 4 out of 5

    M.

    My review is now up at 4Columns. Here's an excerpt: http://4columns.org/milks-m/after-kat... "“Why shouldn’t writing be everything?” Acker asked in a letter to poet Bernadette Mayer in 1974. From early on, Acker was a graphomaniac: she wrote dutifully, obsessively, documenting her dreams, fantasies, and daily life in journals, notebooks, and diaries, and subsequently inserting this archive of female experience into those areas of literature and theory she felt had left it out. Poring over what’s l My review is now up at 4Columns. Here's an excerpt: http://4columns.org/milks-m/after-kat... "“Why shouldn’t writing be everything?” Acker asked in a letter to poet Bernadette Mayer in 1974. From early on, Acker was a graphomaniac: she wrote dutifully, obsessively, documenting her dreams, fantasies, and daily life in journals, notebooks, and diaries, and subsequently inserting this archive of female experience into those areas of literature and theory she felt had left it out. Poring over what’s left of Acker’s papers—at times the record drops off—to parse the gaps between her life and her work, Kraus offers a fascinating study of how Acker bent and exploited her life in her art. The book is a portrait of an “I” and the ways in which Acker mythologized it. "

  6. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    HMMMMM. I AM AT A LOSS FOR HOW TO RATE THIS AND ALSO NOT ENTIRELY CONVINCED CHRIS KRAUS SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE ONE TO WRITE THIS BOOK???

  7. 5 out of 5

    D.M.

    Kathy Acker lived a colourful life. She was a writer, a dreamer, and modern day women. She travelled. Kathy married and divorced twice. She had a great range of friends and lovers. She was a notorious fiction writer both in her books, and life. Kathy died at the age of 50 after a battle with cancer. This book is a Biography of her life. There were some ups and downs. Kathy wasn't a sheep, and she was happy to colour outside the lines. She lived her life how she wanted and held her head high. This Kathy Acker lived a colourful life. She was a writer, a dreamer, and modern day women. She travelled. Kathy married and divorced twice. She had a great range of friends and lovers. She was a notorious fiction writer both in her books, and life. Kathy died at the age of 50 after a battle with cancer. This book is a Biography of her life. There were some ups and downs. Kathy wasn't a sheep, and she was happy to colour outside the lines. She lived her life how she wanted and held her head high. This is an interesting read, and the author Chris Kraus tries to keep to the facts (which I'm guessing was difficult as not even Kathy herself told the whole truth). I enjoyed this book. I just would have liked to have seen some pictures. 4 stars out of 5. *ARC via Netgalley*

  8. 5 out of 5

    Morgan M. Page

    Kathy Acker is inarguably one of the most important writers of the 20th Century - to whom, as Kraus points out in the final pages of this book, the current wave of "discursive first-person" writing (autofiction, Nelson, etc.) is deeply indebted. After Kathy Acker - part hagiography, part literary criticism - lives up to its hype as a roaring motorcycle tearing through Acker's life, both real and imagined. AKA delivers us a compelling portrait of our troubled, talented pirate-saint - doing for Ac Kathy Acker is inarguably one of the most important writers of the 20th Century - to whom, as Kraus points out in the final pages of this book, the current wave of "discursive first-person" writing (autofiction, Nelson, etc.) is deeply indebted. After Kathy Acker - part hagiography, part literary criticism - lives up to its hype as a roaring motorcycle tearing through Acker's life, both real and imagined. AKA delivers us a compelling portrait of our troubled, talented pirate-saint - doing for Acker something that has rarely been done for female writers: canonizing her as the countercultural literary hero - alongside Burroughs, Kerouac, etc. - she tried so hard to become. That said, the book is full of curious omissions. Of course it's the job of both the biographer and the critic to edit an artist's life, to make strategic choices about representation, but some of the gaps are puzzling. We hear nothing about Acker's late-in-life interview of the Spice Girls (which purely on the level of dish deserved mention), but more importantly: Kraus never lets on her own relationship with the punk-poet. For the casual reader who isn't familiar with the large cast of literatti populating this book, it wouldn't be obvious that Acker's longtime lover Sylvere Lotringer was married to Kraus for ten years during the writing of the book, for example. The two - Acker and Kraus - clearly moved in the same circles, but you'd never know that from the text of After Kathy Acker. Kraus is conspicuously absent.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Viola V

