Small Press Spotlight: FC2
For over thirty years, FC2 has been publishing award-winning works of experimental fiction. Founded in Brooklyn in 1973 by Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, Raymond Federman, and several other writers, Fiction Collective was conceived as a not-for-profit project intended to make serious novels and story collections available and keep them in print permanently.
The Modern Word: First of all, my condolences on the recent death of Ronald Sukenick.
Brenda Mills: Thank you. Ron was our spiritual leader, our touchstone and guru. Working with him has been a pleasure, and he will be greatly missed.
The Modern Word: Im sure that Ron was very pleased to see FC2 mark its thirtieth anniversary. Thats quite an accomplishment, and congratulations are in order. What sort of celebration plans have been underway?
Brenda Mills: Weve already had big 30th-anniversary readings in L.A. and Chicago and there will be another in Brooklyn on September 18th. The readings include veteran FC2 authors and newer names, a good mix of the future of FC2 and its glorious past. We also have a cool 30th-anniversary tote bag that weve been selling all year at readings and book fairs. And weve been offering some special book deals on our Web site.
The mandate of FC2 is to publish artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction. Has this mandate changed over the past 30 years? After all, some things that were considered adventurous in 1974 are virtually mainstream now.
The mandate hasnt changed, but the criteria readers use have changed. I think thats a mark of our success. Over the years much of what would have been considered risky or weird has been folded into the mainstream, so were always having to reinvent ourselves, find the new frontiers.
When your panel of authors decides whether to publish or pass on a manuscript, what are some of the things they are looking for?
Probably the most important question we ask ourselves after weve established that the submission is well-written, of course is, Would a more mainstream publisher be willing to publish this manuscript? If so, we pass. Sometimes it hurts our feelings to have to say no to really great manuscripts, but were looking to give voice to writers doing things too scary for profit-based publishers. Were excited by new forms, new ways of using language, unusual voices.
In the 1970s, FC was founded by a group of male writers. Currently, you seem to publish a lot of fiction by women, as well as minorities, including several works by Native Americans. Additionally, you recently offered the Mildred Nilon Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction. Do you see this as part of your non-traditional mandate, or do you feel that these groups have a greater potential for avant garde and experimental writing?
Thanks for noticing. Yes, we are publishing more work by women and minorities. Of course marginalized voices are an important part of our nontraditional mission, but I think weve also become better-known to a wider group of writers, so were getting more submissions from all over the known (and unknown) writing world. Cris Mazza has done a lot bring in new women writers, both by being an example and by actively seeking to recruit women for FC2.
Both the Mildred Nilon Award and your National Fiction Competition have been temporarily suspended. Why were they suspended, and do you see any hopes for revival in the near future?
Oh, I hope we can revive them. Its simply a matter of finances and manpower. Theres only so much we can do with a limited budget and small staff. The past few years weve been concentrating on publishing high quality books that look good and weve also put a lot of effort into author relations. We dont feel we can run a contest without sacrificing in these other areas, at least not at the moment.
Twice the Republican right has tried to cut off your NEA funding. Although decency was the excuse for the 1996 attempt, do you think anything else underlies these attacks? And how are you doing now, given the current Bush administration?
If were doing our job, were culturally and politically subversive. The Republican right should find us threatening. Were trying to shatter tired paradigms and examine many of the underlying themes in our culture that either go unnoticed or are actively ignored. But really, that 1996 attack wasnt an attack on FC2 as much as it was an attack on the NEA. We were an example of misspent NEA funds. Fortunately for everyone, the NEA survived and has continued to support us and our ilk. Surprisingly, we havent had trouble with the current administration, except that funding for the arts has been evaporating at an alarming rate.
Id like to return to Ronald Sukenick one of the principal creative forces behind the foundation and evolution of FC2. What was his role in FC2 over the last few years?
Although his health had been failing him, Ron still served on our board of directors, maintained an important advisory role in the organization, and helped to recruit writers. And we have continued to publish his work. Last year we released a reprint of his early book The Death of the Novel and Other Stories, which Dial Press published in 1969; it had been out of print for some years. Next spring well publish Last Fall, sadly Rons last book.
In many ways, Sukenicks debut novel, Up (1967), prefigured the later work of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and to a lesser degree, even Philip Roth. His 98.6 is a small masterpiece of American fiction. And yet, his name is rarely mentioned when people list the Great American Postmodernists. Do you feel that hes been critically slighted?
Well, the American Academy of Arts and Letters did recognize him recently with the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, which is specifically for writers of progressive, original and experimental tendencies. They said about him that, For nearly four decades, Ronald Sukenick has methodically pushed the formal possibilities of American fiction to its limits and in the process has discovered illuminating, new pathways to the center of the human psyche. They also said, He has been an explorer, a courageous adventurer, and an absolutely necessary component of American literature. And he won an American Book Award for lifetime achievement in 2000. So he hasnt been entirely ignored.
