While still musing (fretting, angsting, brooding) about the memoirs (Outside the Frame) I noticed a recent comment in The Guardian by Alex Clark (Sat 23rd June 2018). There are booms in things that we in slow old Australia sometimes don’t know about for ages, or they are overlooked in the very few outlets where local readers find out about what books to read eg The Weekend Australian Review (sorry, Stephen Romei, we love you anyway). The hot new thing, Clark says, is autofiction. Another recent comment asks plaintively, “Why have novelists stopped making things up?” here.
So it’s a big trend, and it’s led me into a further vortex of reading and thinking about the question of life-writing, or whatever it is, and the enormous burst of genre-busting (like bunker-busting) which seems to have suddenly become possible. The old divide “fact/fiction” is wobbly and feeble, although nobody has told whoever writes the Amazon categories.
Autofiction is in the space between fact and fiction but goes a bit further. Its origins lie with French writer Serge Doubrovsky, whose 1977 novel Fils (Son) did away with traditional elements including plot and character development. It might or might not have been “telling the truth”.
Lately the autofiction trajectory has ramped up and it’s getting really really complicated because all kinds of writers are writing about others living and dead and they are all in a kind of gang and once you start with one of them you finish up with a whole crowd. It’s like inviting a new acquaintance over for a drink and they ask if they can bring their mate and the mate bring some other mates and they all know everything about each other and are planning a sleep-over and you didn’t know any of them before today.
Olivia Laing has written a couple of personal non-fiction narratives, the kind of book where the author takes a personal experience and turns it into a form of sociology/history. In The Lonely City (2016) she wrote about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, among other art works which offer insight into urban alienation.
I came across this book while researching Hopper who I had studied for my painting degree. She draws heavily on the classic biographies – Gail Levin’s fantastic book on Hopper, for example. I then discovered Laing had published The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink (2013). Are there really good excuses for the bad behavior of great artists, or, as Sarah Ditum says in the New Statesman (20th June 2018) is all that artistic stuff is a lot of hokum and they are just regular drunks who happen to be writers?
But now Laing has somehow fused herself with the late Kathy Acker, and written Crudo. published by Picador in July 2018. It is about the summer of 2017, you know, Trump, Mosul, Grenfell, celebrity deaths. But the story is Laing’s own, about her marriage to poet Ian Patterson, and about another book, the new biography After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus. The narrator Laing identifies herself as “Kathy” and has somehow appropriated the life of Acker, who died horribly of untreated breast cancer aged 53 in 1997. Kathy Acker is having a big surge with millennial girls/women after years of non-recognition. She wrote, among other things, Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations, both recently reissued by Penguin.
What the hell is going on? If you felt confused by what I just said about Laing’s book you’ll be even more so when you come to another autofiction booming in reprint, written by that self-same Chris Kraus.
This is a seriously weird piece of work. I Love Dick may sound like a pornographic come-on (excuse me!) but instead it purports to be (or is?) a whole lot of different sorts of writing put together by failed film-maker Chris Kraus and her husband, French theorist Sylvère Lotringer. Chris forms a sudden and irresistable passion for Dick, an English theorist who arrives in Los Angeles via Melbourne and fancies himself as a cowboy. She doesn’t name him in the book, but he’s outed by the New York Times (I think) as Dick Hebdige, author of that most famous 70s sociology book, Subculture: the Meaning of Style. I taught cultural anthropology courses using that book for years. Hebdige went on to write on contemporary art, design, media, mods, reggae, postmodernism, improvisation and Takashi Murakami. No wonder Kraus and probably Lotringer fell madly in love with him. Chris pretty much started stalking him, in a literary kind of way.
A little research reveals that he was appalled and issued a legal “cease and desist” order which was ignored completely. Poor man, he is still teaching in California and who knows how he faces up to those rows of eager students all of whom know he is “Dick” and that he has been “loved”. Even worse for him now with the Amazon Prime mini-series, where “Dick” has been turned into a cultural studies/art cowboy who makes gigantic sculptures in the Texas desert. Kevin Bacon plays Dick.
I Love Dick is kind of a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Kraus and Lotringer are definitely real people. They probably did write all those letter and make all those phone calls. But here’s one clue as to why this is such a weird read, because it includes a lot of faxes, and faxes are so … well …. yesterday or, to be more precise, last century and indeed look up the publication history and you will find that this book was published originally in 1997 by Semiotext(e), a well known French-theory inspired journal/magazine/publisher which, guess what, was run by Lotringer and is still going today, releasing all kinds of strange and interesting books about Foam, Morocco, Versace and has also just published Chris Kraus’s new book on Kathy Acker. So we’re back in a circle.
Now I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know. There’s an Afterword by Joan Hawkins – there are several people who could be her, one an academic, one a psychotherapist. Hawkins calls Kraus’s writing “theoretical fiction”. This is because theory becomes part of the plot, where debates over theory form an intrinsic part of the narrative. Well, that covers things nicely.
It is an 80s story, although set in the 1990s, by which time everyone, filmmakers, theorists, academics and famous former roués were all expected to have become tamed and obedient to the emerging neo-puritanism bursting open the last seams of the millennial sofa to get rid of all that old-school libertarian stuffing. These characters still say “dig” – as in, “people who dig each other’s references”. Well!
As a veteran of French theory I am kind of thrilled to see it resuscitated even if it is in a quasi-romantic/pornographic pretend novel. And now Kraus’s earlier totally neglected book has been republished, or just published, not sure which, and it is about the same couple before they met Dick although they have different names so it’s a kind of prequel. In Torpor the couple in 1989 or 1990 go to Romania to adopt an orphan. I’m loving it.
It’s very exciting to be thinking about where these various forms of fictive narrative or narrative fictions or Me-Moirs are really going. Sadly though it has shown me that what I am writing might be far too archaic and old-fashioned being full of plot and narrative and cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and efforts at transparency and truth-telling. Even bothering to write this much about your own life is pretty radical when you are as old as I am and have no idea if anyone will ever read it. Although there is theory in my books, it is not so obvious that it will annoy anyone and probably no-one will even notice. But I am a bit sad about it too. I’d love to be writing something crazy and unacceptable and scary and disgraceful and dripping with it, a self-saucing theory-fest.