    I adore Acker, and will cling to anything about her, but wow, Chris Kraus should not have been the person to write this book. Aside from personal and professional conflicts of interest, the style including verbatim repetition of previously written sentences, and at least half of the word count consisting of extracts from Acker's works and correspondence, seemed like an ill-conceived attempt to mimic Acker's appropriative style. But, to my pleasure, at least half of the word count consists of ext I adore Acker, and will cling to anything about her, but wow, Chris Kraus should not have been the person to write this book. Aside from personal and professional conflicts of interest, the style including verbatim repetition of previously written sentences, and at least half of the word count consisting of extracts from Acker's works and correspondence, seemed like an ill-conceived attempt to mimic Acker's appropriative style. But, to my pleasure, at least half of the word count consists of extracts from Acker's works and correspondence, which was just wonderful.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    I knew this book would give me the yips and I was right. I read it anyway. Quickly.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    I tried reading my mum's boot sale copy of Kathy Acker in my teens, and never really got on with it. Never read any Kraus before at all, though I hear good things about I Love Dick. So to be honest I don’t entirely know why I requested this from Netgalley. I suppose on some level that same urge which saw me attempting Blood and Guts in High School - the sense that this transgressive figure really seemed like she should be my thing, and maybe the life would click where the work initially hadn’t? I tried reading my mum's boot sale copy of Kathy Acker in my teens, and never really got on with it. Never read any Kraus before at all, though I hear good things about I Love Dick. So to be honest I don’t entirely know why I requested this from Netgalley. I suppose on some level that same urge which saw me attempting Blood and Guts in High School - the sense that this transgressive figure really seemed like she should be my thing, and maybe the life would click where the work initially hadn’t? And to some extent I suppose that worked. Reading this, I was reminded repeatedly of Warhol - another prickly figure who made themselves an icon, and whose work I find trying, while being fairly sure it's important if only for what it inspired and enabled. I mean, if nothing else it’s good that in Acker we have a writer who openly admitted to masturbating while she worked, because there are sure as Hell plenty where one merely suspects it. And certain scenes linger in the memory – not least Acker’s funeral, where the same awful charlatan who’d encouraged her to believe she was cancer-free had the effrontery to hand out his business cards to her outraged friends. But the most abiding impression is of a profoundly narcissistic person. Not just the radical, appropriative egocentrism of her writing – I can see how that felt bold and liberating at the time, while also understanding exactly why one wag christened her “the most important bad writer of the ‘80s”. But more than that, in her relations with friends and lovers, her repeated and genuine outrage when people’s lives had the temerity not to revolve around her. Her tendency, during her sofa-surfing periods, to be the absolute house-guest from Hell. The combination of this monstrous self-regard, with periods spent living hand-to-mouth despite a reasonably upscale upbringing, at times suggested nothing so much as Lumpy Space Princess gone punk. The similarity extending even to a succession of Brads because, contrary to her image as some sort of lesbian pirate-biker queen, most of Acker’s significant relationships seem to have been with men – ideally ones who were married or otherwise unavailable, to increase the chance of the whole thing turning into a massive drama and ending badly. And then even when she does inherit enough from a rich relative that it should have solved her problems, Acker still manages to reprise the dangerously careless spending habits of the family she spent so long kicking against. Kraus and her researchers have definitely done their footwork here, tracking down anyone who seems liable to shed light on Acker, and it’s interesting the variation in their response. The husband who gave Acker the surname expresses surprise that there's still enough interest in her work to merit a biography (and for all the disaster of their relationship, that does seem an especially cruel cut), whereas from the likes of Roz Kaveney and Neil Gaiman there seems to be a certain fondness beneath the exasperation. One particularly interesting detail is that they've combed the likely magazines to have carried the apology Acker was supposedly forced to make for appropriating sections from one of Harold Robbins’ bestsellers – forgetting that, unlike many of the writers she remixed in similar fashion, he was still alive and in copyright. And none of the publications had any sign of it, making Acker’s annoyance at the philistines who failed to appreciate her project even more suspect. That was the incident which pushed her away from London, where she’d been re-enacting the same trajectory more often seen with indie and alternative bands at least back to Blondie; make a cult success of yourself in the States, then become a biggish deal in the UK, then use that capital and momentum to head back to America once the Brits start tiring of you. And there is something in that comparison; one interviewee suggests that Acker was the first to unite those who read with those who listened to music, which is patently absurd, but if she was certainly not the first such figure, she was probably the biggest rock star writer in a couple of pop culture generations. It’s interesting that, despite having written about it elsewhere, Kraus here largely steers clear of mentioning her own overlap with Acker – moving in the same circles, sharing lovers &c. Perhaps in part a deliberate contrast to the way that Acker’s own books would always foreground the author’s own experience, even down to reworking the literary canon to make it all about her? At times I wondered whether an author with more distance might, notwithstanding a certain platitude I’ve always thought idiotic, have understood less but forgiven more. Really, I think I’m hoping Janet Malcolm will make Kraus on Acker the subject of one of her big, illuminating essays about biographers and their subjects. And I think possibly I would have been happier waiting for that than reading this.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    best biography I’ve read in ages. one of the best things I’ve read in a minute. informs a lot about “I love dick” which I previously wrote off as indulgent - I “get it” now

