Biography’s an imprecise art, autobiography even more so. What, then, to make of a biography of postmodernist icon Kathy Acker, a writer who made her name by redefining aggressive oversharing?
A step backwards, before proceeding: who is Kathy Acker? Kathy Acker is/was: a punk poet, postmodernism’s female Burroughs, aggressively sex positive, a bisexual experimentalist, a tattooed biker provocateur, one of the major hubs of the 1980s New York art scene and an icon for generations of young feminists and rebels. In short, the sort of person who, when described or when self-describing, becomes a myth, something hard to grasp onto.
So let’s try again, starting from why, exactly, I’m reading this book. I discovered Kathy Acker in college, a chance meeting while browsing either the internet or the stacks of my library, possibly both, and, on a bit of a whim and the need to keep myself well-informed of involvements in the literary world, picked up Blood and Guts in High School. I found her work theoretically fascinating if less enjoyable to read, and Kathy herself just as fascinating if not more so. She was a rock star, really, the type of person you can’t help but describe as magnetic, friends with everyone from Alan Moore to William Burroughs to Neil Gaiman, for whom she served as the inspiration for Sandman’s Delirium. A quick skip through Wikipedia or Google images shows her in a buzzcut and leather, a sharp-cheeked girl with nonetheless a softness around the edges. It’s easy to admire Kathy Acker, even if you don’t necessarily appreciate the scribbled genitalia she featured in her books.
Chris Kraus’s biography, tantalizingly named After Kathy Acker, was the kind of book aimed straight at me. With the mix of biography and literary overview it promised, it seemed perfect for me, an Acker neophyte with nonetheless a tendency to overuse the word “postmodern” and a fascination about people far more punk than I am. I might not have necessarily gotten Acker’s work, but I respected it and what she was trying to do.
Plus, I’m always up for gossip.
And, for the most part, After Kathy Acker delivers. Kathy Acker was a major talking piece even when she was alive, and Kraus does a thorough job of recording her trajectory from precocious high school student to enfant terrible of the New York art world. A proper Acker scholar—or, hell, even a more proper Ackerite, someone’s who read more than one book and her Wikipedia bio—could more properly talk about the merits of this work, whether or not it brings more to the table than what is already common knowledge or part of the myth of Kathy Acker. In any case, just glancing at the number of people Kraus interviewed and the sources she surveyed, it’s difficult to criticize her for not doing the work. I certainly learned more about Acker, even if, as already mentioned, that’s hardly a high bar to clear.
But for all of the exemplary reportage on display, I found it difficult to get a solid grasp of Acker herself. Whether intentionally or not (though, given the general tenor of Acker’s work, I’m inclined to hope this was an intentional choice), Kathy Acker remains herself an enigma throughout. Endlessly self-revelatory in her books and letters, she’s still difficult to get a hold of, possibly because of how very changeable that very self is. Acker, as she appears in this book, is the type of person who constantly views the world as a grand drama, all grand love affairs and operatic betrayals when those love affairs fail to live up to the movies. Which again, considering this is the woman whose whole deal was appropriation and who essentially wrote herself into Great Expectations and Don Quixote, is again fitting. And yet for all that, there’s nonetheless a frustrating quality to the incompleteness of the portrait we get here. Identity is always fragmented, sure, and while it’s 2018 and we should be wise and postmodern enough to accept this, we’re still instinctively tied to the idea of Truth. Biography is the chance to go beyond the image, to glimpse something beneath the veneer of popular knowledge. Acker, relentlessly autobiographical and self-fabricating, complicates any attempts to know her on that level. Reviewing the trajectory of her life can give a sense of who she was, but if you want to know what it was like to know Acker, you have to turn to the work itself.
Which, speaking of the work. I’m not going to pretend I’m well-versed in literary biographies—or really, biography as a genre more largely—but there is always a sense, when you’re talking about a person who is famous for XYZ, that everything between XYZ is build-up. We want the context of how Sergeant Pepper was recorded, sure, but that’s because we’re fascinated by the genius in the first place. In that sense, the biographer has to act at least partially as cultural critic—telling us why Infinite Jest was such a literary event, how Alexander Hamilton wrote half of the Federalist Papers, etc. Kraus does this fairly well (or as well as can be hoped with work like Acker’s), especially when it comes to tying the work to Acker’s life more generally. Kraus touches on the work, yes, but her focus is more on the effect it had on those around Acker, and for an author who was as much a celebrity as Acker was, this is definitely a valid choice.
However, while I enjoyed the focus on Acker’s work and the many artists she influenced, I still wish, in a sense, that there had been more focus on that legacy, the After in the title. From high school sweethearts who would later become avant-garde film critics to media theorists with whom Acker had long, emotional email exchanges, Kraus is skilled at detailing the people Acker met and touched in her wake. At times, the book felt like a who’s who of the 1980s artistic scene, characters connected by people Acker had loved or fucked or eventually fucked over. Acker herself emerges as surprisingly unsympathetic at times, the type of artistic force so strong it’s hard to have room for anyone else. You want her to slow down, to stop burning bridges with the people who love her and whom she once loved. Unsurprisingly, the same qualities that make Acker such a punk icon—the daring, the outspokenness, the volatility—also make her a less-than-ideal friend, the type who’ll crash on your couch and have loud sex on it the next day. I still admire Acker, but I don’t know if I would want to be her friend.
And that, I think, is my overall take away from After Kathy Acker: the fact that for all your literary ambitions, it is still entirely possible to a less-than-ideal person. In my creative nonfiction and occasionally my fiction classes, we constantly circled this idea: the way art intersects with life and how, if at all, one necessarily affected the other. Karl Ove Knausgaard came up a lot during these discussions, and the way his art has affected his personal life: a recent divorce, estranged relatives, literary fame bought at the price of speaking (unflinchingly, unreservedly) openly about his own family drama. My (generally white, generally male) classmates seemed to struggle over this, To be a good writer, they asked, did you have to be constantly one step removed from the people in your life, mining for material even as you as swipe left on Tinder, laugh at a date’s unfunny joke, put a hand on some pretty girl’s knee?
I always thought that was a ridiculous dichotomy, and I’ve become more certain in that opinion since graduating, from watching George Saunders and Michael Chabon and Hanif Abdurraqib and others, the example of queer and POC artists who are loud about their queerness and their love for their communities. You can be an asshole in art, yeah, but you don’t have to be. Perhaps there are some times when it’s necessary to be more forthright in your art than you would be in life, honesty and vulnerability and whatever great traits make for great art, but you can still do it with kindness; you can still do it with love. Being a good artist doesn’t mean being an asshole, and being an asshole doesn’t necessarily make you a better artist. Sometimes the two can met, and that’s always an uncomfortable conundrum to deal with, but in general? You make art the way you live and you should, in any case, try to do both well.
All that said. Finishing this book, I can say that I still admire Kathy Acker, even if I’m not sure I would like her. In that way, my reaction is Acker the person is exactly the the same as my reaction to her work.