Kathy Acker Essay - Critical Essays

Acker, Kathy


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 professor at the San Francisco Art Institute beginning in 1991, Acker also appeared as a visiting instructor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Idaho in 1994. Shortly before her death, she produced Bodies of Work (1997), a collection of essays, and Eurydice in the Underground (1997), a volume of short fiction. At age fourty-eight, Acker succumbed to breast cancer at an alternative cancer treatment center in Tijuana, Mexico.

Major Works

Acker's trademark fiction is a pastiche of visceral prose, sensationalized autobiography, political tract, pornography, and appropriated texts in which characters—often famous literary or historical figures—easily move through time and space while frequently changing personalities and genders. Deliberately non-chronological and usually evoking a quest theme, her largely plotless stories progress through disjointed, jump-cut sequences that incorporate fantasy, personal statement, and the juxtaposition of excerpted texts from various sources, such as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and the Marquis de Sade. Acker's trenchant criticism of oppressive middle-class mores, phallocentric culture, and all hierarchial power structures permeates her writings, particularly as symbolized in repeated scenes of rape and incest. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, a sixteen-year-old female narrator explores alternate identities as a murderess and prostitute, copies passages from pornographic books in which she imagines herself the leading character, and participates in public sex acts. I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac describes a young woman's artistic aspirations, philosophical musings, and the evils of corporate America in fragmented, unpunctuated passages—some of which are repeated verbatim in other parts of the text. In The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, a female incarnation of the French painter relates the life of her brother, Vincent Van Gogh, while accompanying Hercule Poirot, an Agatha Christie detective, through the streets of Paris in search of clues to a murder mystery. Meanwhile, Van Gogh's daughter, a prepubescent Janis Joplin, has a love affair with James Dean. My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, another fictitious autobiography, reconstructs the 1975 murder of the Italian writer and filmmaker through a series of loosely related vignettes, including Shakespearian parodies and an obscene epistolary exchange among the Bronte sisters. Increasingly dependent on borrowed texts, Acker's first major novel, Great Expectations, begins with a blatant plagiarism from Dickens's own novel of the same title, then shifts to autobiographic detail about her mother's suicide, and allusions to the writings of Madame de La Fayette, John Keats, and Herman Melville. Drawing on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Blood and Guts in High School describes the plight of Janey Smith, a ten-year-old girl who is spurned by her father, with whom she is sexually involved, when he takes a new lover. Fleeing to New York, she joins a gang and is kidnapped by a Persian slave trader who locks her away. When Janey develops cancer, she is released and travels to Tangiers, where she wanders the desert with Jean Genet until they are imprisoned. Don Quixote, a reinterpretation of Miguel de Cervantes's seventeenth-century novel, follows the peregrinations of a female Don Quixote in contemporary New York and London. After an abortion, Acker's romantic protagonist searches for her sidekick Saint Simeon, a talking dog who represents Sancho Panza, in an absurd world dominated by male texts and female subjugation. Acker's subsequent novels similarly describe perverse degradation and ubiquitous violence in surreal contemporary and near-future settings. Empire of the Senseless recounts the picaresque adventures of Abhor, a female protagonist of mixed race and human-robot composition, and her male accomplice, Thivai, as they look for meaning and legitimate modes of expression amid war and revolution. In Memoriam to Identity presents the early life of poet Arthur Rimbaud through examples of his poetry and excerpts from biographies, followed by the stories of two heroines, Airplane, a rape victim and stripper, and Capitol, a performance artist, both of whom resemble characters from novels by William Faulkner. Acker's final novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, is a partial adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with allusions to The Story of O and Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, in which two ex-prostitutes hire a band of female pirates to help them locate buried treasure in a matriarchal society.

