:: Article

After After Kathy Acker

By Mollie Elizabeth Pyne.

Kathy Acker


(I realize that all my life is endings. Not endings, those are just events; but holes. For instance, when my mother died the “I” I had always known dropped out.)

The ghost girl responsible for this line is Kathy Acker, written in her first novel, her greatest, Great Expectations, published in 1979. A writer of fiction, non-fiction, experimental prose and poetry. A writer of the body, of women’s bodies, of intermingling bodies; of sex and sexuality; of gender; of taboo, art, death; of lust, longing, lies. A writer of writing. To live a life full of holes, of absences, of gaps in identity—or “I”—is a life many women writers before and after Acker have known. Women such as Sara Ahmed, Hélène Cixous, Simone de Beauvoir, Diane di Prima, Marguerite Duras, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—to barely scrape the surface—have also written about being silenced, excluded, made invisible and abject; and by doing so endeavour to write themselves out of it. Writing as a woman, writing about writing as a woman, is not only an act of trying to drag oneself out of the silencing hole dug by others (mainly men), but it is to try to bring other women up into writing, into existing, out of being buried alive. I too write this from the bottom of a hole. My being here is no accident. I’ve been thrown in; I am the fallen; the less than whole swallowed whole.

In Writing, Marguerite Duras writes of the hole as a place of solitude, as becoming stripped bare in the unknown, and as being on the cusp of something new—of writing. It is a vulnerable yet exhilarating place between possibility and nothing. The blinking cursor against a blank page. The emptiness felt in the pit of one’s stomach, an internalised ache and enveloping silencing. Duras paints a melancholic picture of and from the bottom of the hole: “Her hands are empty, her head is empty, and that all she knows of this adventure, this book, is dry, naked writing, without a future, without echo, distant, with only its elementary golden rules: spelling, meaning.” I get it. The scrambling up from nothing into something. The writerly journey; the process of making; surrendering to self. “One does not find solitude, one creates it.” The hole is carved, dug, made. Writing is both the saviour from and the source of suffering. In the world of books, who is saviour: the writer or reader? Who needs saving? How does one become saved? How does one come to be in a hole? If a hole is made, who created it and for whom? I imagine the hole Duras writes about to be a tunnel, burrowing down inside the earth. It is dark. Like Alice going down Lewis Caroll’s fantasmic rabbit hole—the feeling of falling forever.


Prior to her death from breast cancer in 1997, Kathy Acker wrote critically on the normative and hegemonic discourses and structures surrounding gender and sexuality, the (feminised) body, and taboos, in particular of sex, pornography and abjected beings. Through the female characters in her novels she explored and situated her own sexed and gendered positionality within systems of power and disciplinary, totalitarian violence. Acker was heralded and criticised for challenging traditional literary conventions, melding the boundaries of fiction, poetry, essay and diary writing or epistolary, of high-brow and low-brow, or as she called it “Schlock”, as well as the distinctions between literature and art. She has often been labelled a writer of the postmodern era, or, at worst, confined as a female literary offspring of William S. Burroughs or David Antin, Charles Olson and other Black Mountain Poets. Yes Acker did plagiarise or “cut-up” existing works, describing it as a crisis of voice as well as a (tactic of guerilla warfare, in the use of fictions, of language). Her Fathers told her to find her own voice, or in other words, to find and then sell her soul; although not as the stuff of essence or transcendent energy, but the individualised Cartesian soul, aka the mind.

Experimental fiction is trapped in the all-too familiar history of belonging to men. (BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN’T HERS.) But Acker knew better than to repeat history, to repeat the literary wave of phallic centricity that had gone before her. Instead she created that which was (untitled), or as she wrote, (a combination of [fatherly, disciplinary, literary] eye and I-don’t-know-who-anymore). Acker wrote to fill the void of feminine subjectivity in writing as ‘I’—she also wrote for freedom. To save herself from constrictions of The Self. Kathy Acker mimed and mined literature, ravishing book after book that throughout history has silenced and foreclosed women and feminine writing. She broke them open, subverted the phallic ‘eye’, and re-told these stories, trying to find her ‘I’— an act of piracy. (There is only seeing and, in order to go to see, one must be a pirate.) A lone pirate, aboard a phantom ship, Kathy Acker sought to uncover the stories lost at sea, buried alive under the sand, marooned on piece of driftwood—forever lost. She swam in an ocean of books (the places for transformations), dived down into the depths. She transformed: grew gills, breathed in the water, letting the words fill her. She stole the language of the deep (into which all drown), one that she could only come upon as she disappeared. She learned the language of ghosts—appearing as mirages on the bow. (Ghosts equals pirates.) She pried open an oyster shell, put it to her ear and listened intently to the language of her body: its inner rhythms, embodied knowings, a relational energetic labyrinth of becoming woman. She swallowed the pearl (treasure!).