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Super engaging. I couldn't put this down; nor finish it quickly enough. Acker seems to have lived a deliberate life. Once she decided she was going to be a writer, she lived as if writing, reading, sex, going to the gym, and fame were all that mattered. This couldn't have been easy. And she made 'mistakes', including the miscalculation of thinking astrology and chinese herbs would cure her of metastatic breast cancer, but she also went 50 years without ever really having 'a job' and by interacti Super engaging. I couldn't put this down; nor finish it quickly enough. Acker seems to have lived a deliberate life. Once she decided she was going to be a writer, she lived as if writing, reading, sex, going to the gym, and fame were all that mattered. This couldn't have been easy. And she made 'mistakes', including the miscalculation of thinking astrology and chinese herbs would cure her of metastatic breast cancer, but she also went 50 years without ever really having 'a job' and by interacting with people almost exclusively on her terms. She ate what she wanted, had sex with whoever she wanted, lived wherever she wanted. Her decisions seemed based on what would be interesting rather than what would be easy. She eventually ran into the problem of her personal fame eclipsing her work. The book also works as a profile of the New York '70s art and literature scene. Acker wrote, maybe compulsively, about her real-life relationships. Repurposing correspondences and naming names. Kraus sort by extension does the same. She also points out that Acker’s process would not fly using the mores of today's literary culture (see HTMLGIANT discussion of Janey Smith/Steven Trull's attempts at art). Finally, the book definitely made me want to read I Love Dick. Kraus is a little sneaky in the role of biographer. She doesn't explicitly say it but she was part of Acker's world. (Acker and Kraus' eventual husband, Sylvère Lotringer, were together.) And the tone occasionally dips into straight-up gossip (which I found pretty fun).

  14. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Sadler

    This is a mightily impressive biography of punk poet, essayist and controversial novelist, Kathy Acker. Chris Kraus, who admits to feeling a sense of kinship with Kathy, has pulled together a huge amount of material, from interviews with Kathy's friends and lovers, and her private letters to excerpts from across her output to piece together a thorough, revealing but also touching account of this remarkable woman. What I liked most is how Chris, despite her sympathies, is able to capture Kathy in This is a mightily impressive biography of punk poet, essayist and controversial novelist, Kathy Acker. Chris Kraus, who admits to feeling a sense of kinship with Kathy, has pulled together a huge amount of material, from interviews with Kathy's friends and lovers, and her private letters to excerpts from across her output to piece together a thorough, revealing but also touching account of this remarkable woman. What I liked most is how Chris, despite her sympathies, is able to capture Kathy in all her complexities, including that heady mix of raw honesty and self-serving white lies about her life and background that she somehow managed to weave together to create the myth she so desperately craved about her life. To be seen to be a writer and a creative artist was almost as important to Kathy as actually being one. Chris also explores Kathy's sexuality without any hint of sensationalism. So much of Kathy's complex love-hate relationship with herself and others is caught up in this, and also offers a clear glimpse into the complexities of female sex and sexuality, even in a generation that thought it was breaking free from all societal repressions. A great book for this eintersted in the creative art scene of Ast and West coast America in the 70s and 80s, and also for those wishing to explore female representation and the politics of self-expression. This is easily going to become the definitive work on Kathy.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bridget

