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I Love Dick: what makes a feminist classic?

Chris Kraus's feminist classic I Love Dick, reissued in paperback this year, confronts the reader with complex questions about what it means to be a woman artist and a sexual woman in love with a man.

  I Love Dick. Image: Sian Norris

For Chris Kraus’ feminist classic I Love Dick reissued in paperback this year feels like perfect timing. Its republication by Serpent’s Tail has come at a time when more and more women are writing auto-fiction and straight fiction that attempts to tell a truth about sexuality, friendship, feminism and the wide variety of women’s lived experiences. From Joanna Walsh’s Hotel and Vertigo, Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond, Zoe Pilger’s Eat your Heart Out and Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, I’m constantly picking up books that explore women’s lives in an often exposing, uncomfortable but ultimately satisfying way.

It also makes sense in terms of the recent resurgence of feminism. Although feminism never went away, there has been an upsurge in feminist publishing and activism over the last five years - and again, particular attention has been paid to the expressions and depictions of female sexuality. The personal has always been the political in feminism, and as we live our lives ever more in the public glare of social media this maxim feels truer than ever.

But is I Love Dick a feminist classic? And what makes a feminist classic anyway? What does this re-embracing of Kraus’s novel say about the struggles we still face as women and writers to express desire and sexuality through literature, and what has changed for the better (or worse) since Kraus’ book was first published in 1997?

'Every letter is a love letter' writes Kraus, and her letters form the vast majority of the book. Kraus tells the story of meeting Dick with her husband Sylvère, and falling in love with him. The married couple embark on a project of writing Dick letters in an attempt to articulate both Chris’ love and Sylvère’s fascination with her love. As the book continues, Sylvère drops off the page and the letters are entirely from Chris. Through her letters, she explores her desire for Dick, as well as her reflections on art, literature, being a woman artist and her own sexuality.

I spoke to writer Katherine Angel about I Love Dick, and the experience she took from reading it. She told me: "I absolutely loved the way Dick is a kind of blank in the book; he is a screen on to which Kraus projects her ideas, her art: a foil for her articulating her subjectivity. The one-sidedness of it was crucial I thought."

The one-sidedness of the relationship is both crucial and uncanny. Throughout the book the reader is very aware that our understanding of Dick is entirely formed through Chris’ gaze on him. We don’t see Dick except through the prism of her desire. As Angel points out, he is the blank screen where she puts all her thoughts, wants, feelings - we never see him as the subject but only as the object. He is pure projection and pure fantasy. As Chris puts it:

'I’ve projected a total fantasy onto an unsuspecting person and then actually asked him to respond!'

It is shocking that in 2016 writing so openly and blatantly about female desire and the female gaze still has that power to surprise and disconcert – to feel so transgressive. It’s no exaggeration to say that much of our cultural depictions of desire and sexuality place the male as the subject and the woman as the object. For Kraus to upend that, and to do it with such energy and disregard for social norms, is both exciting and a little frightening. The book is confrontational because it demands we pay attention to female desire. It demands we pay attention to the female gaze and it refuses to apologise.

One of the few things we actually hear Dick say is an admission of Kraus’ fantasy:

'You don’t even know me.'

It sums up a lot of the reader’s potential confusion. How can she love Dick after spending one evening with him? What does love mean when she doesn’t even know him? Is she in love with him, or in love with her idea of him? And does that even matter?

This usage of Dick turns him from a human subject to the object of a woman’s fantasy - something that most women will probably recognise as having happened to them.

Kraus certainly does. As the book progresses, she uses Dick as an opportunity to explore ideas about women’s marginalisation in the art and literary world - and of course our wider world where men are allowed subjectivity and women are reduced to objects. In one striking passage she talks about the hot young male artists of New York in the 1970s/1980s:

           'While these men were getting famous. While me and all my friends, the girls, were paying for our rent and shows and exploring “issues of our sexuality” by shaking to them all night long in topless bars.'