Additionally, the November/December issue of American Book Review will be dedicated to Ron and will contain statements from his many friends. Selected statements will be published in the special memorial section of the issue, and all of the statements will be posted on ABRs Web site.
Is there anything Sukenicks readers may do to honor him?
One of Rons final requests was that, in lieu of flowers, contributions to support his work and memory should be made to American Book Review and/or FC2. For ABR, please make checks payable to American Book Review, identified as a memorial to Ronald Sukenick. Send to American Book Review, Campus Box 4241, Illinois State University, Normal IL, 61790-4241. For FC2, please make checks payable to Fiction Collective Two and identify as a memorial to Ronald Sukenick. Send to Fiction Collective Two, Department of English, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1580.
One of your goals at FC2 is to keep the bulk of your works in print. Realistically, how difficult has that been? And have you looked into Print 0n Demand as an option?
Our goal has been to keep every title in print. And weve been quite successful. Occasionally a title will sell out and there will be a lag before we can produce new copies, but we are dedicated to keeping our full list in print and thats a selling point for many prospective authors. Print on Demand is still in its infancy and it isnt as cost effective as I believe it will become in the near future, but we do work with POD companies to do short runs of titles were low on. Perhaps, one day, our warehouse will be electronic and books really will be printed on demand. In the meantime, we have a warehouse full of FC2 books up in Chicago, and we keep a monthly eye on our inventory.
Another early goal of FC2 was to achieve a uniform format for your books. As a bibliophile, I must say, your current releases have accomplished that quite nicely; and even more, they all look and feel great. Who is responsible for this, and whats your book design process?
R. M. Berry, our current publisher, gets the credit for our more consistent and attractive format. When he took over five years ago, that was one of his first priorities, and hes done a great job. We try to use one cover designer for all our books in any given season, and preferably longer than that, which helps with consistency of appearance. Weve had a string of wonderful designers Polly Kanevsky, Todd Bushman, Victor Mingovits and now Lou Robinson who have understood our vision and been able to bring it to our covers. Our interiors are designed by Tara Reeser, our production manager up at Illinois State University. She uses our books to train students and she maintains very rigorous standards.
Jonathan Baumbach, one of the original founders of FC2, remarked that a major publisher once told him, There isnt any worthy fiction not getting published. Setting aside the many obvious (and woeful) things wrong with that statement, is it an attitude you still see today among large publishers?
The competition in the publishing industry has become so extreme, publishers can no longer afford to look for worthy fiction because theyre too concerned with publishing books that will sell, blockbusters, bottom-line boosters. Now the big publishers will encourage the authors of unusual books to submit to us because they admit they just cant take the chance on a book that isnt likely to garner mass market sales.
Are there any books or authors you would have liked to have published, but were unable to? (They were published by someone else, legal issues, tragic circumstances, etc.)
I wish we had published Steve Tomasulas Vas. He submitted it to us and our editorial board rejected it. Occasionally our editorial board doesnt see fit to publish manuscripts that I personally would have chosen. Thats always hard. I wish we could publish books by Carole Maso, Jaime Gordon, and Debra DiBlasi. Debra has submitted to us, twice, I think, and we keep rejecting her, but shes our kind of girl. Same for Carole and Jaime (not that weve gotten a chance to reject them yet).
FC2 is the oldest press weve yet featured in our spotlight. If you could pick a few FC/FC2 classics, what would they be?
Sukenicks 98.6, of course. Marianne Hausers The Talking Room. Shes in her 90s and were still publishing her work. Talking Room isnt her most famous book but I think its a classic. Reruns by Jonathan Baumbach, which we just reprinted last year. Take It or Leave It by Raymond Federman. Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? by Cris Mazza. Were also reprinting classics that have gone out of print, originally published by other presses. I already mentioned Sukenicks book. Weve also reprinted Why I Dont Write Like Franz Kafka by William S. Wilson. You know, we also like to think we helped launch the careers of some great authors like Gerald Vizenor, Mark Leyner, and Russell Banks, who went on to bigger and richer presses.
And what recent titles are you particularly proud of, and why?
Where to start? How about Brian Evensons The Wavering Knife? Evenson is a stellar talent and were honored he allowed us to publish that collection. The same for Susan Steinberg, who is less well known, but not for long. We published her first collection, The End of Free Love, last spring. Its unlike anything else and very impressive. We just published a first novel by Lucy Corin, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls. Great title, great book. The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones is another of my recent favorites. Hes a young Blackfeet author who writes like a dream. Weve also been honored to have the opportunity to publish books by already-established geniuses like Toby Olson and Leslie Scalapino. These books are all just from the last year. Going back even one or two years, there are: Girl Imagined by Chance (Lance Olsen), Wakenight Emporium (A. B. West), The Blue Guide to Indiana (Michael Martone), and The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold (Kate Bernheimer). Im sure Im forgetting favorites. I love the books were publishing. I couldnt be doing this work if I didnt.