    Oh, this was really tricky. I really wanted to love this book, I was interested in Kathy Acker, I had heard about her over the years and thought her cool and edgy. I chose this book from Netgalley when I was in a reading slump and thought I'd try something a bit different and I often choose a celebrity biography when I'm in that space, for a bit of fun. I've been trying to get this book read for ages, and I keep putting it aside and then trying again. This book made me feel really sad. Kathy Ack Oh, this was really tricky. I really wanted to love this book, I was interested in Kathy Acker, I had heard about her over the years and thought her cool and edgy. I chose this book from Netgalley when I was in a reading slump and thought I'd try something a bit different and I often choose a celebrity biography when I'm in that space, for a bit of fun. I've been trying to get this book read for ages, and I keep putting it aside and then trying again. This book made me feel really sad. Kathy Acker would have been a person who really irritated me if I'd known her. She was obviously very interesting and clever and outrageous, but her lack of care for the people around her, she seemed to alienate and dismiss anybody who challenged her would have made me angry. I just really felt that she was tortured and that people who act out like she did (and admittedly I only read half the book due to frustration with her) bring trouble upon themselves. Overall my enjoyment of the book was coloured by the way I felt about Kathy. If you were someone who loved Kathy, I'm sure this would be a great read. I also had some problems with the structure of the book, the flicking around from place to place and time period to time period frustrated me.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Siobhan

    After Kathy Acker is a biography of the writer and cultural icon, as told often through the words of her friends and lovers as well as her own writings. Kraus approaches the task accepting the difficulty of fact and fiction, the stories Acker created about herself and the difficulty of telling what is “truth”. What follows is a biography that combines gossip and personal anecdote with comments about Kathy Acker’s writing, charting her life up until her untimely death from cancer. The book has cl After Kathy Acker is a biography of the writer and cultural icon, as told often through the words of her friends and lovers as well as her own writings. Kraus approaches the task accepting the difficulty of fact and fiction, the stories Acker created about herself and the difficulty of telling what is “truth”. What follows is a biography that combines gossip and personal anecdote with comments about Kathy Acker’s writing, charting her life up until her untimely death from cancer. The book has clearly been carefully researched and written with passion about its subject, though it is more likely to appeal to existing fans than newcomers to Acker’s work. As someone who has only read one of her books, it was an interesting read, but not as engaging as if I could have understood better the connections between her life and her writings. At times the book becomes a who’s who of the avant garde art and literary scenes of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, though it is not always a bad thing as it shows the range of people Acker knew. Ultimately, it is clearly a well written and engaging biography, though Acker’s work itself probably won’t appeal to everybody.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tom Buchanan

    Interesting how Acker was so wounded by her changing fortunes in terms of the literary world's reception of her, and credit to Kraus for spending a good portion of the book talking about how integral her work was to a younger generation whose worlds extended beyond the downtown art scene. I go back and forth on Kraus as a writer (I loved A&A but whenever she talks real estate and economics I am 100% out of there) but this was really deft, streamlined, and nuanced. Her reading of Acker's work Interesting how Acker was so wounded by her changing fortunes in terms of the literary world's reception of her, and credit to Kraus for spending a good portion of the book talking about how integral her work was to a younger generation whose worlds extended beyond the downtown art scene. I go back and forth on Kraus as a writer (I loved A&A but whenever she talks real estate and economics I am 100% out of there) but this was really deft, streamlined, and nuanced. Her reading of Acker's work, which can be so overwhelming when looked at en masse, is really good. I wonder if when Kraus is talking about Acker's importance being rediscovered by a younger gen. does it rhyme in a lot of ways with what's happened with I Love Dick. I dunno.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Audacia Ray

    I don't read biographies or literary criticism but goddamn this book is something special. Sheila Heti's blurb calls it "a gossiphy, anti-mythic artist biography" and that is really the perfect summation. Chris Krause diligently examines the fiction, myths, and fables Kathy Acker built of herself, intermixed with passages from Acker's published works and voluminous correspondence.

  19. 5 out of 5

    John Antoniello

    I can imagine no writer better suited to the task of being Kathy Acker’s biographer than Kris Kraus. An unsettling, contradictory and deeply moving portrait of one of literature’s most infamously ‘difficult’ women, as written by one of literature’s most infamously ‘difficult’ women. Thank you both for your radical, intelligent, and wildly uncompromising commitment to reimagining what text can be.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Guillaume Morissette

    a ridiculously good read in which I found inspiration + life advice

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cassie Lahmann

    This was difficult. Almost felt like listening to a super long gossip story. Still love ya forever, Chris Kraus.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    I really enjoyed this book, especially its thorough research and deft integration of so much research and other primary source material into a very enjoyable read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael Brown

