Kathy Acker: It’s All Up to You, Girls

Kathy Acker, 1986. Photo by Robert Croma.

Some of the most brain-scramblingly brilliant clusterfucks in the English language come to us courtesy of the late novelist Kathy Acker. She was a small and potent leather-clad, post-structuralist prose-styling, sex-positive slip of a woman who, according to loving friends and resentful exes alike, moved through the world with the social delicacy of a class F5 tornado.

I bring her up partly because some retrospectives and conferences celebrating Acker’s work have started cropping up in NYC and London, but mostly because I’m having such a blast revisiting her books lately. Grove Press released Essential Acker a while back, along with some of her previously unpublished early novels: Rip-off RedThe Burning Bombing of America, and Girl Detective. It’s chewy, nourishing stuff, and her tales of rejection and redefinition are hitting me even harder the second time around.

2009 is a fresh, raw, hopeful year… the perfect time for an Acker revival! It’d be lovely to chat about her with anyone else out there familiar with her work. (I suppose I could drive over to UC Berkeley and try to ingratiate myself with a few of those scowling pomo lit profs, but I’m afeared. I’d rather gab with you guys.)

Jonathan Webster: “The most enjoyable thing about having a conversation with the gorgeous, post-punk, post-feminist, pierced and tattooed American novelist Kathy Acker, is that her answers to interview questions take on an elliptical quality. Just as in her novels, you are simultaneously thrown off balance and yet riveted, never quite knowing whether she is going to give you a straight answer or about to go off at a bizarre, but somehow connected, tangent”. (Photo by Kathy Brew.)

She was an obsession of mine as a teenager. Auntie Acker, the mentor I never had, the one who would have bought me beer and beadies and spoken to me candidly about orgasms and revolution when none of the other grown-ups took me seriously. A comics pal of mine insists that Neil Gaiman based his famed Endless character Delirium as much on Acker as he did on Tori. That would make a lot of sense, given her spaced-out, million-places-at-once style, and the giddy arc of her life story…

Photo by Steve Pyke, 1984.

She’s right up there with Anais Nin, Anne Magnuson and Dorothy Parker in terms of pussy power quotability. Here’s a passage I can’t stop thinking about lately:

“You have to be strong. Shape up. You’re a modern woman. These are the days of post-women’s liberation. Well, what are you going to do? You’ve grown up by now and you have to take care of yourself. No one’s going to help you. You’re the only one.”

She was right. She’s still right, and I think we need more Kathy Ackers. Now.

More generally speaking, I’m anxious to hear word of up-and-coming “literary terrorists” I know must be out there, under my radar. Help me, guys. Where are they? Who are they? Spill it, O lurksome lit major. Yeah, you in the back with the annotated Go Down, Moses. Who’s on your short list? Who else is following in Acker’s footsteps? In Burroughs’? In Hunter S. Thompson’s? Who is channeling the grand, unconquerable spirit of everyone’s favorite Irish panty-sniffing genius, James Joyce?

Who are the Brave New Writers? Who is grappling white-knuckled, libertine, with language? With life! Introduce me to some innovators who understand the need to marry formal, intellectual editing methods with raw, bloody intimacy…. thinkers who aren’t afraid to occasionally reinvent themselves, or, on a particularly ambitious day, the nature of verbal communication itself.

Angela Carter died tragically young of cancer, too. David Foster Wallace has skipped town early. Bret Easton Ellis seems to have gone into a curious parakeet-with-a-mirror mode (but I still love him). What’s Mark Z. Danielewski up to these days? There’s DeLillo. Pynchon. Octavia Butler. Cormac McCarthy. We’ve got Grant Morrison and the oft-mentioned Alan Moore over in comics. Who else should I know about that I very likely am oblivious of? Feed me, Seymour!

Some more Acker links:

19 Responses to “Kathy Acker: It’s All Up to You, Girls”

  1. Mym Says:

    Oh! Oh! I know this one!

    Gaiman created Delirium before he actually met Tori. Tori influenced the character later, but initially she _was_ (according to the Companion) based in part on Kathy Acker, along with Jill Thompson and bits of himself.

