We Love Chris Kraus, I Think


Sometimes when I’m pressed to name exactly what I like and why, my mind goes entirely blank, does that ever happen to you? Like oh shit, what are my interests? Someone who has a little bit of distance from my brain has a better chance of answering that question — duh, you like Kanye. You like Drake. You like seeing movies by yourself on Saturday afternoons. You like makeup. You REALLY like Chris Kraus.

Oh right!! There I am. Yes, that’s me, and that’s why I was so pleased to get the same emails yesterday, almost all starting the same way: “I know you’ve probably already seen this, but…”

For years before I read it, I kept hearing about Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” I mainly heard about it from smart women who liked to talk about their feelings. I heard about it once on a bus in Philadelphia; I still remember the gray city rolling by. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, but it had an allure, like whispers about a dance club that only opened under the full moon, or an underground bar you needed a password to get into. It was a book that carried the sense of being in the know. And it was apparently about loving dick.

Then I read it. I was nearly two decades late to the party — “I Love Dick” came out in 1997 — but I loved the party anyway. I was finally part of it, and it made me feel even more part of it — part of something — to have men making asinine comments on the 4 train, pointing at the cover: Good to know what you like! I knew I was holding white-hot text in my hands, written by a woman who had theorized what these guys were doing — with me, with their dick jokes — even before they’d done it.

Leslie Jamison writing about I Love Dick and Chris Kraus in The New Yorker. That’s a sentence composed of pretty much all of my interests, I think!

Sometimes I lazily assume that everyone has read or at least heard of Chris Kraus because in my immediate circle that’s largely true; it’s one of those prophetic statements that produce the effect you’re looking for, because when I and other people like me talk about Chris Kraus as though we don’t have to explain anything, there are two possible outcomes. The other person knows what I’m talking about and we both get to bask in the smug self-righteousness of being in the know, or the other person doesn’t know what I’m talking about but smiles and nods politely until I stop talking. And so Chris Kraus remains this special bonding thing with some people and this alienating thing with others, and sometimes when I try to talk about it or I see other people try to talk about it, there’s this immediate nervous reaction like, no she’s mine! There are two directly competing feelings: I want everyone to know what I know, and also I want nobody to know so I can keep this special small thing.

Chris Kraus was something I first found out about from Emily Gould — from a blog post on Emily Magazine that I can’t seem to find, but here’s her talking about the book as well as No Regrets — and her enthusiasm convinced me I had to get my hands on that book immediately. But you know what? The first time I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to care. I didn’t understand the form or connect to anything that was being said in those first few pages. I wasn’t ready for the book. And when I did try again several months later, the only reason I responded so strongly was because I had changed, of course. The book always stays the same.

Now I find myself weirdly…protective of I Love Dick, let’s say, although that’s not entirely right. Mostly I know that it is not a book for a lot of people. It’s strange and scary and often emotionally repellant; like the things I felt while reading the book are feelings that made me want to physically leave. So I don’t recommend it very firmly the way I might recommend another book or piece of pop culture. I want people to find it on their own.

I wrote about this, kind of, when I wrote about Joan Didion: the way we use people as shortcuts for our own intellectual ends. Instead of freely sharing Chris Kraus and her work, it’s become private, isolated, something I only talk about with a select group of people, something I’ll name when pressed for an interest, a very clear reference that seeps into my other work enough so that people know to email me when a big piece is published but not so much that the majority of people in my life ever know why or how I feel the way I do about Chris Kraus. I don’t want to keep her a secret or create this kind of exclusionary community for those lucky enough to be in the know. I do want to communicate the depths of my enthusiasm as much as that’s possible and then let people, if they want, track down her writing and decide for themselves.

The impact of reading Who gets to speak and why is the only question, one of my favorite lines from I Love Dick, divided my life into two parts: before I read that book and asked myself that question, and after. Before Dick and After Dick. That’s the closest I can get to sharing with you just how much this writing means to me. I get to speak and I’m still tripping over the words all the time. Hopefully you understand.

If you are new to Chris Kraus, and you do want to read more, there’s this and this and this and this and this and then oh yes this, and then of course there are her books, and of course there are the essays and blog posts and emails that haven’t even been written yet, because people are still finding and reading her for the first time and still tripping over what it is they want to say, and I look forward to reading all of it. What book do YOU have the most complicated word-tripping feelings about? Tell me!! I want to know!!