    An interesting, deeply-researched biography of Kathy Acker by acolyte Chris Kraus (who married Acker's ex-lover Sylvere Lotringer). It brought back some memories of reading a few of Acker's books 30 or so years ago, when they were quite the thing. Like William Burrough's novels, they probably still have value for those who want to push out the frontiers of their reading with some truly confronting content. Yes, the book is a good read. But Critics like Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic ha An interesting, deeply-researched biography of Kathy Acker by acolyte Chris Kraus (who married Acker's ex-lover Sylvere Lotringer). It brought back some memories of reading a few of Acker's books 30 or so years ago, when they were quite the thing. Like William Burrough's novels, they probably still have value for those who want to push out the frontiers of their reading with some truly confronting content. Yes, the book is a good read. But Critics like Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic have raised some pointed questions about Kraus' non-disclosure of her personal connections with Acker and the subtle undertone of judgement in this biography: "the emotional tenor of Kraus’s writing... expresses distaste and disdain for Acker as a woman and as a writer". Much as I really like Kraus's novels, I think Livingstone is onto something here. Maybe its just that Kraus's sensibility, her ghoulish observations of domestic compromise and career struggles, her self-irony, aren't quite appropriate for this subject? Deep down, Kraus seems really ambivalent about Acker's legacy. Clearly Acker had a few personal issues, but I don't think Kraus quite makes the case for why she still matters or why a biography was needed.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jemma Dixon

    Kathy Acker’s novels, notoriously, are not easily consumable – not only because the content is considered by many to be tough, “poetic, horrifying, and subversive”, but because there are moments throughout her works where these worlds of ugly truths are made so manifest that we have no other choice but to consume its emotional excess and violence, and I think Acker wanted it to be this way. What's interesting about this biography is its own self-reflexivity. Kraus writes that "Acker's unique mix Kathy Acker’s novels, notoriously, are not easily consumable – not only because the content is considered by many to be tough, “poetic, horrifying, and subversive”, but because there are moments throughout her works where these worlds of ugly truths are made so manifest that we have no other choice but to consume its emotional excess and violence, and I think Acker wanted it to be this way. What's interesting about this biography is its own self-reflexivity. Kraus writes that "Acker's unique mix of erudition, high fashion, and porn made her sensational." This biography traces her development as an artist and leads us to the moment where Acker becomes suddenly self-composed, elegant and aware of the cultivation of her image as an artist and a woman, yet even as she appears to be a free-spirited bohemian-bourgeois, perhaps she is not as contrived as some considered her to be: "...she was a good performer. She could really vamp it up. The whole kind of New York street voice, the jewels, the whole show . . . I remember she had a ring. I asked what is it, this ring? It's like a lump. And she said, Oh, it's a model of a dying city. And when you looked at it closely, I think it went over two fingers, it was like lots of melted skyscrapers, it was like a post-apocalyptic cityscape. And things like that just seemed at the time so powerful. It sounds corny now. But at the time it seemed like, this is the truth - In the end, I just couldn't deal with the gravitational field around Kathy." What struck me was the flittering back and forth of Acker's own perception and self-efficacy when she considers, is she actually a good writer? No doubt a highly intelligent woman, she appropriates (or 'plagiarises') extracts from other prominent authors along the likes of Proust, Burroughs, Gibson and others - after an old Professor (who claimed he didn't really know how to teach) told his class to start writing where someone has already begun - to create from what has already been created. Ironically, since students couldn't be bothered making the arduous walk to the library after awhile, they began to create original works and simply pretend they had copied from other authors. It's funny how rebellion and conformity operate. Much like Acker, her straddling between the space of rebellion and conformity (conforming in her appropriation) really created shocking, profound work. There's something about this line that I really love: "Spiraling back to her interest in Pierre Guyotat, whose 'Tomb for 500,000 Soldier's' she'd discovered in Paris in the fall of 1979, she tells Sirius how she'd begun writing while masturbating. Guyotat's earliest writings had been composed in this way . . . I'm looking, Acker told Sirius, for what might be called a body language. One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing - writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that's like." Even in the pre-compositional phase of her writing, Acker 'appropriates.' Yet what I like about what Acker says above is located in her subtle wink to Hélène Cixous' belief that "women can most accurately tell their story by writing through their bodies. All through history women have been defined by and contained within their own bodies as a result of repressive male activity. Cixous suggests that women who have been defined by the male gaze can do one of two things. The first option is that they can remain trapped inside themselves thereby perpetuating the passive role determined for them by the male. The second alternative women have, and the option Cixous supports is that they can use their bodies as a tool." If people want to think Acker is crass or even disgusting in her depiction of sex and the body, indeed, it can be considered so. But just because something is explicit, perhaps even brutal - doesn't render it inartistic, obstinate or vacuous. This biography reinforces that there is a certain level of purpose behind the vulgarity; even though Acker's own lived experiences have been tinged with sexual exploitation, she writes *through* these experiences and, on closer inspection, has a lot to say about feminism, sexual expression and the liminal body - sites which seem to have become areas of ontological inquiry - much like how she herself remains. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding Acker's work beyond assumptions or expectations.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Maddy