  2. Jo Adams Says:

    2009 year of Kathy Acker revival? Intresting, after having heard of her- mainly in academic articles on cyberpunk and in relation to burroughs- i’ve finally started read her (Empire of the Senseless). She certainly lives up to her reputation, I wonder if there is something zeitgiesty going on? As for others, I’ve had Catherynne M. Valente recommended to me, in the vein of Acker, and Hal Duncan is another new auther riding on the coat-tails of Burroughs, Moorcock, Morrison. Although like Danielewski, he’s employing techniques derived from the ‘Literary Terrorists’ mentioned, rather than breaking new ground…

  3. Jason Brezinski Says:

    What about Kenji Siratori? He’s doing the cyberpunk mashup thing.

    Steve Aylett, especially his more out there works such as The Inflatable Volunteer.

    Michael Cisco does great genre surrealism novels.

    Carlton Mellick III also does extreme surrealism genre fiction.

    Those are some of the more extreme writers who are doing strange things with text, that I know of.

  4. Jack Says:

    As a “scowling pomo lit prof” I’d love to talk Acker. I first discovered her in the Angry Women book put out by Re/Search…which, now that I think about it, was likely influential in my decision to do gender and sexuality studies.

    As for literary terrorists…I don’t think Mary Gaitskill gets enough credit for pushing boundaries in a way not dissimilar from Anais Nin.

  5. tymcode Says:

    This sounds like it’s going to be one of the more expensive threads on CH. I’m hearing my most beloved literary and cultural influences woven in with people I’ve never heard of, and it’s starting to give me that tingle of excitement that usually results in a spendy trip to Green Apple Books.

    Blood and Guts in High School was so influential to me, knocking me off a pedestal on which I didn’t even know I was standing.

    –Mike Jennings

  6. Evan Says:

    I have been a long-time fan of Caitlin R. Kiernan. She is a fearless, gifted writer and will describe to you, in vivid detail, the depths of that vasty deep you spoke of. From her early-on, contributing work to The Dreaming, to her monthly digest (Sirenia Digest), you will see consistently well-written, fantastical, dark, oftentimes brutal fiction. The Dancy Flammarion chronicles are some of my favorite reads as well.

    She doesn’t get enough credit for her talent. Too often did I see her lumped in with “splatterpunk” or pinned alongside early Poppy Z. Brite novels of a certain nature. Both women have surpassed the earlier pigeonholing of their works-and I’ve enjoyed their respective evolutions-from their first novels on up.

    Caitlin’s stories have transcended categorization, in my opinion.

    If you lean to the dark and the weird, the lost and the broken, the space-bound and time-stuck, the sort of ghoul that dwell in abandoned places up the road, the sort of faery that would rather bite your fingers off-you get the idea …well then she’s your cup of tea.
    Her online journal is also worth a look because she is very candid, about the writing process, and else wise, and details her daily trials with it.

  7. Evan Says:

    I just noticed Pussy, King of the Pirates amongst my life-threateningly-high pile-of-books, that’s crippling my nightstand-currently…What a coinky dink!

  8. Ben Morris Says:

    Acker’s book have been recommended to me before but I haven’t yet read any. I need to.

    One of the best terrorists in comics right now is Shintaro Kago (previously discussed on Coilhouse). I usually have to go around the room with a bucket collecting bits of my brain matter after reading something of his.

    While a contemporary of Joyce and Beckett and not an up and coming author I can’t not mention Flann O’Brian as he seems to get overlooked more often than he should in discussions of twentieth century experimental novelists. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are both brilliant.

  9. Chris L Says:

    I just want to second Ben Morris: The Third Policeman is fantastic.

  10. Mer Says:

    Oh, man. You guys… ALL of you guys!! You’re lifesavers. Tomorrow I’m going over to Moe’s on Telegraph to drop a Benjamin or two on some brainfood.

    Professor Jack, no offense meant. I develop huge, forlorn crushes on every scowling pomo lit proff I ever meet. I’m a huge fan of Mary Gaitskill, she actually lives quite close to the liberal arts college I attended in upstate NYC. I discovered her around the same time I found Acker, as well as Djuna Barnes, Joyce Carol Oates and Angela Carter, in my late teens/early twenties. All of them blew my mind six ways til Sunday… I have this weird feeling I wouldn’t be remotely the same person if I hadn’t discovered all of those ladies when I did.

