The novel I Love Dick was initially published in 1997 to a critically and commercially cold reception. Reviewers seemed to think that it was gossip; beneath contempt: the nasty indictment of a real person, the art critic Dick Hebdige, who’d spurned the advances of its heroine, a woman who, like its author, is named Chris Kraus. Institutionalised misogyny makes us a little bit slow on the uptake, especially when it comes to art. The patriarchy likes to take things personally; that way, it can single out particular women artists as troublemakers and crazies by claiming that they’ve slandered some man, when all they’ve done is describe the conditions of their own lives. I’m paraphrasing I Love Dick there, and pretty badly. I feel like I’m paraphrasing I Love Dick in some way or another in most of what I write.
When I first found the book, it seemed to me like the missing piece that made sense of everything else I’d ever read, plus everything I’d ever tried to write. I was 28 and just finishing a book of essays, I’d been lucky to encounter other books Kraus had edited in the Native Agents series, but I Love Dick connected the dots for the first time. Most of the other books I’d ever read had been by or about men, or about women only in relation to men. This book was brazenly, unapologetically about being a woman.
After its publisher, Semiotext(e), moved its distribution to MIT Press and a new edition was published in 2006, I Love Dick sold around 1,000 copies a year until 2012, when the zeitgeist began to catch up with it. Pop culture was celebrating art made by or about “difficult” women: that is, women who didn’t exist only to interact with men. How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti was published, Girls premiered on HBO, Lana Del Rey’s first album came out. That year, it began to seem like I Love Dick was everywhere and everyone you admired had already read it. Of course, its sales were still relatively tiny, but its influence has been huge.
Now, it is being published in the UK for the first time, there is no excuse. Everyone is right: this is the most important book about men and women written in the last century. If you are not a man (or even if you are one) and you feel curious about why the current state of heterosexual relations leaves you feeling angry, empty or ill-used, you can use this book to explain yourself to yourself, and become a wiser, or maybe just more complicated, person.
“I thought this story would be something about how love can change the world. But that’s probably too corny,” Kraus writes, somewhere near the midpoint of the book. It is that, and so much more. It is also about how love can change the world for worse, not better.
The book’s first half, Scenes from a Marriage, is narrated in the third person and takes the form of a diary. It begins with a scene of Kraus, her husband the philosopher Sylvere Lotringer, and his friend Dick Hebdidge, out to dinner at a sushi bar in Pasadena. In the book’s first paragraph, we learn everything important about the three main characters: their ages, their occupations and how they feel about each other and how well they know each other. This is typical Kraus: her style is effortless, but deliberate, artful, colloquial, efficient – in other words, the antithesis of academic.
Kraus doesn’t participate much in the men’s conversation, at the sushi bar and later, back at Dick’s for the night: “Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her.” But she and Dick share what she thinks is a connection that transcends language: “Some essential loneliness only she and he can share.” On waking up in the morning, she decides that what’s happened between them is a sort of mental one-night stand, a “conceptual fuck”.
In the latter half, written in the first person, Kraus stops pursuing Dick as an art project and starts pursuing him for real, though the line between those two kinds of pursuits remains blurry till the book’s final pages. This part of the book is the most intensely epigrammatic piece of writing I’ve ever encountered; my edition has every other sentence underlined. Her fervid, intellectually arousing crush on Dick spurs her to think of every aspect of her life until that point in a different light; she writes to him about her revelations, using him mostly as a receptacle for her ideas. The final page of the book is so shocking, I still wince every time I read it, and I walk around in a rage for the rest of the day. When I give the book to a friend to read for the first time, I tell her to text me when she arrives at this page. The responses never disappoint.
So why is this revolutionary 18-year-old book finding its biggest audience only now? The answer lies in its own pages, when Kraus writes that “who gets to speak, and why, is the only question”. In the last half a decade, women have been permitted to speak in a different way than before; women artists who use details of their own lives in their work are not as easily dismissed as they once were.
The internet enables hordes of frightened, anonymous men to try to silence women via harassment and shaming, but it has also enabled our voices to be heard on a grander scale, with fewer intermediaries, than ever before. We are able to write our own letters to Dick now, and to publish them widely: to tell Dick exactly what we think of him, whether he likes it or not. This book will only become more relevant. Its time is now – and now, and now, for the rest of eternity.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus is published by Tuskar Rock on 5 November.