Literature

The Rebirth of Chris Kraus

Chris Kraus’s cult novel shows us how women have changed in two decades…

Bea Nolan

‘I don’t know why you would get up in the morning if you didn’t have a Dick,’ claimed Sarah Gubbins, co-creator of Amazon’s adaption of Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel, I Love Dick. The so-called ‘Dick’ Gubbins is referring to is Kraus’s fictionalised male lead in I Love Dick. He is a man who exists primarily as the object of a desire which borders on obsession – the real-life inspiration was said to come from the academic Dick Hebdige. The novel has become a touchstone across academic disciplines, combining philosophy, art, and social theory with a breathless declaration of feminine desire. Despite its now cult status, the book did not have an easy ride through history. 

As an early experiment in auto-fiction and hyperbolic confessionalism, the novel was largely snubbed by critics and achieved little commercial success when first published in 1997. The novel tears away the veil separating fiction from reality and privacy from self-expression in a way that female writers had not done before. Auto-fictional novels such as Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?(2010) came over a decade after I Love Dick’s first publication. Kraus’s novel is a manifesto of feminine desire, one that excitedly gallops and neurotically oscillates through a turmoil of emotion and sexual awakening. Kraus herself describes it as part romantic comedy, part ‘anthropological case study.’

Many critics point out that the book did not receive the audience it deserved until 18 years after its original publication. The Guardian’s Emily Gould once argued that it was ‘the most important book written about men and women written in the last century.’ Its lack of attention, Gould argues, is because only in the last half-decade have women been permitted to speak differently, as ‘women artists who use details of their own lives in their work are not as easily dismissed as they once were.’

After the book was re-published in 2005, Kraus found hundreds of women sending letters to the fictionalised Dick or telling her of their experiments writing to their own imagined object of desire. She wrote: ‘In a way, the readership looks after itself. The book creates a community of young women that doesn’t really need me – it’s a great thing.’ By the time of its second publication, the novel had fostered a community of readers who shared these specific experiences – from its bold cover that was only truly understood by those in the ‘know’ to its narrator’s universalising declarations. 

I Love Dick is a manifesto for a generation of women who want to have it all, say it all, and be it all. Kraus’s refusal to identify as anything static and her willingness to broadcast irrational (or even inappropriate) feelings was unprecedented for female authors. Its journey from an underground, experimental novel to a cult classic shows far how ideas about women and femininity have evolved in that time.