To interview the American writer Chris Kraus I don’t step into the lobby of a comfortable hotel. Instead I climb two narrow, scuffed flights of stairs to the little Amsterdam apartment her Dutch publisher has rented for her via Airbnb. Nor does the 61-year-old woman who opens the door and makes us coffee project the usual distant tolerance of a literary star on a book tour. She has a soft, sweet voice and the uncombed hair of a punk kid, and she talks the way she writes: with the high-octane brain of a culture critic combined with the best kind of geeky enthusiasm.
She’s here to talk about her first book, ‘I Love Dick,’ a groundbreaking mix of feminist analysis, art criticism, personal essay, and epistolary novel. Published in 1997, it was later embraced by a new feminist generation and has just been translated into Dutch. Kraus was born in the United States, grew up in New Zealand, and moved to New York in the 1970s to study acting. She became an experimental filmmaker, paid the rent by working as a topless dancer, then turned to writing when her films failed to find an audience.
‘I Love Dick’ is often read as a comedy about romantic obsession. Its main character is Chris Kraus, an unsuccessful filmmaker in her late thirties. One night she goes out to dinner with her husband, a well-known culture critic, and his hipster colleague Dick. Dick spends the whole evening flirting with Chris, but as soon as she falls for him he loses interest. She copes with her growing crush on Dick by writing him letters, some of them together with her husband. Gradually the letters become the essays that form the heart of the book.
‘I Love Dick’ deals with marriage and unrequited love, but also with the question of women’s authority: Who gets the right to speak? Can female experience can ever claim to be “universal”? Men who write about their own experience are respected, Chris tells Dick, but women who do the same are dismissed as “bitches, libelers, pornographers, and amateurs.” By investigating her “failures” Kraus lays bare the power structures that keep women from succeeding in art and love, while asking us to reappraise our own definitions of success.
So why all this attention for the book? Why now?
I think maybe the appeal of the book now is that people are reading it as a comedy: it’s light and funny and it brings people together. It was a very polarizing book in ’97 when it came out. And it turns out 20 years later to be a very unifying book.
What’s being unified?
Well, I do these events, and a lot of people come to them, and there’s always a great discussion, and people laugh and laugh and it feels as though the book has become some kind of bonding thing in a really disparate, multigenerational audience.
You’ve called ‘I Love Dick’ “an attempt to analyze the social conditions surrounding my personal failure.”
Yes. I tried very hard for a number of years: I’d made eight or nine short films and then a feature film, and they had utterly failed to catch on. Powerful people said very disparaging things about them. And yet I felt I wasn’t stupid; my work was not without merit; and so I decided I wasn’t going to make another film until I understood the failure of my films. And to do that I had to look not just to myself and the films, but to the atmosphere in which they were circulating, and the power dynamics of the culture industry and the art world in which they were received.
And the closer I looked at that, the more interesting it became, and the further it took me away from my own problems and failures and into the lives of others. I became very interested in whatever became of the second-wave feminists, who at that point [in the 1990s] would have been in their fifties and sixties and, you would think, in very visible leadership positions, given the tremendous contributions they made earlier in their lives. But no. They’ve mostly disappeared. A whole group of women just seemed to have been obliterated. And that became one of the essays/slash/letters in the book, trying to understand the quote-unquote failure of those women, not as a personal failure, but as something that the culture did to them.
People in their twenties are often under a lot of pressure to succeed in work and relationships. You admit that that’s an uncomfortable position. Is that part of your appeal?
Your twenties are such a difficult time. You have no idea what your life is going to be, and the decisions you make really do influence the turns your life is going to take. And in the postmodern situation, where everyone’s on their own to figure out their life, there’s nothing much to guide us except each other and things we pick up in the air and in the culture. It’s very hard.
It seems like the unattached life that used to be reserved for a few bohemians is now the one everyone has to live, whether they want to or not.