Critical Reception

Acker's radical experiments with the postmodern novel have attracted considerable notoriety. While some critics praise her technical skill and adroit manipulations of plagiarized texts, others find her amorphous narratives unnecessarily obscure and incomprehensible. In addition, Acker has drawn mixed reactions to the incorporation of graphic sex acts and violence in her fiction. As some critics note, the intensity and frequency of such episodes produces a numbing effect that diminishes its shock value and undermines Acker's ability to evoke outrage or disgust. For this reason, some feminists have condemned Acker for depicting women as degraded sex objects. However, others commend Acker's persistent efforts to defy literary convention and to unmask the inherent misogyny of Western culture by portraying sexual domination as the primary tool of female oppression. Influenced by the cut-up techniques of Burroughs and the narrative strategies of French anti-novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, Acker's audacious attempts to appropriate and rewrite her own versions of literary classics are recognized as an intellectually challenging endeavor, especially as revealed by her impressive grasp of complex literary theory and comprehensive knowledge of Western literature. A subversive literary inventor and a defiant voice against patriarchal society, Acker exerted an important influence on postmodern fiction and contemporary feminist discourse.

Principal Works

Politics (novel) 1972
The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula [as Black Tarantula] (novel) 1973
I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (novel) 1974
Florida (novel) 1978
Kathy Goes to Haiti (novel) 1978
The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (novel) 1978
New York City in 1979 (novel) 1979
Great Expectations (novel) 1982
Hello, I'm Erica Jong (novel) 1982
Blood and Guts in High School (novel) 1984
∗My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (novel) 1984
The Birth of the Poet (libretto) 1985
Variety (screenplay) 1985
Don Quixote (novel) 1986

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Maureen Howard (review date 9 November 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Don Quixote, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, p. 6.

[In the following review, Howard offers a tempered assessment of Don Quixote.]

Kathy Acker's work is not outrageous. That is what first comes to mind reading the abortion scene that launches her new novel, Don Quixote. We have all been there—not to the bloody chamber of horrors she describes—but to the highly fabricated world of this story. Unless we have been wrapped in cotton wool or sent to the nunnery, we are fully prepared for the sexual and political extremes with which Acker purposes to alarm, amuse, and, at times, anesthetize the readers of her fiction....

(The entire section is 1287 words.)

David Van Leer (review date 4 May 1987)

SOURCE: "Punko Panza," in New Republic, May 4, 1987, pp. 38-41.

[In the following review, Van Leer discusses the form, content, and literary intent of Don Quixote.]

It was only a matter of time before the postmodernists got around to rewriting Don Quixote. In their attack on modernism's lingering romanticism and cultural elitism, Cervantes's novel has taken on a privileged status. Perhaps as a very early novel, the work seems uncorrupted by that cultural accumulation glorified as "the literary tradition." Or as a Spanish work, it seems an alternative to the mainstream of English, French, and German literature. Or in the very quixotism of its ironic quest, it...

(The entire section is 1891 words.)

Aleka Chase (review date July 1987)

SOURCE: "Breaking Patriarchal Myths," in New Directions for Women, Vol. 16, No. 4, July, 1987, p. 18.

[Below, Chase provides a favorable review of Don Quixote.]

Kathy Acker's Don Quixote is a witty, irreverent and pained collage that explores a woman's search for identify and sexual love, exposing patriarchal myths and institutions in the process. In this story Don Quixote is a contemporary woman, a knight whose adventures take her, as she recovers from an abortion, through landscapes of geography and psyche. In predatory, nihilistic New York and London former lovers are remembered, dogs become people of indistinct or changing gender, American history is...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 30 December 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Literal Madness, in The New York Times, December 30, 1987, p. C20.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers a tempered critical evaluation of Literal Madness.]

In such previous books as Great Expectations (1984) and Don Quixote (1986), Kathy Acker not only set out to work variations on classic literary texts, but also to subvert all of our traditional expectations concerning causality, narrative form and moral sensibility. The effect is like reading William S. Burroughs while watching an avant-garde theater group perform to the sounds of a punk band—if you happen to like that sort of thing. Characters exchange identities with...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

James R. Frakes (review date 17 January 1988)

SOURCE: "Ooh Ooh. And Then Again, Ah Ah," in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1988, p. 14.

[In the following review, Frakes offers a generally unfavorable assessment of Literal Madness.]

In order to set the mood for this collection of three novels, let's begin with some key statements from My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini: "Language is more important than meaning…. Burn the schools. They teach you about good writing. That's a way of keeping you from writing what you want to." "I like this sentence cause it's stupid." "Language is making me sick." Shall we dance? The program is announced early. "I, Pier Paolo Pasolini, will solve my murder by...

