Kathy Acker (Photo: Rex Features)
Kathy Acker (Photo: Rex Features)


How Kathy Acker paved the way for women writing about their own experiences

The I Love Dick author Chris Kraus has written a biography of Kathy Acker. Grace Banks considers the women’s success and influence

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By Grace Banks on

In 1997 the American writer Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls in New York for the January cover of UK Vogue. This motley crew of women were prolific to say the least: Kathy, a self-styled punk writer, artist and academic, who started off as an indie cult sensation in Downtown 1970s New York, then turned mainstream celebrity and chess partner of Salman Rushdie. The Spice Girls hadn’t even peaked yet, but six months after bursting onto the scene with Wannabe, were already global superstars. “If any of this speculation is valid, then it is up to feminism to grow, to take on what the Spice Girls, and women like them, are saying…” Acker wrote in the article, “and to do what feminism has always done in England, to keep on transforming society as society is best transformed, with lightness and in joy.”

This transformative feminism could be applied to Acker’s life too. At the height of her success in the 1980s, she was a global literary phenomenon, a sex-positive writer who explored the lives of women on the edge, and was read to acclaim across the world. But her name has often been overlooked in the intervening years – now a new biography, After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus the author of I Love Dick, is bringing her back into the spotlight, reframing her status as a leading writer of the 20th century.

She was the first brilliant literary writer to breach those gaps between high and low brow culture, because she cared about what women were interested in

“She made a conscious effort to reach out beyond her own experience to see beyond her own world, which not many of her contemporaries were doing at the time” Kraus told me when the book launched last month. “The Spice Girls were not at all popular in Kathy’s demographic, but she was the first brilliant literary writer to breach those gaps between high and low brow culture, because she cared about what women were interested in.”

Acker was born in 1944 to a wealthy Manhattan family. In school, she showed her first signs of non-conforming rebellion, having sex loudly with boys in dorm rooms. During her twenties, she traversed between New York and the West Coast, making money as a sex worker for a short time and self publishing avant-garde novels. She quickly developed a cult following and then hit the big time, scoring a major publishing deal, celebrity fans including Patti Smith, William Burroughs and Susan Sontag, and tenure at prestigious universities that pushed her firmly into the mainstream.

In her biography, Kraus gathers two decade’s worth of interviews, journal experts of Acker’s, and lovingly handed over letters that haven’t seen the light of day for years to spotlight both how enduring her work was, and how she is responsible for some of  biggest millennial journalistic formats alive today. “She added this heartbreaking first person narrative to it in a way no one else had before her, and lots of people still use that now. Lots of artists were dabbling with the high and low, but no one was going personal.”

Kraus’s book about Acker is earning the late writer a whole new generation of female fans. And to Kraus, this is just as it should be: “The thing about Kathy is that she was ahead of her time – there’s something in her work that really illuminates the present political situation we’re in now. Her writing anticipated the social media connectivity we live with now and predicted the smashing together of the high and low. Kathy was at the heart of so many scenes.”

It’s nice to read an account of the 1970s not presented as a catwalk-like hedonistic Andy Warhol-style romp. According to Kraus “it was a mundane decade, very sceney”, and not great for women. Like her contemporaries, such as artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti, Kathy did sex work to make enough money to allow her to write freely during the day. “The fetishisation of the 1970s and 1980s feels so false to me,” Kraus says. “I wanted this book to show how different life was like then. It was incredibly normalised for  women to do sex work at the time, it was just a form of casual labour. At the time, sex was just the way you communicated with someone. So many women did that [sex work] as an easy part-time way of making money. Kathy wrote about sexualty a lot, and that formative experience really affected her, at first she writes about it as causal, then it gets very dark. That period of time really affected her.”

Acker died of cancer in November 1997 in Tijuana, Mexico, nine months after her Vogue cover profile of the Spice Girls came out. Twenty years later, and it feels like it’s only now that the slightly forgotten writer is getting the attention she deserves. It’s the same for other women writers like Eileen Myles and Rebecca Solnit, who are finally gaining mainstream attention decades after they began publishing. On her own success (I Love Dick was published in the 1990s but it’s only recently that it became well-known in the mainstream), Kraus is completely unromantic. “For success you have to add ten years on for gender, then ten years on for access and social class. So it makes total sense that it took a while for my success to come. It’s wonderful that my work is circulating, but there are other artists whose work is not circulating but should be, and I don't know if it ever will.”


After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus is published by Allen Lane

Kathy Acker (Photo: Rex Features)
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