Blood and Guts in High School

As a woman, (Born dead), Kathy Acker spent her life climbing out of holes—leather-clad, leopard print bandana, never taking off her rings. Each novel, essay or poem written was Acker climbing up out of various gendered, tabooed, literary, systemic holes. And if she wasn’t climbing out of them she was filling them in—with words, with fingers. Kathy Acker is one of the innumerable marginalised writers whose works have been overlooked, denounced, or stolen during the time of their original writing and publication (if they reach this point), excluded from or pushed to edges of the canon, and then years later are republished for a more contemporary readership and heralded as literary triumphs or voices. Sometimes the writer is still living, sometimes they are dead. (A DEAD LIFE: to be trained, as females often are, to want to stop existing.) The decision to reissue an exiled or forgotten—a dead—text usually comes down to Money and Time. If the text is undergoing its first-time rejuvenation it must be considered timely enough in order to possess enough potential to make money and therefore make the money spent by whatever publisher worthwhile. It must respond to or provide a nostalgic perspective for what is unravelling in the Now. If it is the text’s second, third or maybe tenth reissuing, it’s usually given a new cover or introduction—repackaged and rebranded—in order to attract and influence a new generation of readers. Resting on the back of its historical success, a serial reissue-e paddles in its waters waiting for a surge from a wave. Time is Money.

Throughout its history, UK publishing has largely lacked support for experimental, conceptual or any writing that rejects the normative codes of lyrical expression. But during the last few years UK publishing houses have been republishing books, a number of them from the United States, all of which have gone onto receive popular acclaim as experimental, innovative, New Narrative, or counter culture classics, all of which are written by women—white and mostly queer women. In 2016, Eileen Myle’s now “cult-classic” novel, Chelsea Girls, originally published in 1994 was published by Serpent’s Tail alongside their book of poetry I Must Be Living Twice. In 2017, Serpent’s Tail also published Chris Kraus’ 1997 novel I Love Dick. This year the forgotten 1965 classic, Talking to Women, by Nell Dunn has been republished by feminist publisher, Silver. And the more recently released Michelle Tea’s Black Wave was published in 2017 by & Other Stories and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in 2016 by Melville House. Many of the older texts of the bunch were at the time of first publication considered either to be too much (sex, lesbians, bodily autonomy, women’s subjectivity, frank feminine voices) or to be lacking (as in lacking the normative codes of publishable literature, lacking acceptable narratives, lacking a centralised phallic ‘I’ and eye), have now been revitalised as beacons of New Narrative hope. But there’s a reason why these books out of the many thousands that exist have been chosen and presented as Literary examples of influence and inspiration for a new generation of queer, feminist writers. As white women with either a well-educated or wealthy background, or a successful career already behind them, they are brushing against the edge of acceptable normative literary codes. And then there’s Kathy Acker.

Just shy of two months ago, I was in a bookstore located in a small middle-to-upper-class, almost perversely English countryside town when I saw Blood and Guts in High School. My eyes were drawn to its familiar and perfect vulgarity. The black letters bulged from the pale, stale, Penguin Classics blue that shrouded them. Looking around: wax jackets, brown boots, low pony-tails, a few chunky wool jumpers. An unlikely home for Acker’s blood and guts. I scanned the shelves for more—please, be more. Disappointed; I felt a compulsion to save it… I went to the till. My second Blood and Guts. Walking out the store and in the semi-sunshine I realised my folly: (CAPITOL: SHE KICKED OVER A ROCK AND THREW THE [WRITER] DOLL INTO THE HOLE WHICH THE ROCK HAD MADE.) I’d bought the soul Acker had never wanted to sell.

“It was not until the mid-eighties that her work was presented commercially,” writesKraus. In 1982, Station Hill Press republished Great Expectations; a year later it was published by New York publisher, Grove Press. In 1984 Grove Press and London publisher, Picador, reissued Acker’s “break-through” novel Blood and Guts. Just prior to the UK launch of Blood and Guts, Acker had made the move to London. In the US, Acker had become an icon, a literary pop star, but in the UK her work was still largely unknown. “There is no underground publishing really in England”, she shared with Angela McRobbie, going on to say that the English literary establishment is “predicated on class”. While her work was fading into the background of New York’s downtown art scene as many of her female contemporaries were also publishing pioneering works (Catherine Texier, Lynne Tillman)—many to much higher commercial esteem than Acker—across the pond Acker had the potential to make ripples in the UK’s high brow literary world.

In 1986 Don Quixote was published by Paladin Books. Acker finished writing the book while in London and it marked an ending for her: “I wanted to wrap up the New York art world.” She was shifting her work and her image, she was taking body-building seriously and having photographs taken of her bare tattooed back. These photos in time would become the covers of her books—her writing forever bound to her body, as it always had been, but now visually rather than viscerally. Not everyone was in favour of Acker’s chameleon ease for change: where was the sexy and “enfant terrible” grit of her early work? Kathy Acker thrived on the possibility for destruction. “To hell with the word deconstructing, I’m always destroying,” she said of her writing, which was shifting away from its bratty, gritty punk persona and toward the mythological, classical and high-modernist. She described building the body as a process of destruction and growth, the language of which can only be known at the point in which normative language is broken down. Acker had ambition and she was deliberate in her moves: (You see what you want, but you don’t go after every little thing). She desired success and fame. She was sometimes open about her want for commercial publishing, for she needed money to live and the distribution was better. But it was always for freedom.