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R. H. W. Dillard (review date 16 October 1988)

SOURCE: "Lesson No. 1: Eat Your Mind," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1988, pp. 9, 11.

[In the following review, Dillard offers a favorable assessment of Empire of the Senseless.]

In Kathy Acker's novel My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, she made the suggestion that "everything in the novel exists for meaning. Like hippy acid rock. All this meaning is the evil, so I want to go back to those first English novels: Smollett, Fielding, Sterne: novels based on jokes or just that are."

Ms. Acker's new novel, Empire of the Senseless, which her publisher describes tentatively and hopefully as her "most accessible novel to...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 19-25 May 1989)

SOURCE: "Darkness on the Edge of the Text," in Times Literary Supplement, May 19-25, 1989, p. 536.

[In the following review, Kaveney assesses Young Lust.]

It is impossible to read in a way that is not implicitly political; but the methods of Kathy Acker's fictions aim to make possible radical readings, avoiding the closed and the directive, the authoritarian gestures that would seem paradoxical in texts that celebrate the aspiration to freedom and variety. The novellas included in Young Lust are early work; in them Acker feints at a number of styles without definitely opting for any one. Kathy Goes to Haiti is both an exercise in genre pornography and a...

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Douglas Shields Dix (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "Kathy Acker's Don Quixote: Nomad Writing," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 56-62.

[In the following essay, Dix examines nomadism, revolutionary subversion, and the possibility of personal affirmation and social transformation as portrayed by Acker in Don Quixote.]

"This is the time to escape."

"The sexual is the political realm."

By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong: she would put herself in those situations so perilous the glory of her name would resound.


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Ellen G. Friedman (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "'Now Eat Your Mind': An Introduction to the Works of Kathy Acker," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 37-49.

[In the following essay, Friedman provides an overview of the intellectual, cultural, and literary contexts in which Acker's fiction, according to Friedman, is "designed to be jaws steadily devouring—often to readers' horror and certainly to their discomfort (which is part of the strategy)—the mindset, if not the mind of Western culture."]


—Kathy Acker, Empire of the...

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Naomi Jacobs (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "Kathy Acker and the Plagiarized Self," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 50-5.

[In the following essay, Jacobs examines Acker's postmodern experimentation with authorial identity and literary history.]

Postmodernist fiction differs from its modernist precedents less in specific narrative techniques (such as the "nodality" and "paratactics" which David Hayman identifies in writers from Joyce to Sollers) than in the theoretical perspectives from which it employs such techniques. With varying degrees of rigor, American postmodernists have drawn upon post-structuralist theories of language and identity both as the basis for...

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Robert Siegle (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Kathy Acker: The Blood and Guts of Guerrilla Warfare," in Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 47-123.

[In the following excerpt, Siegle offers an overview of Acker's literary significance and a critical reading of Don Quixote.]

"Reading Kathy Acker is like reading the subway walls." "If my mother saw what I was reading, she'd die." "I never thought I was a prude until I opened this book. I was reading it outside between classes and I found myself holding the book half-closed so the people sitting around me wouldn't see the illustrations." "My roommates couldn't believe I was reading...

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Martina Sciolino (essay date April 1990)

SOURCE: "Kathy Acker and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism," in College English, Vol. 52, No. 4, April, 1990, pp. 437-45.

[In the following essay, Sciolino examines Acker's hybrid synthesis of poststructural theory, postmodern fiction, and feminist discourse.]

By conflating her own lover's discourse with seemingly mutually exclusive productions such as canonical literature and pornography, by using performative prose to launch political and aesthetic diatribes, Kathy Acker's narrative methods are exemplary for postmodern feminism. Materially didactic in its decompositions, any fiction by Acker engages a poststructural skepticism regarding the constative efficacy of...

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Stephen Schiff (review date 22 June 1990)

SOURCE: "Rimbaud and Verlaine, Together Again," in The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1990, p. 11.

[In the following review, Schiff provides a generally unfavorable assessment of In Memoriam to Identity.]

