Rereading '90s Feminist Classic 'I Love Dick' in the Age of Women With No Chill
When Chris Kraus wrote I Love Dick in 1997, it created a stir. Its subject, real-life art critic Dick Hebdige, threatened to sue Kraus for an invasion of privacy when the roughly 200 letters she'd written to him, all unanswered, appeared in a published text with his first name on the cover. Of course, had Hebdige not revealed himself (in a New York magazine piece, according to the Guardian), few would have been able to identify him.
In the opening lines of the book, Kraus writes, "Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker, and Sylvère Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick ___, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvère's, at a sushi bar in Pasadena," leaving Dick's last name blank. Later, in an interview with Artnet, Kraus explained that the name "Dick" served a dual purpose. "Dick is every Dick, Dick is Uber Dick, Dick is a transitional object," she said.
For all intents and purposes, Dick Hebdige could be anyone, any man. But this scandal was just the half of it. Kraus shocked people first and foremost with her deep, personal dive into female abjection, renouncing the idea that women should feel shame for their desire. I Love Dick quickly became a cult classic, combining feminist criticism with art criticism, novel with memoir and using a female narrator, Kraus herself, who has nothing to lose by laying herself bare.
In 1997, I Love Dick was more closely "confessional literature;" in 2016, it's a manifesto for women with No Chill.
In a male-dominated culture, "chill" is a highly prized quality. It keeps women from talking about the patriarchal bullshit of their lives — in 2016, that includes the men who ghost them, love them, cheat on them; who want us to just "relax," "go with the flow" and "forget about labels."
Writer Alana Massey set fire to this concept with her April 2015 essay "Against Chill," in which she looked back on the very moment she decided to spurn Chill and why other women might do well to follow suit. "Chill," she wrote, forces us to "compete in the Blasé Olympics with whomever we are dating. Oh, I'm sorry, I mean whomever we are 'hanging out with.' Whomever we are 'talking to.' Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings."
Massey wrote that she rejected Chill when she told six men she was casually dating she was looking for something serious and didn't want to see them anymore. In being direct, naming her desire and forcing the men with whom she was involved to reckon with it, Massey said she lost "what little Chill [she] actually had."
Eve Peyser, an editor at Gizmodo, put another nail in Chill's coffin when she tweeted last November, "The concept of 'Chill' was invented to keep [women] passive."
Kraus has a similar epiphany in I Love Dick. What begins as a harmless crush on Dick turns into a harmless exercise: writing letters to him with her husband Sylvère. Eventually, her infatuation leads her to leave her husband and pursue Dick, who never returns her letters or her affection.
Typically, social norms might call a woman in futile pursuit of a man 'desperate.' (A similarly persistent man, say, The Notebook's Noah Calhoun, who writes 365 unanswered letters to his paramour, is more readily described as romantic.) But Kraus won't have it — instead she chooses to revel in it.
"Why does everybody think women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?" she wonders in the book.
Kraus, who estimated that 60% to 65% of people hated I Love Dick during its first release, said the book struck a different chord when it was reprinted in 2015 — especially with its female readers.
"This idea of women take a vow of silence to patriarchy, to never speak about the men that they're involved with — that's over," she said in a Guardian Books podcast. "Women completely claim the right to speak about their own experience."
There are a few reasons why this might be so, Kraus speculated. The internet changed things; there were lower expectations for privacy once the web made personal information easily accessible. Then there's the popularity of the personal essay, a medium for writers of all genders to participate in a kind of confessional writing, with roots in Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Now, as Kraus craved so deeply — writing at one point in I Love Dick, "Because emotion's just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form" — the emotional can be pursued as both form and content.
"This idea of women tak[ing] a vow of silence to patriarchy, to never speak about the men that they're involved with — that's over."
Women like Peyser write with honesty about men who can't commit, men they need help breaking up with or men they match with on Tinder. The finished product, of course, isn't a piece of writing that fails to pass a literary Bechdel test. In being freed to write about things they're typically encouraged to repress, women can express themselves as whole and complex beings.
Eventually, Kraus too learns to use Dick as a blank slate to fill with her own brilliant thoughts on feminism, visual art and her own interiority — what she called on the Guardian Books podcast the "ideal condition for writing."
"Writing to you seems like some holy cause, 'cause there's not enough female irrepressibility written down," she writes in I Love Dick. "I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world."
If there is a lesson in I Love Dick, it is this: Take the men you are involved with, wish to be involved with, admire from afar — and turn them into a page on which to write.