Kathy Acker Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kathy Acker 1948–1997

(Also wrote under pseudonym Black Tarantula) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, librettist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Acker's career through 1997.

A controversial avant-garde writer and cult figure of the punk movement, Kathy Acker is considered among the most significant proponents of radical feminism and the postmodern literary aesthetic. Associated with the discordant, irreverent music of punk rock, Acker's iconoclastic metafiction—a chaotic amalgam of extreme profanity, violence, graphic sex, autobiography, fragmented narrative, and plagiarized texts—rejects conventional morality and traditional modes of literary expression. Her best known works, including Great Expectations (1982), Blood and Guts in High School (1984), and Don Quixote (1986), feature female protagonists whose psychosexual misadventures, involving rape, incest, suicide, and abortion, underscore their individual struggles to discover meaning and identity in deconstructed patriarchal language and sexual masochism. A well-versed literary theorist and sophisticated experimenter, Acker's provocative fiction offers a serious challenge to established literary forms and the possibility of human understanding in a nihilistic, decentered world.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Acker was raised by her mother and stepfather. Her biological father, whom she never met, abandoned her mother before she was born. Her mother later committed suicide when Acker was thirty. Acker attended Brandeis University and the University of California, San Diego, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1968. Twice wed—first to Robert Acker in 1966, then to composer Peter Gordon in 1976—and twice divorced, Acker returned to New York during the 1970s to work as a secretary, stripper, and performer in live sex shows and pornographic films while promoting her fiction in small press publications. She began a combined doctoral program in classics and philosophy at the City University of New York and New York University, but left after two years. Her first publication, Politics (1972), is a combination of poetry and prose heavily influenced by the work of William S. Burroughs. The next year, under the pseudonym Black Tarantula, she produced The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973); an expanded edition of this work appeared in 1975 under the title The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula. Acker followed with I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (1974) and three short novels: Florida (1978), a brief satire of the film Key Largo; Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), which recounts the sexual exploits of a girl visiting Haiti; and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1978). She won a Pushcart Prize in 1979 for the publication of New York City in 1979 (1979). During the early 1980s, Acker moved to London where she achieved a degree of fame and maintained a steady output of novels including Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, Don Quixote, and Empire of the Senseless (1988)—all among her best-known works. She also collaborated with Peter Gordon to perform her opera libretto, The Birth of the Poet (1985), at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985. A film based on her screenplay, Variety (1985), appeared the same year. Acker republished several short novels in Literal Madness (1988), including Kathy Goes to Haiti, Florida, and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, originally included in the 1984 English version of Blood and Guts in High School. Returning to the United States in the early 1990s, Acker published the novels In Memoriam to Identity (1990), Portrait of an Eye (1992), My Mother (1993), and Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), which contains reprinted versions of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec . An amateur bodybuilder, tattoo enthusiast, and adjunct...

(The entire section is 1,504 words.)