Kathy Acker was an American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright, essayist, postmodernist and sex-positive feminist writer. She is best known for her 1984 novel Blood and Guts in High School.
Asker was born in New York City in 1947. Her father left the family before Acker was born, and her mother remarried quickly. Acker grew up on the Upper East Side, and was expected to behave in a ‘ladylike’ manner, something that she rebelled against. Acker developed a fascination with pirates, although she felt that she was limited by her gender as she assumed that only men could become pirates. She found solace in books, and was a voracious reader.
Acker studied classics at Brandeis University with fellow students like Angela Davis who would later become well known. She then continued her studies at the University of California, San Diego, although she already knew that she wanted to become a writer. After graduating in 1968, Acker worked various jobs from clerical work to stripping to performing in pornographic films while undertaking graduate work at City University of New York in Classics, specialising in Greek. In the 1970’s, Acker became a part of the New York City literary underground and in 1972 she published her first book, a collection of poems and essays entitled Politics. She followed this a year later with her first novel The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses and two years after that, her second novel, Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining. Her work drew on her personal experiences and was in the form of crude, disjointed prose which she used to create a literary analog to contemporary developments in music, fashion, and the visual arts. Acker was inspired by the experimental styles of William S. Burroughs and Marguerite Duras. She used material from other writers, and would manipulate it to serve her own purposes. Acker remained on the margins of the literary establishment because of her unconventional style, and became known as a ‘literary terrorist’.
In 1979, Acker finally gained some recognition for her work when she won the Pushcart Prize for her short story “New York City in 1979”. During the early 1980’s, Acker lived in London, giving her the opportunity to write many of her most critically acclaimed works. In 1982, she published Great Expectations, drawing heavily from Charles Dickens classic. The work became her first to gain critical attention, but it wasn’t until two years later that she would make her ‘breakthrough’. In 1984, Acker’s first British publication, a novel called Blood and Guts in High School was published. The novel is presented as a collage, using a cut-up technique to combine letters, poems, drama scenes, dream visions and drawings to tell her story. She explored sexuality and violence, and borrowed from other texts including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Acker’s use of violent and pornographic imagery in the novel was controversial, and it was banned in Germany and South Africa. In the late 1980’s, Acker worked as an adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for six years. She also served as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Idaho, the University of California, San Diego, University of California, Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, and Roanoke College.
Acker was prolific in her work, and produced a large amount of novels, including Don Quixote (1986) which was critically acclaimed. In her work, Acker explored questions of social exclusion and gender roles in her work, and attempts to expose the misogynistic capitalist society that uses sexual domination as a key form of oppression. In 1988, Acker published Empire of the Senseless, which, for the first time relied less on appropriating the work of others. That same year, she published Literal Madness: Three Novels and this was followed by In Memoriam to Identity (1990), Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992) and My Mother: Demonology (1992). She also wrote pieces for magazines and anthologies, and had work printed in RE/Search, Angel Exhaust, monochrome and Rapid Eye. In 1996, her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates was published. In the work, she showed a new direction, incorporating humour, lighter content and a use of Eastern texts and philosophy which had not been seen before in her work. Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer that year, and a year later she died in Tijuana, Mexico.
Acker’s work has inspired many others working in experimental styles including Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill (who she told to become a musician, as no one listened to spoken word) and Kim Gordon, one of the founding members of Sonic Youth. In 2002, New York University (NYU) staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works and in 2008 London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts held an evening of her films.