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Why everyone loves I Love Dick

If, like most people these days, you take as much notice (perhaps more) of the books you don’t have time to read as the ones you are reading, you’ve probably heard of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. The book, a slow-burning cult classic since its first publication in 1997, has recently been the focus of renewed attention. In 2015, the novel was republished in a hardback edition, and had its first release in the UK. This sparked reviews and op-eds in The Guardian. Kraus—who writes lovingly of the New York scene of the 1980s—also finally received attention from The New Yorker last year. And it was just announced that the producer behind the hit-TV show Transparent will be adapting the book into a comedy series for Amazon Prime. (Good news for those who don’t have time to read everything.) How is it that a novel about a 39 year-old failed filmmaker in a sexless marriage has come to have such enduring influence and interest?

This recent recognition of Kraus’s unique voice is confirmation of something some of us have long known: Kraus writes powerfully about the experience of being a creative woman, and depicts with unflinching clarity the cruel patriarchal logic that has long worked to minimise the intellectual vivacity and originality of female artists and thinkers. I Love Dick’s enduring success and influence is due in part to the way it explains—to female and male readers—the positive and negative terminals of a woman’s creative life: the invigorating positive charge of inspiration, and the equally powerful negative charge of one’s place in the social order being apparently predetermined.

When I Love Dick was first released it was (infamously) reviewed in Art Forum as “a book not so much written as secreted.” In seeking to put Kraus in her place, the reviewer revealed his allegiance to the approach to women’s creativity explicated in the novel. As generations of feminist thinkers have demonstrated, the association of women with the private, the personal, the particular, and the corporeal (as opposed to the public, the objective, the universal, and the cognitive) has been a core element of the patriarchal logic that limits the cultural and political impact of women’s writing. This association has been strengthened by a tendency to read women’s writing as confessional, a genre which, despite its early promise, has long been thought to have a deleterious effect on society and culture. I Love Dick confronts and engages these logics head on. By taking the female central character’s crush on an influential male thinker as the engine for the plot, Kraus ingeniously locates her novel at the point where the tectonic plates of gender ideology and ideas about creativity meet. (The strategy is strengthened by Kraus’s use of the epistolary form: a genre associated with both the personal and the feminine.)

Chris Karus
Image credit: Photograph of author Chris Kraus by Semiotext(e). CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

While the novel’s central character, Chris, mines and explores the inspiration generated by her male muse (the ‘Dick’ of the title), she must also contend with the long history of the minimisation of women’s experience and their creative endeavours. She writes into a world she knows has little interest in what a woman has to say. Chris’s life (as it is told in the novel) is the humble edifice that unwittingly straddles these two underlying structures of contemporary culture; her marriage, her ambitions, her understanding of how culture is made and received, all start to shake when her creativity kicks into life after meeting Dick. The tremors soon connect Chris’s experiences with those of other artists and thinkers, such as the feminist artists of the 1970s (including Hannah Wilke), the author David Rattray, and lawyer and human rights activist Jennifer Harbury. The novel’s power comes from how it channels the seismic energy of inspiration and feminist critique: the creative and intellectual energy generated in Chris by the meeting with Dick is turned towards an unflinching exploration of why that energy will be minimised and dismissed: “Dear Dick,” Chris writes around the halfway point in the novel, “I’m wondering why every act that narrated female lived experience in the 70s has been read only as ‘collaborative’ and ‘feminist.’ The Zurich Dadaists worked together too but they were geniuses and they had names.”

While the novel explores the fraught reality of being female, it would be a serious error to think that I Love Dick is intellectual chick-lit. Kraus’s treatment of failure is pivotal. When the novel begins, Chris is in the post-production phase for her feature-length film Gravity & Grace. While receiving regular updates from the post-production crew in New Zealand, Chris is collecting rejection slips (in the forms of faxes, it is the mid-1990s after all) from the major and minor film festivals to which she has submitted the film. Before it is even completed, she is aware that the film is going nowhere because it will not be screened. In its treatment of failure, I Love Dick achieves that rare alchemy of great writing: a negative experience is depicted with such clarity, fullness, and ingenuity that one’s view on the subject is transformed. In an era when we are all expected to manage our lives and identities like brands, I Love Dick offers an unflinching but ultimately revelatory examination of what failure is and can do.

It is for this reason that I don’t share Eve Peyser’s concern that the adaptation of the novel “must tread carefully” because the work is “too rooted in Kraus’s interior life.” Such a reading redirects the energy of the novel back into the established circuit of viewing women’s writing as being, fundamentally, about the experience of an individual woman (the writer). If done sensitively, the adaptation may succeed in bringing much of Kraus’s biting humour and Chris’s wilful questioning to the screen. In doing so, a whole new audience might find the work as galvanising as generations of readers have over the last 19 years.

Headline image credit: Oxford Journals End-User Marketing team really do love I Love Dick by Alex Beaumont. Used with permission.

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