The characters in Kathy Acker's nine novels are far less intriguing than the character on some of them—on the book jackets, that is. There one finds Kathy Acker glaring provocatively into the camera, her hair platinum and butch-cut, her lips poised somewhere between a pout and a slurp, her underwear exposed and with it her mighty bi, tri and quadriceps, festooned with snarly tattoos.

The pose is manifestly defiant; it hints at the sort of...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

Tom Clark (review date 12 August 1990)

SOURCE: "Homage to the Great Punks of Our European Heritage," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 12, 1990, pp. 1, 8.

[Below, Clark reviews In Memoriam to Identity.]

In previous books like Don Quixote and Great Expectations, Kathy Acker has patented an audacious, irreverent, provocatively highhanded method of recycling classic literary texts in a manner variously reminiscent of Dadaist and surrealist procedures, Burroughsian cut-up and the "appropriation" tactics currently in vogue in the visual arts.

Effecting an arresting tacit critique by wrenching original works out of context and re-scaling them to purposes quite distinct from...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Kate Braverman (review date 22 March 1992)

SOURCE: "An Exercise in Public Drowning," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 22, 1992, p. 8.

[In the following review, Braverman offers an unfavorable assessment of Portrait of an Eye.]

Kathy Acker has achieved cult status in the small-press world, presumably for the graphic sexual content of her fictions and the nasty bad-girl attitude that fuels them. She is, fundamentally, an experimental minimalist. This collection consists of three mini-"novels" (two of them are fewer than 100 pages) which were previously self-published in the early and mid-70s. And one wonders at the wisdom of bringing forth such raw and marginal early efforts.


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Greg Lewis Peters (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Dominance and Subversion: The Horizontal Sublime and Erotic Empowerment in the Works of Kathy Acker," in State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 149-56.

[In the following essay, Peters explores the narrative techniques and language of dominance and submission employed by Acker to subvert patriarchal hierarchies and conventional notions of sexual identity.]

Cosmo Landesman, in his (unfavorable) 1984 review of Kathy Acker's novel Blood and Guts in High School, describes her writing as having "the gothic perversity of Lautremont [sic] mixed...

(The entire section is 3149 words.)

Ellen G. Friedman (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: A review of My Mother: Demonology, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 213-4.

[Below, Friedman offers a favorable review of My Mother: Demonology.]

The themes in Kathy Acker's newest book will not surprise followers of her delirious prose. Schizophrenic juxtaposition again organizes her text. A section entitled "Rape by Dad" begins: "In the following paragraphs I would like to try to highlight various recollections from my childhood. My parents were nevertheless very kind. They never beat me." These sentences are followed by the father's rape of the narrator. Also many of the obsessions that are the signature of her texts...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Rod Phillips (essay date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: "Purloined Letters: The Scarlet Letter in Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 35, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 173-80.

[In the following essay, Phillips explores the significance of Acker's allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School.]

In the years since critics first took notice of Kathy Acker, considerable comment has been made on her use of other writers' language and plot lines in her fiction—and rightfully so. Acker has taken literary "borrowing" to its most bizarre extreme. Large portions of her books are undisguised reworkings of...

(The entire section is 3709 words.)

Alev Adil (review date 14 November 1997)

SOURCE: "Breaking to Build," in Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review, Adil offers favorable assessments of Eurydice in the Underworld and Bodies of Work.]

To observe that Kathy Acker's writing refuses to seduce is not to denigrate her work. There is method in her madness; her hysteria is an aesthetic strategy. Her fiction is difficult, driven by an ethical fervour that denies us the pleasures of naturalism and narrative. The reader is so often shouted at that it is easy to become deaf to the sophistication and technical virtuosity with which Acker composes her symphonies of screams. The simultaneous publication of her...

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Further Reading


Baker, Phil. "Dealing With Being Human." Times Literary Supplement (26 October 1990): 1146.

A generally unfavorable assessment of In Memoriam to Identity.

Brennan, Karen. "The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker's Fiction." Boundary 2 21, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 243-68.

Explores elements of parody, postmodern pastiche, and female authorial presence in Acker's fiction.

Brown, Terry. "Longing to Long: Kathy Acker and the Politics of Pain." LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 2, No. 3 (1991):...

(The entire section is 302 words.)