Chris Kraus and Subverting Commodified Literature

Rachel Carroll’s “How Soon is Now” explores the ways in which capitalism has infiltrated and disrupted the landscape of literary culture. Pointing to the publishing industry, major literary prizes, and the popularization of contemporary writing in the academic world, Carroll unpacks the roots and results of commercial influences that have led modern writing to trend towards algorithmic programming, stifling natural evolution led by experimental writing.

The primary subject of contention is the work of Chris Kraus, whose work has undoubtedly subverted the traditional conception of genre, narration, and form. While Carroll, and plain observation, support the claim that Kraus has been ushered into the canon through the less-traditional, art world route, her writing itself seems to indicate a conscious dissonance between the realm in which she materially exists and produces, and the world in which she is received as an artist.

In the earlier vignettes of Aliens and Anorexia, she writes on her failed filmmaking career, while also subtly noting the culture of gatekeeping and alienation of the lesser knowns. She wanders around Berlin helplessly, unable to bridge the gap between herself and the establishment, even in the face of impending artistic failure. She is ultimately rejected and exits without impression at all[1]. This experience, among other trials the character Chris Kraus encounters, betray a disaffection between the contemporary artist and the monolith of publication and production.

Returning to Chris Kraus as an author, her work, while presently heralded, was far before its time in its experimental form and shocking candidness. As Carroll writes,

The complex relationship between authorship, autobiography, and performance underlines the way in which Kraus’s writing escapes categorization, especially in relation to the generic boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, the novel and the memoir; as such it might present problems for a publishing industry that relies on genre to enable market segmentation. (Carroll 29)

Kraus’ work is daring and irreverent to the conventions of literature in her time. While her work may have become institutionalized in the last decade and a half, the artistic process[2] through which it was produced diverged from the assembly line hyper-production encouraged by the modern literary market. Kraus herself has gestured toward the intention, or rather reflection, of her work: to subvert the idea that female authors are incapable of writing beyond a collection of the “narcissistic, confidential, confessional”[3]. Her writing acknowledges and mocks this anticipated criticism, a rejection of the paradigm set forth by the arbiters of defining culture, and thus failing to meet Carroll’s framework of mass-market literary fiction.

By refusing to capitulate to the formula of her contemporaries and predecessors, Kraus embodies a recently lost pillar of artistry: the expression of sincere affects and creative representation of nuanced reality.


[1] Obviously, the publication of Aliens & Anorexia ultimately negates this statement, but if we are taking the subject matter of the book, as well as the form in which it is presented, as a commentary on the contemporary artist’s experience, it may be inferred that there is an element of retrospective autobiographical confession in her work.

[2] That is, her intention in writing, and her commitment to that intention.

[3] Chris Kraus in conversation with Denise Frimer, The Brooklyn Rail (2006)

One comment

  1. Had to chuckle (chuckle? really?!) when I saw those footnotes Cleo – carrying a bit of Wallace over from last week, eh?! 😂

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your work here. You engage closely with Carroll’s essay and have a good grasp on the contexts of the market, canon, and prize culture outlined there, all of which offer interconnected if slightly different measures of ‘value’ for literature. As your work goes on and you focus on Kraus’ practice or process, I can see some overlap with Mark McGurl’s work on the MFA and its influence on (American) literary culture; I’m not totally sure if this is what you’re thinking of when you describe the ‘assembly line hyper-production encouraged by the modern literary market’ (this could, after all, also include ‘blockbuster’ or genre fiction), but there is certainly a sense amongst scholars working in the field of the contemporary that the MFA has become something of a novel-producing machine for ‘literary fiction’, a sense that is also connected to Hungerford’s account of what we might call ‘identarian’ writing (Tommy Orange talks about all of this very well, I think). We’ll be looking at the impact of the memoir boom in this context too next week, and so it’s useful here to think carefully about how Kraus’ work differs from what we might see as conventional autobiography or memoir: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the specific form of Kraus’ work, particularly around how you think of the text-as-object and its place in all this.

    You’re also picking up on the many connections Kraus makes between art and the economic, which are very much twinned in A&A, not least though her accounts of her ever-more frustrating and frustrated attempts to get her film made and distributed. I’d like you to think about the shifts in the art world Kraus describes in A&A, and what it is she seems to value most in the ’70s scene of New York to which she returns time and again in the text. Within this, you might think too about the nature of creation and collaboration and the question of ‘genius’ or authority in Kraus’ work: how might we compare or contrast this with last week’s reading, or with the Romantic or modernist attitudes to art and authorship? And what understanding of selfhood is suggested here?

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