Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (1997)

Chris Kraus I Love DickThe subject of this blog post is a little different from those that have gone before, and from what I anticipated writing about. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick was first published in 1997, although I’ve borrowed the beautiful 2015 edition from my local library. The protagonist is called Chris Kraus, an artist and filmmaker, who is married to Sylvère Lotringer, a cultural theorist. So far, so autobiographical. But while traditional autobiographical fiction makes use of pseudonyms and fictions to mask its proximity to reality, I Love Dick instead feels like a fictional tale made to look real. As Leslie Jameson of the The New Yorker claims, it’s “an experience that can feel like voyeurism but isn’t really voyeurism at all.”

In a 2006 interview with Denise Frimer for The Brooklyn Rail Kraus reinforces the fictionality of the text:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.”

Here Kraus also brings up a recurring theme of this blog: the fictional nature of life writing, that the process of writing down one’s life will always force choices to be made over what is included. Jonathan Gibbs for The Independent calls I Love Dick “both an influential feminist text and a key intervention in the debate over where life-writing ends and fiction begins” which it is, but also so many texts (especially those by women) exist on this line between fiction and autobiography.

I Love Dick is interesting and unusual though. Part epistolary and part confessional diary, half written in first person narrative and half in third, this is most definitely a text on the subject of critical theory. The text itself even ponders on its own writing, and narrative, with Chris questioning her style: “but in order to write 1st Person narrative there needs to be a fixed self or persona and by refusing to believe in this I was merging with the fragmented reality of the time” (I Love Dick, 2015, p. 122). But it’s funny too. The narrator calls Chris and Sylvère’s letter writing to Dick “DICK-tation” (p. 22) and the couple’s frequent bickering about their obsession with Dick is a constant source of humour. The second half of the text sees Chris and Sylvère’s relationship dissolve, in part because of this obsession, and the narrative turns to Chris’s search for who she is as a person and as an artist.

“‘Who’s Chris Kraus?’ she screamed. ‘She’s no one! She’s Sylvère Lotringer’s wife! She’s his “Plus-One”!’ No matter how many films she made or books she edited, she’d always be seen as no one by anyone who mattered as long as she was living with Sylvère.” (p. 100)

The afterword of the 2015 edition by Joan Hawkins discusses the fictional nature of the text, stating that “it’s strange that critics have tended to treat I Love Dick as more of a memoir than fiction” (p. 249) and “it’s difficult to know whether certain things that Kraus describes in the book ever really happened” (p. 254). However, the text can never truly be considered fiction, especially as Kraus continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding it. When questioned in the Brooklyn Rail interview how she first knew she had become a writer, Kraus answered “it was when I started writing those crazy letters to Dick.”

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

anneliese mackintosh, any other mouth

Anneliese Mackintosh’s 2014 collection of short stories, connected by a recurring protagonist named Gretchen, are an interesting addition to the genre of semi-autobiographical women’s writing. Mackintosh is easily identifiable in Gretchen, sharing “unusual names […] German; it caught on your tongue like a mouthful of lace” (Any Other Mouth, 2014, p. 213) and yet it is clear that these stories should not be assumed to be autobiographical. Mackintosh prefaces the collection with the statement:

“1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.”

Writing one’s own life presented as fiction is not a new concept, women have been doing this for centuries to avoid the stigma which their stories might bring. Doug Johnstone, reviewing Any Other Mouth for The Independent, notes that “you kind of wish that a smaller percentage really happened because there’s some harrowing stuff in here, including self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental collapse” but that’s surely exactly why the author chose her preface; to protect herself because her (and her protagonist’s) stories are so bleak. Indeed, should the reader even believe those percentages? And does it matter? “I’m not sure that all the things he tells me are true” (p. 187) says Gretchen of a male acquaintance. Indeed.

Nevertheless, Mackintosh beautifully crafts the story of a woman’s life in her book, regardless of just whose story it is or how authentic the tale. The short story format works so well here because it allows Mackintosh to showcase her diverse storytelling abilities, seamlessly flowing from standard first person narrative to second person (Doctors, pp. 101-109) to a parody of a self-help book (A Rough Guide to Grief, pp. 133-139) and everything in between. Not only is Any Other Mouth aware of its semi-autobiographical status, it is also aware of its status as a piece of literature, with the protagonist Gretchen writing the stories which make up the book. This becomes apparent in Borderline (pp. 155-174) when Gretchen asks her boyfriend Simon “‘Do you remember that story?’ […] ‘The one I wrote after we had an argument? That day we listened to the radio play, then we had a row and you went home?'” (p. 164). This story features in the collection, titled If You Drank Coffee (pp. 141-145).

Writing for The Gutter, Departed Cat claims that the semi-autobiographical nature of Mackintosh’s collection mean the reader “can’t help but be seduced to play a game of hide and seek” and as such the stories “function as small pieces in a larger puzzle.” This may be true, especially as the stories are interlinked not only by their shared protagonist but also by their self-referential nature, but the puzzle should not be to discover how much is autobiographical. Instead, the puzzle is that of constructing a woman – Gretchen – through fragments of life; of grief and intense emotion.

The (Non) End of Autobiographical Fiction

As if to prove that my blog is relevant, The Guardian published an article by Belinda McKeon on the difficulties of autobiographical fiction writing yesterday. I particularly like this idea:

“The problem is with story; with the idea that life is anything like a story. It is not a story; it has been, and hopefully continues to be, a life.”

I’ve come back to this idea a few times in my PhD research on Dorothy Richardson because her autobiographical Pilgrimage novel sequence has pretty much been left unfinished since the last volume was published posthumously. Basically, can autobiography or autobiographical fiction ever have a satisfying ending if the life it’s based on continues?