    Same goes for the RE/SEARCH stuff, times twenty! I really, REALLY need to write a properly reverent CH post about the effect that series (and Search and Destroy) had on alternative culture. Living in the bay area, I’ve ended up in the same room with Vale multiple times. Every time, I swear, I turn back into the cripplingly shy 14 year old I was when I first heard of his work, and I can’t even muster the balls to approach and give thanks… someday…

    Ben, Chris, you’re right. Flann O’Brian (a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan) is a god. I can’t ever look at a fat cop without thinking of him. Are either of you LOST watchers? I had a conniption fit when I noticed Desmond reading The Third Policeman. It is SO obvious that the writers on that show have been influenced as much by Flann O’Brien as they have by The Prisoner!

    Evan, I will definitely check out Caitlin R. Kiernan, thanks! I may not be a terribly big Poppy Z. Brite fan, but I’m all for creepy toothy fae things. Have you, by chance, read anything by Cherie Priest? I have a feeling you’d enjoy her work a lot…

    Jo, I’ve heard mixed things about Hal Duncan, but I’m definitely curious…

    Jason, none of those names are familiar except for Cartlon Mellick, but they will be soon. Oh yuss.

    Bless you all. Keep ’em coming, Team Coilhouse! Feed my monkey. Touch him. Love him.

  11. Jack Says:

    @Mer, oh no offense taken! I wear my scowling pomo lit prof badge with pride. (Well, I’m almost done with my PhD, so not quite a prof. yet…) Still, my scowl makes up the difference.

    I definitely look forward to a Re/Search retrospective! I still have Angry Women, the Industrial Culture Handbook, and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition on my shelves.

    Any chance we’ll get a Rapid Eye retrospective as well? Those definitely rank highly on my own personal What Made Me Weird.

    Now is the time on Coilhouse when we danse.

  12. Evan Says:

    Mer- Cherie Priest, Yes! I need to add her to the list.

    It is amazing how many references LOST is tied together with. I enjoy the show immensely.

  13. Thivai Says:

    Great site… why haven’t I stumbled across this before? I was researching Bunuel for my students and it led me to your blog… I was stopped by this post on Acker’s resurgence and it brought back a lot of memories … thanks!

    and then in the comments people are mentioning Flann O’Brien, Re/Search publications and JG Ballard… fuck I’m lost in a cultural desert, thanks for the long deep drink of CULTure…

    i will definitely return …

  14. Mer Says:

    Hooray! You just made my day, Thivai. Hope to see you here again soon.

  15. Jo Adams Says:

    Mer- ‘mixed things’ is probably about right for Duncan, he’s entertaining, not genius. If you’ve digested Joyce and Burroughs, it’s unlikely you’ll find his stuff too complex/nonlinear/fragmented, as some have criticized him as, but on the flip side, he’s definately derivative of/inspired by the other authors I mentioned… so if you like surreal, ‘genre’, slipstream stuff, you’ll like ‘The Book of All Hours’, but, like me, probably bothered by a niggling ‘i coulda done this’ feeling.
    On older writers (o’brian, oh yes, though i prefer ‘the Dalkey Archive’)- discovering M. John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ book(s) delighted me, especially the T.S ELiot references/quotations/evocations. He’s also writing some intresting stuff marketed as scifi- ‘Light’, ‘Nova Swing’. Dunno if the latter has any Burroughs connection.
    So, Cherie Priest- the ‘urban fantasy’ type covers and marketing copy have put me off- but then, Kiernan’s work is now packaged in the same way, which would’ve deterred me had I not already read Silk- is this a ‘don’t judge a book’ case?

  16. brytburken Says:

    You should check out Stewart Home; his theoretical writing, the skinhead as well as later novels.

  17. fourth time lucky for digital neurally impaired | roominuse Says:

    […] Kathy Acker wrote a book called Blood and Guts in High School that was on the Master’s English Programme at Auckland University until the early nineties when the Chief Censor banned the book. I daren’t put into words why the book was banned as I’m sick of being moderated. Suffice it to say, there was a few pencil drawings of a female anatomy and the word c**t was used in the actual text. It was a real indictment of the censorship process at the time as obvioously X rated material was making it into the sleazy bookstores all around the country. It begs the question that if some of that material had been on the reading list of English at Master’s level whether it would have been banned too. […]

  18. CFS Loves 54 — Code For Something Says:

    […] I have been reading experimental writer Kathy Acker’s work of late (for a travel writing class) – and the story of the punk woman behind the words is fascinating. Coilhouse has a published a great introduction to her work and attitude. […]

  19. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    (Revisiting this thread many, many moons later to state for the record that I’ve revisited a shedload of Poppy Z. Brite recently, and it turns out I AM a terribly big fan after all! Just sayin.)