The division is clear. The men are the subjects, the women are objects. The men have the gaze and control the gaze, while the women are fantasy. Men were making art about the big, male issues that got respect. Women were making art that was seen as female and therefore marginal:

            'Dear Dick, I’m wondering why every act that narrated female lived experience in the ‘70s has been read only as “collaboration” and “feminist”. The Zurich Dadaists worked together too but they were geniuses and they had names.'

Kraus’ exploration of what it means to be a woman in the art world are some of my favourite sections of I Love Dick. She rails against being reduced to the “wife”, to being the “plus one” on guest lists while her husband is named:

            '“Who’s Chris Kraus?” she screamed. “She’s no-one! She’s Sylvère Lotringer’s wife! She’s his ‘plus-one’!”'

She celebrates the women who were transgressive, noisy, disruptive, and who demanded attention - the women like the artist Hannah Wilke who she links her own work with. She writes:

            'Who gets to speak and why is the only question.'  

and criticises how art has been patriarchy’s servant in allowing the silencing women’s subjectivity:

            'Art supersedes what’s personal. It’s a philosophy that serves patriarchy well.'

This is one of the joys of Kraus’ writing - and one of the things that brings it into 'feminist classic' territory. It is so so SO personal, and joyous in its exposing, personal nature. Kraus writes so beautifully and clearly about how culture is invested in silencing women’s personal experience - particularly personal and sexual experience - and she slams down against the expectation that a good woman is a silent one:

            'Jack Berman obviously was an expert on what constituted a Virtuous Woman. Someone who keeps her mouth shut and respects the rules of “privacy”.'

By Berman’s measure, then, Kraus is not a virtuous woman and she is unashamed of it. She argues that our culture:

            '...presumes that there’s something inherently grotesque, unspeakable, about femaleness, desire.'

She celebrates the female voice and the need to express the female lived experience:

            'I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive, but above all public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.'

But how does one speak/write an honest account of female sexuality? What does it mean to be honest about sex and desire and heterosexuality, in a society where inequality between the sexes means that women’s voices, desires and pleasures are so often silenced? How do we negotiate sexuality in a society which fetishizes and celebrates male dominance and female submission?

These are some of the questions Kraus raises in I Love Dick - and they are some of the most troubling and confrontational ideas in the book. As author Emily Gould puts it: "[It] was the first work of fiction I’d ever read that acknowledged […] that women who love men are going to have to come to terms with their complicity in their own repression and subjugation, and find ways to address it."

This is perhaps the big question heterosexual feminist women have to ask themselves. How do we negotiate loving men, wanting and desiring men, in a patriarchal culture? Can we ever really enjoy equal relationships with men when our whole economic and social structures thrive on male dominance? And how do we talk about or understand our own sexual preferences? These are big, scary and confrontational questions that we are all guilty of shying from. And that desire to shy away from this difficulty and discomfort is one of the things that, at times, makes reading I Love Dick intensely troubling.

Because Kraus does not hide away from these complications – she confronts them head on. And she demands that reader joins her:

            'My entire state of being’s changed because I’ve become my sexuality: female, straight, wanting to love men, be fucked. Is there a way of living with this like a gay person, proudly?'

These questions form one of the central tensions of the book. On the one hand, Chris is a sexual subject: she is the gazer, she is the person who feels desire for Dick and acts on that desire. He is her fantasy - even her object. And on the other hand, the whole process of her desire for him and the hopelessness of her love is incredibly self-abasing. She describes sex as ‘degradation’ and having sex as ‘disintegrating’. So while we have this strong depiction of female lust, we also have this intensely uncomfortable depiction of female debasement to male power.

The author with the book I Love Dick

Before I finish I want to quickly mention the recent pilot that brings the action of I Love Dick into the 21st Century. The great challenge for the TV show is the character of Dick himself. Because on-screen, he has to become a character. And as good as the camera is at lingering on Kevin Bacon’s physicality, as soon as we see him and he speaks, he is no longer Chris’s creation. As Angel put it to me: "In the book, Dick is the means through which Chris can articulate herself. In the pilot, he’s a charming, arrogant man."

On TV, Dick is no longer the fantasy. He becomes a subject and that balance of power shifts unavoidably.

I Love Dick was reissued in paperback this year by Serpent's Tail

About the author

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. 


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