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. it's a funny bunch of factors with this book: interest in chris kraus, much enjoyment of kathy acker's book of correspondence with mackenzie wark, "i'm very into you," which i read recently, interest in acker's life, but in the end i've never been drawn to her work. i've given "blood and guts in high school" and "great expectations" a shot once each, no luck. maybe my moment with her is yet to come. but even reading this whole book didn't make me feel more interested in the work - just the perso it's a funny bunch of factors with this book: interest in chris kraus, much enjoyment of kathy acker's book of correspondence with mackenzie wark, "i'm very into you," which i read recently, interest in acker's life, but in the end i've never been drawn to her work. i've given "blood and guts in high school" and "great expectations" a shot once each, no luck. maybe my moment with her is yet to come. but even reading this whole book didn't make me feel more interested in the work - just the person. everybody has the same comment about this book, which is: it's weird that chris kraus pretends she and kathy didn't know each other. there was one "I was there" in the book, right in the middle of it, but otherwise she poker-facedly refers to sylvere lotringer and even quotes kathy acker describing being upset because of the presence of "sylvere lotringer's wife" at an event, without any indication that she knows that you know that she's the wife. bizarre! i think the last paragraph of the book is meant to be her way of addressing it -- she purposefully gives last word to another woman writer, martha rosler, for an extended quote about identity, "discursive first-person fiction" as she's just phrased it -- "we're all the same in a way, don't you think?... i could've been kathy. kathy could've been me. i don't know. i could've been you, you could've been me. we all could've been eleanor antin. it's all the same. and by that i don't mean we're not who we are. but you know what i mean." i can't articulate it quite, but it seems like her answer to why isn't chris kraus in the book is in there -- because of a discursive I; because the women artists in the book experience a certain interchangeability; because she wrote the book so the Kathy in it is her invention; because she typed out the kathy acker excerpts so she kathy-acker-appropriated kathy, cannibalized her, role-played as her. is that what you want from a biography, does that make a good biography for the reading? did i feel close to kathy acker from this biography? -- often not. i felt unclose to her but also excited when CK's research would catch her in a biographical lie. i felt less close to her than when i read "i'm very into you," which made her seem cooler to me than her books did when i tried them. same with watching a video interview of kathy. from my small ventures into them, her books are corny to me, or dated or something. or less than the sum of their interesting process. to me anyway. at the present time anyway. this book is unclose to her and unlike her books in that (as CK describes them here) KA's books are strict and deep with their POV - nothing coming to you but that I, discursive though it is. here she comes to you through the filter of many remembrances by people who've since gotten older, more respectable. who lived through the period and now live in our period and understand that those times, the greenwich villageyness of it all, are a little corny and dated. that was already starting to happen to her during her life (i learned through this book -- so what am i complaining about?), her peers becoming older and settling down and her seeming to go sideways instead, seeming to have to keep playing out the behavior of the "promiscuous social scene" past the demise of the scene, and how that made her suffer. someone remarking at her funeral how her group at the end was not the writers you'd expect of someone of her caliber, but instead a bunch of alternative medicine people whose motives and artistry levels (and friendship levels) seem low because their relationships to her all involved taking her money. but she wasn't just some 1979 person trying to be 1979 in 1995. one of the compelling things about "i'm very into you" was her interest in tech, email, computers, sci-fi people. -- that was also what made the back-turned-to-science cancer death surprising to me, she didn't seem the type. wish that angle had been in here more. but maybe what was in here was all there was to it. i wanted more detail about the SF literary scene because i live in SF now, wanted to see landmarks i could look out for. there were only a few anecdotes about kathy actually acting a certain way interpersonally with someone at a certain time, and they usually made her look bad. her stealing a boyfriend or being a bad houseguest. i wanted more descriptions of what she looked like. i wanted the glossy section in the middle with a bunch of photos and video stills that the fancypants biography sometimes has. am i demanding the wrong things? does a literary biography not have that stuff because it concerns itself with the work, the making of the work? ok. i'll try the work again maybe. but i suspect that kathy acker is not someone i want to read, so much as a subject i like to read interesting people on - like freud. i'll never get enough of janet malcolm on freud but it never quite makes me pick up freud. the end of kathy acker's life is frightening. the book picks up speed - i don't feel i totally understand why she gets so desperate other than her books start to get bad reviews. her weird bad decisions about treating her cancer were scary. her bunch of quick moves to different cities were scary. her lack of friends is scary and i don't know what to blame because the book doesn't say something strongly enough that it seems to say in a very quiet occasional voice: she wasn't likable or liked. is it true? why doesn't kathy have real support? is the only real real support you get your family and hers is all gone? why can't anyone bring her around with the cancer stuff, why does she go it so alone and so badly?

