Let Me Be Frank: I Love Dick, So Sad Today, The Argonauts and ‘confessional’ literature

12 May 2016

When I Love Dick was first published in the 90s, it was called ‘confessional’, which its author Chris Kraus has argued against. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today, both published this year, are also examples of autobiographical writing by a woman that challenge literary convention. But are they really ‘confessional’? Marketing manager Flora Willis explores what these authors are saying, and how.

‘Of course my dirty secret is that it’s always been about me’ – Eileen Myles

Two weeks ago, I took fifteen copies of I Love Dick to a hen do and put one in each place at the lunch table. After the hoots had died down and blurbs were beginning to be read, I found myself repeatedly announcing to the party that, yes it was a novel, but it was all based on reality. Why? Because I wanted them to understand something I find essential to the impact of the book: Chris Kraus’s defiance in telling her story to a society unused to, and uncomfortable with, hearing the reality of being a woman, from a woman. And I Love Dick is ‘brazenly, unapologetically about being a woman’ (Emily Gould).

Twenty years later, a new wave of frank, self-aware and funny female voices thrives. On TV, we get an eyeful of Lena Dunham’s pubic hair on Girls, now a mainstream comedy-drama. Through music and video Beyoncé’s Lemonade explores the effects of infidelity, asking ‘What’s worse – looking jealous or crazy?’ In literature – specifically, in Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today (Scribe) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Melville House), both published this year – we are allowed access to the darkest recesses of the writers’ lives and minds in books that, like Dick, disrupt traditional genre.

In the two most recent books there is no third person to be found, though plenty of second: romantic infatuation, and the vulnerability that accompanies it, is examined with a familiar sense of irony. Each author, like Kraus, ‘marches boldly into self-abasement’ (Eileen Myles). In a chapter reminiscent of I Love Dick, Broder tells the story of a past relationship through a combination of narrative, sexts and texts, interspersed with definitions taken from different sources of the words ‘love’, ‘lust’ and ‘infatuation’. She has been ‘swept away’, but not without doing her research. She is able to conclude: ‘Love, lust, infatuation – for a few moments, I was not sad.’ On page one of The Argonauts, Nelson writes, ‘[A friend] suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles … Instead the words I love you tumble out of my mouth the first time you fuck me in the ass’. Any sense of Nelson’s loss of emotional control is undercut by her lyricism and calculated visceral impact.

ILD Argonauts So Sad Today

I Love Dick charts a woman named Chris Kraus’s infatuation with an art critic, Dick, through a mix of letters and third person narrative.  It has been called a ‘confessional’ novel; something Kraus has argued against: ‘Confessional of what? Personal confessions?’ she said in one interview. Kraus felt the ‘straight female “I” can only be narcissistic, confidential, confessional,’ and I Love Dick was created to challenge that. As Leslie Jamison writes in her New York Times review, ‘She uses the materials of her life to seek this “a-personal” meaning – something larger, more universal. Her work isn’t an expression of narcissism so much as a pre-emptive challenge to anyone who might read it that way.’

‘Naturally’, said Kraus in an interview, ‘this writing was very physical, and I was terribly shocked when it was widely perceived at face value, as a cheap confession.’ ‘Confession’ suggests lack of control, but these authors are not splurging. And if they are letting go, or ‘falling’ (Nelson fears ‘falling forever, going to pieces’, while Broder is wary of her ‘usual habit of falling’) it’s because they’ve chosen it. To Leslie Jamison, ‘describing positions of pain and longing isn’t an admission of powerlessness but act of assertion’.

In fact, there is an exquisite paradox in seeing emotions that seem beyond the writers’ control being crafted into striking, funny, moving – and published – works. In the 90s, Kraus edited two hundred pages of love letters she’d written and yet ‘the book was more than anything an attempt to analyze the social conditions surrounding my personal failure’. Two decades on, Broder’s @sosadtoday Twitter persona that preceded her book helped to structure her emotional expression: ‘I was mostly tweeting into the abyss. But there was something about the visceral impact of sending what I was feeling out into the universe that felt different than just writing in a journal.’ In high school, Maggie Nelson noted her abundant thoughts in the margins of notebooks, ‘marginalia I would later mine to make poems.’

Both inside and outside the text, our writers (artists, poets, academics) find limits imposed on them: by language, self-doubt, critics of them and their lifestyles. But here is yet more mastery: our authors work around, within, and outside limits of traditional literary form to create forms that are all theirs. So Sad Today is a colourful collection of transcripts, texts, lists, diary entries. Nelson’s book has no chapters and there are so many tangents and asides that you’re never on a straight narrative path, and even the page looks unfamiliar, with quote sources noted in the margins (a nod to her high-school marginalia?). Kraus’s epistolary novel/memoir was, as are the other two books, ‘some new kind of literary form’ (Sylvère Lotringer, I Love Dick). None of the books is strictly chronological; they start in the middle, they loop back and forth, underscoring Kraus’s view that ‘To organize events sequentially is to take away their power … Emotion’s not at all like that’; and Jamison’s vision of Kraus’ works: ‘It’s all lumpy. It’s all performed. It’s all real.’

‘Emotion is “just so terrifying,”’ Kraus writes, ‘the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.’ We can applaud our authors for being the most fearless out there – for confronting emotion head on, with humour, with frankness, and grace, and with flexibility. Femaleness is not one thing, it is moving and shifting; just as the parts of Nelson’s Argo ‘may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo’.

Two weeks ago, at a traditional celebration of a woman’s forthcoming marriage to a man, I photographed fourteen ‘hens’, each holding a copy of I Love Dick, the bride-to-be sitting astride a giant inflatable penis. Varying expressions can be seen above the covers. We are once tough and vulnerable, at once out-of-control and assertive, at once infatuated and self-obsessed: and what’s wrong with all that? In the end, there is nothing to confess.
 

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