About Brian Evenson. Earlier, you mentioned, If were doing our job, were culturally and politically subversive. Do you mind talking about his unusual history, and how he came to FC2?
Brian was raised a Mormon and was teaching at Brigham Young, the Mormon University. In 1995 he received an NEA Fellowship; that same year he was told by Brigham Young that if he continued to write fiction in the same vein as his first book (Altmanns Tongue), he would be fired. Instead, Evenson chose to leave of his own free will to teach at Oklahoma State University where he taught for four years. From there he went to Brown, where he teaches in the creative writing program. We were aware of his work and invited him to submit something. Because he was also aware of and favorably disposed toward FC2, he obliged.
FC2 does not publish traditional nonfiction or poetry; but works like Mark Axelrods Borges Travel, Hemingways Garage, Leslie Scalapinos Dahlias Iris, and A. B. Wests Wakenight Emporium all reveal essayistic impulses, while Raymond Federmans Double or Nothing is virtually unclassifiable. Where do you draw the line between whats experimental fiction and whats experimental writing?
Well, I wouldnt say theres a clear line there the DMZ between fiction and nonfiction is interesting, isnt it? Were publishing books that are addressing the questions that short stories and novels address. Sometimes these books (you left Michael Martone off that list) do that while also covering some of the territory nonfiction usually claims. Thats fine. The Blue Guide to Indiana is unarguably fiction, though it tries to pass as nonfiction. Dahlias Iris can lay claim to pretty much any genre you can come up with, but again, at heart, it deals with the issues fiction deals with, and its experimental. I think the books that are straddling categories are some of the most interesting were publishing and may be pointing to a new way of categorizing writing down the road.
Your print runs are generally around 2000. What titles have sold the best, or have gone into multiple printings?
The titles that come to mind from the last decade or so are Mosaic Man by Ronald Sukenick, Leonardos Horse by R. M. Berry, Alphabet Man by Richard Grossman, Straight Outta Compton by Richard Cortez Cruz and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? by Cris Mazza.
As an expert in non-traditional fiction, can you recommend any noteworthy new books or authors not published by FC2?
Are you kidding? Im too busy reading submissions and FC2 books to keep up with the rest of the world anymore. But okay, how about Vas, which I already mentioned, and Jeff VanderMeers City of Saints and Madmen. Theres Donald Breckenridges 6/2/95 and Heather McGowans Schooling.
Lets close on a pleasant what if question. What would you do if FC2 were granted unlimited funding?
Oh boy, Id even settle for adequate funding. Wed hire more staff, so we could concentrate more on the promotional and business end of things. Its pretty much just me and a series of interns barely holding things together down here in Tallahassee, and Tara and her string of students producing the books up in Illinois. I dont think we could make our books any prettier, but with more money and manpower, we could make ourselves better known to a larger segment of readers out there who are starved for something new and just dont know we exist. Im going to more book fairs and conferences each year, just so I can personally introduce our books to new readers, one by one, readers who cant stay away once theyve found us. But Im stretched as thin as possible, maybe thinner. And of course wed bring back the contests, maybe even publish more titles! One can dream
Commentary by Allen B. Ruch (ABR) and Bob Williams (BW)
In a perfect world, readers and critics would fondly discuss The Mid-Century Postmodern New York Trilogy, a trio of groundbreaking novels set in a world Darwinian cocktail parties, populated by a whole sick crew of disenchanted intellectuals, artists, swingers, beatniks, and frauds, and brimming with enough speculation about life, the universe, and everything to fuel several years worth of after-party discussions. In this world of sibling books, William Gaddis The Recognitions would be seen as the somewhat stately older brother, perhaps overfond of martinis and constantly fretting about what the Met is doing; Thomas Pynchons V. would play the role of the clever middle child, earnest but slightly wicked; and Ronald Sukenicks Up would be the bizarre younger brother, the one everyone secretly worries about you know, the first one to discover LSD, read Mad Magazine, or drop out of college to find himself.