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    3.5 stars

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lee Foust

    So many feelings about this book... First of all, it's really, really well written--and by the perfect person to write it. Chris Kraus is my favorite contemporary writer. And who else but Kraus would be qualified to present the life and works of Kathy Acker? Set the cultural stage of the era, depict and understand the people who surrounded Acker, assess the work both lauded but more often despised by the critical establishment? It seems like a rare moment in which one working writer of such obvio So many feelings about this book... First of all, it's really, really well written--and by the perfect person to write it. Chris Kraus is my favorite contemporary writer. And who else but Kraus would be qualified to present the life and works of Kathy Acker? Set the cultural stage of the era, depict and understand the people who surrounded Acker, assess the work both lauded but more often despised by the critical establishment? It seems like a rare moment in which one working writer of such obvious talent would take the time to work in a genre--literary biography--so dominated by journalistic critics. (Nothing against them, except how can they ever completely empathize with artists who know their every word is a manifesto and that just such critics as they will despise or laud the work based on aesthetic preconceptions over which an artist has no control and can only rage against in the work itself?) If only for that this is a book of rare worth. After Acker also touched me personally as I've been reading Acker for some 35 years now without ever having really assessed or examined exactly what I think of her body of work as a whole--looking at my shelves I see that I own every book she ever published except the graphic novel and one of the two volumes of essays--and I also note that I acquired each and read it as it was published. I even own three in hardcover first editions, two signed, attesting to my faithfulness to Acker's aesthetic project and my pre-academic, early '80s employment in a bookstore. Although she's older than me, I must cop to a pretty strong sense of identification due to the cultural milieu of punk rock (with which I grew up and from which she hijacked her visual style--or maybe vice-versa), the cities in which we both lived (San Francisco, NYC, her London me Florence), and my admiration for the literary experiments blowing away the modernist novel as I came of age, attended university, and began making my own way in the literary world as a writer of (as yet unpublished--but soon) novels. (The early short stories are out there people--read 'em!) Besides all that personal/historical baggage, having begun writing a novel recently myself attacking what I see as the new fascist misinformation state, I had turned to Acker and Ballard as stylistic models that I feel paved the way formally for the only road that fiction can take at this particular historical moment to help dig our Anglo-European culture out of the morass of misinformation, fear, and fascism into which politics are once again dragging us. So After Acker has come out--was perhaps produced as a reaction to the same situation that I'm reacting too--at just the right time to be of great use to me in re-assessing and hopefully moving forward with work in the same general vein. Boom. Synchronicity without the catchy tune or flashy Godly and Creme video. My assessment is that Kathy Acker is one of the most important writers, if not the most important writer, that the U.S.A. produced in the second half of the last century. There are other good and great writers, writers maybe I like better, but none more important formally. Her work redefined the form of a novel--as did the Nouveau roman and OuLiPo groups in France, Ballard in Atrocity Exhibition, and a handful of lone misfits in the U.S.A.--Gaddis, Selby, Gass, Barth, Pynchon, Vollman, etc. But only Acker's contribution, in my opinion, is historically proleptic rather than some form of re-assessment and re-adjustment of Modernism. Acker's writing, to me, is the future ripped out of the heart of the past rather than the present written from some artist's perspicacious sense of originality because of how well they've understood the aesthetics of the past. Not that I don't greatly admire all of the authors I just mentioned, I do; but Acker represents for me the only way out of what Joyce called "The nightmare of history," (Jut as Joyce's own work pointed those other authors above in their direction.) I just stepped away from the computer for a few moments to poop and took My Mother: Demonolgy with me. Sitting there, I read these words: "Nothing will prevent me, neither close attention nor the desire to be exact, from writing words that sing." Every negative review and hatchet job that "the maggots that crawl on the corpse of literature" (Hemingway) gave Acker are a testament to the subversive power of her project, of her utterly transgressive art. It's time to get hip to ourselves. The future is female.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    There are times when i like to try something a little different from the genres that i usually read and often i find wondering why i haven't read such books more often. Unfortunately for me, this wasn't such a wise choice. It took me much longer than usual to get through this book, but i did manage to read to the end. My thanks to Netgalley and Chris Kraus for my copy. This is my honest review, which i have freely given.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This wasn't a quick read. Kraus tracks Acker's movements from NY to California, and the UK, and while that's necessary I guess it's not that interesting. I feel totally vindicated for not having been that into Acker's writing. I see her as more of a cultural force...it's interesting to read about how her work fit into other cultural movements--like punk or no wave music, and digital cultures. That was probably the most interesting thing in this book. It's not a very sympathetic portrait of KA, b This wasn't a quick read. Kraus tracks Acker's movements from NY to California, and the UK, and while that's necessary I guess it's not that interesting. I feel totally vindicated for not having been that into Acker's writing. I see her as more of a cultural force...it's interesting to read about how her work fit into other cultural movements--like punk or no wave music, and digital cultures. That was probably the most interesting thing in this book. It's not a very sympathetic portrait of KA, but that's probably not the point. She does sound like she became a cult of personality, and like a living artifact of 1980s excess. A lot of her work is described as experimental, and that's not interesting to me necessarily. She sounds like she was a great teacher. She also sounds really solipsistic, self referential and entitled--all of which is fine but not endearing to readers. I realize i'm saying she seemed unlikable, which is probably really sexist. I'm glad i read this book anyway! I like Chris Kraus a lot.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