During these initial years when Acker began to trickle into the commercial literary streams within the US and the UK, she was the one holding the cards: “If X doesn’t exist you have to make it exist. You just imagine it.” Today, over three decades later, Kathy Acker is fastened in the passenger seat, being driven toward the final destination of contemporary highbrow and mainstream, commercial literary success. It is a straight road, not the messy entangled maps as dreams Acker drew: describ[ing] desire, where you want to go, but never the reality of the destination. Behind the steering wheel is Penguin Random House, Chris Kraus and Acker’s executor Matias Viegner. In 2017 Penguin Random House published the bittersweet biography, After Kathy Acker, written by Kraus and has been posited as a redemptive text as well as a “backhanded compliment”. In 2015, the book I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996, a collection of private email exchanges written between 1995-1996 by Kathy Acker and writer McKenzie Wark, was published by Semiotext(e)—an independent publisher founded by Sylvère Lotringer and co-edited by Chris Kraus. Reading it feels dirty and irresistible. (Desire, in red! Acker would declare.) It is a digital portrait, a diary entombed in the technological ethos, encapsulating and transcending time. In its introduction, Viegner writes: “I’m sure Acker would never have agreed to [the] publication were she alive, but she is dead.” (BEING DEAD, DON QUIXOTE COULD NO LONGER SPEAK.) Indeed Acker is dead—as matter. But she haunts these texts, the context of their republication and her literary rebirth.

I doubt that Kathy Acker would be lining the shelves of commercial and classist bookstores if it weren’t for Kraus’ biography. After Kathy Acker reinvigorated Acker, as all literary redemptions promise, but it reinvigorated her in parts: her punk persona, habitual self-victimisation and self-centredness, her fickle nature, her intensity (visually and viscerally), her writing intellect and talent, her courage and brutish resilience, a wild friend and wilder lover. At times it feels like a character assassination and at others an honourable memoriam. The image Kraus criticises Acker for holding onto, the image that didn’t “age well”, is the very image that is contained within the biography. Kathy Acker was aware of her image and how people saw her, she adapted accordingly and as such was the victim of herself—or that’s what people say. People… Kraus and Viegner are two of many who have written about Acker and who have told similar stories: Kathy Acker as myth, victim, rebel, fiend, anarchist, wild, lover, hoarder, body-builder and writer. The story of Acker has been re-told and then some until she has become Acker as MICKEY MOUSE, a disembodied DEAD DOLL under CAPITOL, a life seen through many eyes, repackaged and distributed. Sell, sell, sell. Like a eulogy, retelling the life of another is simultaneously a process of saving and burying. It is a practice that interweaves both the eye and I of the storyteller and protagonist. (I am also not innocent in this.) Because (Every story is real).


I still remember watching Disney’s 1951 Alice climb down the rabbit hole. Off to a party, she thought, as she followed a rabbit with a waistcoat and *she gasps* a watch. As a kid I willed Alice to go! Follow the strangeness! Break the rules! Live in fantasy! Like the curioser and curioser Alice, Acker has fallen down the hole, a victim of Time, following the white rabbit (or penguin?) running fast, its watch ticking. And like Alice, stories of Acker have been retold until they—she, the girl—have become myth. Kathy Acker was a labyrinth of a being, entangled in her own sparkling web of multiplicity. Often those who have written about Acker do so via singularity, binding to her to herself as image: Kathy Acker as “mid-1980s punk sensibility”, as (MICKEYMOUSE), the (KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT), a perfectly packaged superstar. Body-built, skin decorated with hardware and tattoos, shaved hair, leather jacket: the skull and roses. Infused into these contemporary retellings and consequential reissues of her work is an uneasy sense of opportunism. Time is Money is a Hole.

Although, of course, Acker was also a myth maker: she created herself as art through words and her body. (Myths make actuality, that’s what myths do.) But there is an integral difference between Acker writing Acker as myth and other people taking on the task.

Kathy Acker’s current commercial redemption feels like an attempt to own Kathy Acker, to control who and how she is remembered, a reburial for a DEAD LIFE (for Kathy Acker this was actual death). (BEING DEAD, DON QUIXOTE COULD NO LONGER SPEAK.) Being dead, Kathy Acker can still speak. Maybe, simply, rereading and remembering is the redemption Acker would have wanted.

Mollie Elizabeth Pyne

Mollie Elizabeth Pyne is a freelance writer and artist. She is presently finishing their Master’s degree in Gender, Media and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, having previously studied journalism at University of the Arts London for her undergraduate. They are currently based in London, but soon to be Devon. Sporadically tweets @bittter0cean.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 28th, 2018.