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After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

May 7, 2018

Literature's fiercest firebrand gets a critical biography from the wife of her ex-lover.

Kathy Acker made a career of splicing public domain classics with “erotica” and then revising those mashups into lightning-paced nightmare narratives. She broke grammar rules, copyright rules, sex rules, and I loved her for it. The fact you can get her books from the library is a testament to our core value of intellectual freedom, ummm, I mean libraries rock. Please sign up for Summer Reading Challenge when it starts. This is sooner than you think.

After Kathy Acker is the first book-length biography of Acker. Subtitled A Literary Biography, the book is as much a critical bibliography as a biography. A deep dive into Acker’s influences and milieu, we see the storied '70s New York art world pre- and post-gentrification. Then it was San Francisco, London, and Seattle--building a tattooed, bodybuilding legend along the way. Acker was a sex worker before she became a famous writer. The glue between sex worker Kathy and celebrity author Kathy is her time in San Diego studying with David Antin. There she honed her ability to morph public domain (and sometimes not public domain) texts into weapons. Though Acker’s methods attacked conventions, she was rigorous and disciplined in her craft, collaging and editing for hours a day. She built a grassroots literary reputation via mail art and micropresses. She became the talk of the town--JT LeRoy before JT LeRoy.

Acker’s fall from critical and social grace was just as swift. It was fascinating to see how she navigated her career after being rejected by literati. She embraced / was embraced by “low” culture: comic book writers and punk rock bands. Arbitrary distinctions between high and low culture permeated my experience managing the fiction collection and hosting book clubs at Main Library. Such distinctions are often solely based on marketing. Few authors blurred the lines between high art and trash as effectively as Acker. The liminal space between zones--that is what I look for in a book after being surrounded by books, and their publishers' marketing campaigns, for a decade. The rule breaking does not end with Acker’s own work. This book pushes against publishing conventions. The author, Chris Kraus, is married to Sylvere Lotringer. Lotringer was one of Acker’s many lovers. Flaunting conventions / genres is typical of Kraus. Her seminal I Love Dick, the basis of the Amazon show, fused fiction and memoir.

For those who care about such things, After Kathy Acker is a beautiful book, elegant in design and printed on fine paper.



Bryan is a librarian at Nashville Public Library. Bryan enjoys board games, bikes, and free software. His only star is Trek.