Exactly. That’s the cruelty of neoliberalism, that the person who picks up the garbage has to live as precarious a life as the person who wants to be an art star. Not everyone is born to be an independent contractor or self-promoter, and why one should have to be in that role just to do a perfectly ordinary, routine job that used to be valued in a way that it’s not valued now—it’s just one of the tragedies.
I’ve written monographs where I get interested in the depopulation of everything between the two coasts in the United States. [Outside of urban areas] you go five or ten miles off the Interstate and there are ghost towns. And the neoliberal idea is these people whose families have lived in these towns for generations should just get a moving van. That’s the answer to their problems: go to the megapolis; the work is there. As if there’s no integrity and no value to the history and lives of these towns and communities.
That’s happening here in the Netherlands, too.
It helps explain the rise of Trump, that the lives of white working-class Americans are as devalued as third-world labor.
Why has no one been addressing this?
People are addressing it, but not in a massive way. Identity politics gains a lot of traction and lends itself to a lot of mass media coverage, because it’s very tabloid and everybody really wants to read about themselves and think about themselves, but how to find a more popular way of bringing the conversation outwards? There’s a great feminist group started by Melissa Gordon, an artist in London, called We Not I, a feminism that’s more about “We” than “I,” and that can address these larger problems, and not just the problem of the body and the individual, and self empowerment and self-assertion.
And in Amsterdam this fantastic woman, Jessica Gysel, has started one of the most important feminist magazines in the world, called Girls Like Us. It’s such a paradigm for the possibilities of feminism. It includes all professions, it’s not just people in the culture industry. It’s actresses, it’s engineers, it’s teachers it’s social workers. It [shows] a whole bandwidth of women who are doing work that they believe in, all cultures, races, ethnicities, generations. It’s advancing a feminism that’s not merely about individual self-empowerment, but all kinds of women who are engaged in influential and meaningful ways with the larger world.
In a later book, ‘Torpor’, you write about deciding not to have a child —
That was not the character’s decision. She wanted to have a child, but there was absolutely no support for her to do that. When she got pregnant her husband wanted her to have an abortion. And then she wanted to adopt a child, but he wasn’t serious about that either. She was told by her family, “We’ll never help you if you get pregnant.”
If you’re an artist in the US, unless you have independent means and family support, it’s virtually impossible to have a child. I know Dutch artists in their twenties who have children, and it’s a courageous decision here, but it’s not an impossible decision. It’s not [career] suicide, which it pretty much would be for women living in American cities who are trying to pursue careers in art or culture without other support. Because there’s no social support, there’s no safety net.
I don’t think that you can’t be a serious artist or writer and a parent; obviously that’s not true. There are plenty of women who have children who’ve created great and permanently meaningful work. But I don’t think you can do it now unless you have other means of support outside the arts.
A lot of young women seem to think that if they’re not successful on these terms, that makes them a bad feminist.
That’s so fucked up, isn’t it?
I ask Kraus about the election in the US: Hillary or Bernie? “Bernie!” she says. Then she looks at me as though she can’t believe I had to ask.
Obviously. I mean, it’s the first time in decades that people have had a chance to vote for a candidate who’s not the lesser of two evils, who’s a person of real integrity, who has been successful and meaningful and altruistic and generous. [His campaign] is the legacy of Occupy taken more mainstream. I’ve volunteered, I’ve donated money…
Real change, Kraus continues, has been achieved in social issues like gay marriage. Now she hopes class issues can gain more traction. “I think class is the big barrier in the US. No one wants to talk about it, no one wants to admit to it, and very few people want to advocate for it.”
Why is it so hard?
Because it’s the loser thing. To be of the lower class is to be a loser, and everybody wants to be a winner. The persistent lie of American capitalism is that everyone can be a winner.
Which brings us back to your book: so if you admit that you’re a loser…?
So that’s a very political act, to admit that I’m a loser, because then maybe you can admit it too. And then maybe we can all together look at why we’re losers and how the system is rigged against us.
Published in different form in Trouw, June 25, 2016.