That The Lost Scrapbook was chosen by William T. Vollmann as the winner of FC2s national fiction competition says a great deal: it is a big novel, big and bold and full of noise. Essentially the story of a community suffering from a man-made environmental catastrophe, for the most part The Lost Scrapbook reads more like an update of Gaddis than a retread of DeLillo, its numerous characters spinning their own elliptical orbits through overlapping time frames, criss-cross narratives, and dozens of stylistic shifts. Although its style has frequently been compared to channel surfing, perhaps the Web might serve as a more appropriate metaphor: Dara opens his novel to a multitude of voices, from obsessed academics to corporate wonks to workaday joes. Although one could say that the search for a lost scrapbook is at the heart of this babelogue, the title is just a McGuffin the true heart of this book is the search for community. In the end, it all comes together; which is almost a disappointment although The Lost Scrapbook avoids preachiness, its final destination lacks the excitement and originality of the journey there. An extremely impressive work, Daras sprawling epic deserves wider exposure. (ABR)
Soul Resin is whats left behind after blood is violently spilled; a concentrated residue of anger, horror, and suffering, it is explosive stuff that can potentially destroy the barrier between the living and the dead. Or so believes Mills Loomis Mills this strange young man who claims he can hear blood. His goal is to penetrate the swamps of New Orleans, find a particularly noisy patch of Soul Resin, and bring about a supernatural collision of worlds. He is surrounded by a group that often works at cross-purposes, a group that includes the spirit of his recently murdered girlfriend, a lady ghost from the nineteenth-century, a tripped-out hippie disciple, and his former history professor, a complicated man who questions his own fascination with Loomis dubious mission.
In The Blond Box, Toby Olson winner of the PEN/Faulkner award has created something very unusual. Exposed in a series of overlapping angles, composed in part of found objects, and relying on its audience to construct meaning, the book is the literary equivalent of a piece by Marcel Duchamp, whose Étant donnés plays a central role in its circular plot. The book opens with a bizarre double homicide, quickly establishing a mystery that sets the eccentric tale in motion but it never quite goes where one expects. Shifting across several decades and narrated through the perspectives of multiple characters, The Blond Box values coincidence, perception, and artifice just as equally as facts and evidence.
Susan Steinbergs world is that of the nightmare, the nightmare we find in our daily newspaper and its every item about the abused and the abuser. Discarding the surfaces that we hide behind, Steinberg shows us whats left the outpourings of cripples. The lies and self-deceptions persist, but the light that penetrates them exposes them for what they are. These stories relentlessly search for truth, and this often thrusts reality aside. Each story is governed by a voice which, despite rat-like efforts to escape, is bound to truth, however ignoble and ugly.
In this collection of ten stories, Lidia Yuknavitch presents men and women who, for the most part, were born broken and doomed. As the title indicates, the stories revolve about the ideas and metaphors of cinematography. Although the quality is uneven, some stories stand out, such as the impressive Scripted. The story appears three columns to the page, and the speakers are identified as I, She and You. It is nine paragraphs long, and each speaker has the same amount of space a neat trick, as anyone who has ever fitted copy knows. There is no story, only a revelation of character, and the reader may choose which one is closer to reality: the pretentious I, the hardly believable She, or the brutal You. The answer must be none of the above, but it is a striking experiment. Outtakes adopts the form of a movie script. A woman enacts a fantasy that recapitulates the death of her brother. It is a neatly written work, and explores the disintegration of a woman in the grip of an obsession. Siberia is a long story. It is also the hardest to read because Yuknavitch here examines the true horrors of the human. In segments she shows the victim of torture, the effect on his family, and the effect on the torturers daughter. As elsewhere, she uses a fragmented response to the narrative.
A collection of sixteen stories from Brian Evenson, who resigned his teaching position at Brigham Young after being asked to stop writing violent fiction. Some of these stories are darker than others, but all of them explore unusual situations and men and women who labor under curious combinations of logical insanity and hopeless obsession. Even when Evenson occasionally explores a sort of comedy, it is always macabre and usually joyless.
The subtitle of Dictionary of Modern Anguish reads fictions by R. M. Berry; but a more fitting word might have been ficciones. The spirit of Borges is very much present in Dictionary prefaces are provided for imaginary books, nonexistent films are reviewed, and in one piece, a quote from Borges inspires an examination of Samuel Becketts Middlemarch. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Despite the somber tone of its title, Dictionary of Modern Anguish is anything but a depressing book, and Berry brings a freewheeling intellectualism and a sly sense of invention to his literary exercises. Of course, not every piece strikes home, and a general feeling of inconsistency must be weighed against personal taste. Still, Berrys Dictionary will be welcome on any bookshelf holding Borges Ficciones, Alasdair Grays Book of Prefaces, or Umberto Ecos Misreadings. (ABR)
FC2 Homepage The official homepage of Fiction Collective Two.
FC2 30th Anniversary Page Details special events and offers.
The Modern Word
Ronald Sukenick Page A page of Sukenick links on the Scriptorium.
98.6 Bob Williams reviews Ronald Sukenicks dystopian novel.
Wakenight Emporium Bob Williams reviews A.B. Wests meditations on time, flight, and perception.