    I read Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, not long after it was released in Australia and to put it mildly the book had a profound impact on me. Here was this young woman, emerging from the safe suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, who was several worlds away from what she was reading. What was in the pages was violent, sexual, explicit drawings and covered areas that were quite simply taboo in my world at that time. It was nothing I had ever come across before and was my first real f I read Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, not long after it was released in Australia and to put it mildly the book had a profound impact on me. Here was this young woman, emerging from the safe suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, who was several worlds away from what she was reading. What was in the pages was violent, sexual, explicit drawings and covered areas that were quite simply taboo in my world at that time. It was nothing I had ever come across before and was my first real foray outside of mainstream fiction. What was illuminating to me was a woman wrote this brutal and brazen book. The very few female authors I knew at that time wrote nice fiction. Even though I regret not keeping a copy of the book, it is a novel that I recall rather vividly. It was a nice surprise to be allowed an opportunity to read a biography on Kathy Acker’s life, as I can be honest and say I knew little about her. Kraus commences the book with a group of Acker’s former friends trying to determine how to disperse her ashes. It is poignant as you realise that in life Acker was a formidable character and in death she continues to influence lives of those she knew. The first time we meet the living Acker is as a 24 year old, living in New York who has hooked up with Neufeld. To fuel their writing habits they perform at a live sex show to earn money. The reason for commencing Acker’s story here is that Kraus can identify Acker as actually being there at that time. For as Kraus unpicks Acker’s life it becomes apparent that Acker was loose with the truth about her associations with people and where she was living. Kraus does try to uncover Acker’s teenage years and was able to ascertain that while at high school Acker was cavorting with the likes Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Carolee Schneeeman and attending Jean Genet’s plays and films. Knowing this helps you understand why Acker is estranged from her family and why they may not have approved of her lifestyle choices. Klaus and her research team do a marvellous job in tracking, plotting and pulling together Acker’s life over the next couple of decades. It must have been incredibly difficult to piece it all together. What I liked about Kraus’s research is that achieves several things. It placed you well and truly into the world Acker lived in. With the creatives, the poverty and the struggle to have your artistic voice heard. You are given a real strong sense of the major players and what it was like to be an artist. Then you have the collection of Acker’s work and how it is woven in to give further context. The linking of Acker’s writings to where she was located, what she was trying to achieve, who she was associating with is quite extraordinary. When coupled with the critical analysis of Acker’s work you are certainly given a holistic view. I really enjoyed this book. Kraus and her team of researchers have done a really incredible job in bringing all the strands of Acker’s life and work together. Klaus has written an engaging narrative that really makes the reading compelling and honest. Towards the end when examining brand Acker I found really interesting. Posing the question as to whether the character Acker had created was a hindrance or made her iconic? For those who are students of Acker’s work and those who were in her creative circle they will find this an invaluable book that provides both a historical and critical analysis of Acker’s life and work. For people like me, who have encountered Acker’s work and have no other context, this book provides an in depth look at a complex woman and what drove her to be an author. A well-researched and great character study of Kathy Acker.

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