Books

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus has been getting a lot of press lately. Apparently it’s about to be made into a series, too.

It sounded interesting: a semi-autobiographical work of feminist literature in which the author wasn’t afraid to portray herself as a problematic protagonist. Plus, references to Kierkegaard and Artaud. With that on the menu, there was no way I wasn’t going to like it, right?  

I settled down with a mug of coffee and a notebook on hand to write my impressions down, and I dug in.

It started out OK. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. But as the book wore on, I found myself disliking the protagonist more and more. There’s a reason why this book has a recommendation from Lena Dunham on the cover, I thought.

There were several problems with it, most of which I talked through with my friend, who’d loaned me the book.

The first was that I didn’t care about any of the people in the story. This despite me generally being someone who’ll get invested even in complex and slightly annoying characters; but the people in I Love Dick are just… irritating? There’s not enough going on with them to make them interesting, so instead you’re just left with a feeling of mild irritation all the way through. I stuck with it though. It’s a great feminist novel, right? It has to get better.

The next problem was that it sounded like the author was trying to be more intellectual than she is. She kept talking about how men thought she wasn’t very educated when she was actually one of the most well-read people she knew, but almost every reference in the book made me think she probably hadn’t come to an independent conclusion. Her thoughts on Kierkegaard’s third remove, for example, sound like she’s read a theatre book that’s mentioned this a couple of times, and has decided to slightly reword what she’s read to make herself sound clever, without actually having read Kierkegaard’s work.

I had the same problem with what she had to say about Artaud: it’s been years since I read him, but I did read him, and I don’t think Kraus gets what he’s trying to do. It is of course completely possible that she’s got the right end of the stick here and I’ve got the wrong one. As a Kierkegaard scholar I think that’s less likely with him, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Artaud is sketchy and about twelve years old, so perhaps I’m just remembering his ideas incorrectly.

(See how easy it is to admit you haven’t read something in a while, or that you might not be understanding it properly?)

Beyond Kierkegaard and Artaud, a lot of the points Kraus made seemed to be there so she could go “oh wow look how deep I am” when in fact I don’t think she said anything especially deep or new. In a couple of places she actually mentions how she and her husband are “so well-read” which had the same impact on me as when I see things marked “quality!!!” at the supermarket: if the product were of a high quality, you wouldn’t have to scream it out. True quality, true intelligence, true literacy, speak for themselves.

Kraus didn’t explain most of her references, either, just leaving them dangling in the text like intellectual bait. This had the dual effect of irritating me because it sounded like she didn’t know what she was talking about, and making me wonder if she wanted to make her audience feel inferior. To quote the WhatsApp I sent to my friend:

If you genuinely want to make some interesting points and engage your audience then, while you have to draw the line somewhere, it makes sense to explain some of your references. Unless you’re putting a book out as “this is based on Kierkegaard and Artaud so if you haven’t read them you won’t like it” then you should as a bare minimum discuss which specific quotes or ideas you’re talking about, otherwise it’s the academic equivalent of name-dropping.

One of the things its fans are saying is that I Love Dick provides a feminist view of female sexuality. I didn’t even think it did that. Beyond being a woman with a sex drive – something we see in many novels nowadays – Kraus wasn’t noticeably feminist in her discussions about sexuality. In fact my friend pointed out that the book would fail the Bechdel test, since the whole thing is just a woman mooning over a man she’s infatuated with.

On page 139 – so quite far into the book – I finally realised why people have been calling it ‘feminist’ even though I disagree. Kraus writes:

You were witnessing me become this crazy and cerebral kind of girl that you and your entire generation villified.

But I don’t think she is that. Maybe “crazy and cerebral” women are villified, but I think that’s what she wants to be rather than what she is. She’s reading Dick’s rejection – and by extension all men’s rejections – as an attack on her for being a strong, sexually charged, intelligent but not classically pretty woman, whereas in reality it seems like he’s rejecting her because she’s not that interesting and frankly a bit weird.

Chris takes Dick’s rejection of her as evidence of misogyny. I do not concur. This is a guy she’s met, what, twice? and become obsessed with to the point of writing him letters and following him around. She goes full creepy-stalker on him, and when he doesn’t enthusiastically throw himself into the idea of having sex with her, she takes it as some kind of sleight against feminism, rather than the perfectly rational reaction of a man who’s unwittingly become the victim of her attentions.

In a similar vein, later in the book Kraus is denigrating people’s rejections of the intellectual points she tries to make at dinner parties:

“Because we rejected a certain kind of theoretical language, people just assumed that we were dumb,” the poet Alice Notley said to me in Paris last year.

I know nothing about Alice Notley so I can’t speak about her relative intellectual merit, but the way this quote is used smacks of someone who doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about and is desperately trying – and failing – to pass. I’ve moved in various circles throughout my adult life, and at times I haven’t known a lot about what the people around me are discussing – when I first started in digital forensics, for instance, or most recently since getting into wine tasting – but if you come at it with humility, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, I’ve found that people are often happy to forego theoretical language or at least explain the terms they’re using so you can join in with the conversation.

Theoretical language is there for a reason, after all, and that reason isn’t to unfairly exclude people. While this might happen from time to time, and I think there is work to be done on things like helping working class kids to get through university without feeling like they’re at a huge disadvantage, there is a reason it’s there in the first place.

That reason is precision. If you’re talking to a group of philosophers, they’re probably choosing their words carefully. Kraus seems to want them to take words she’s saying that mean different things from how the conversation is actually going, and give these the same weight as words from people who know what they’re talking about.

It reminds me of when hippies decide they know about quantum physics because they’ve read a dodgy article about energy in the universe, and they decide they’ve discovered what dark matter is. This is a surefire way to piss me off, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like Kraus: she’s doing to philosophy and psychology and feminism what a lot of well-meaning but ultimately scientifically dim hippies do to the hard sciences.

Another verbatim message I sent to my friend on WhatsApp:

I actually checked the publisher because I wondered part of the way through if it was self-published, because there are a lot of annoying typos, (things like ‘everyday’ when she means ‘every day’ and ‘awhile’ when she means ‘a while’) but after a while (lol) I realised she might be putting those in deliberately to make it sound more informal and letter-y? Which made me dislike her more.

It’s like she’s desperately trying for authenticity in a lot of areas (intellect / depth / sexuality / whatever) but the way to be authentic is to… be authentic… the point of authenticity is that you don’t have to try.

I’ve seen a few books like this lately, and they’re gaining in platform and pseudo-authenticity (by which I mean people are taking them seriously even when they probably shouldn’t). Jordan Peterson’s right-wing Christian polemic, 12 Rules For Life, is another example of a book that sets itself up as a work of intellect but fails to approach true scholarship. This trend concerns me and I’m not sure what to do about it, except give my point of view here in my little corner of the internet and hope people start to realise that just because someone’s deigned to publish something, that doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.

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