Sukenick, Ronald 1932-
SUKENICK, Ronald 1932-
PERSONAL: Born July 14, 1932, in Brooklyn NY; son of Louis (a dentist) and Ceceile (Frey) Sukenick; married Lynn Luria, March 19, 1961 (divorced, 1984); married Julia Frey (a writer), 1992. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1955; Brandeis University, M.A., 1957, Ph.D., 1962.
ADDRESSES: Home—200 Rector Pl., Apt. 26B, New York, NY 10280.
CAREER: Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, instructor, 1956-60; Hofstra University, instructor, 1961-62; toured Europe, wrote, and taught in various schools, 1962-66; City College of the City University of New York, assistant professor of English, 1966-67; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, assistant professor of English and writing, 1968-69; writer-in-residence, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 1969, and University of California, Irvine, 1970-72; University of Colorado, Boulder, professor of English, 1975—, director of creative writing, 1975-77, director of Publications
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Center, 1986—, founder of exchange program and first exchange professor to l'Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, France, 1979. Lecturer, Brandeis University, 1956-60, Hofstra University, 1961-62. Butler Chair, State University of New York, Buffalo, spring, 1981. Publisher, American Book Review, 1977, and Black Ice, 1989—. Member of Publication of the Modern Language Association (PLMA) advisory committee, 1987-90.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, National Book Critics Circle, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (chairman of board of directors, 1975-77), Fiction Collective (founding member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellowships, 1958 and 1984; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1980 and 1989; CCLM Award for Editorial Excellence, 1985; Western Book Award for publishing, 1985; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1988, for Down and In, and 1999, for literature; Zabel Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2003, for innovative fiction.
Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Up (novel), Dial (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, Fiction Collective Two (Normal, IL), 1998.
The Death of the Novel, and Other Stories, Dial (New York, NY), 1969.
Out (novel), Swallow Press (Chicago, IL), 1973.
(Contributor) Ray Federman, editor, Surfiction, Swallow Press (Chicago, IL), 1974.
98.6 (novel), Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1975.
Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1979.
In Form, Digressions on the Act of Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1985.
The Endless Short Story, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1986.
Blown Away (novel), Sun & Moon (Los Angeles, CA), 1987.
Down and In: Life in the Underground (nonfiction narrative), Beech Tree Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor) Witness Magazine: Experimental Fiction, Witness Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Doggy Bag, Black Ice Books/Fiction Collective Two (Normal, IL), 1994.
(Editor with Mark Amerika) Degenerative Prose, Black Ice/Fiction Collective Two (Normal, IL), 1995.
(Editor with Curtis White) In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader, Fiction Collective Two (Normal, IL), 1999.
Mosaic Man, Fiction Collective Two (Normal, IL), 1999.
Narralogues: Truth in Fiction, State University Press of New York (Albany, NY), 2000.
Cows (e-book), altX Press, 2001.
Contributing editor, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Pushcart/Avon. Fiction appears in several anthologies published in the United States and Poland. Contributor of fiction to Epoch, California Quarterly, New American Review, Fiction, TriQuarterly, Iowa Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and other periodicals.
Contributor of reviews to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review, Nation, and Village Voice. Contributing editor, Fiction International, 1970-84; guest editor, Witness, 1989.
ADAPTATIONS: Out was filmed in 1982, produced and directed by Eli Hollander.
SIDELIGHTS: Writer and theorist Ronald Sukenick was one of the leaders in the meta-fiction trend of the 1960s. "Ronald Sukenick has been prominent among writers of innovative fiction in America," stated Julian Cowley in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "In addition to producing his own novels and collections of short stories, he has acted as theorist, publisher, and catalyst for new writing. His fiction is notable for its improvisatory energy and its focus on the processes of writing and reading, which take precedence over the conventional concerns of characterization and plot. Against the flow of those processes, he often counterpoints bold structural arrangements, which make his books visually striking and distinctive. Far from being innovative for the sake of innovation, Sukenick aims through his art to intensify and expand his readers' experience of their own lives."
Like other avant garde novelists during the midtwentieth century, Sukenick recognized that conventional literary tradition—a standardized way of looking at an art form—had become one of fiction's strongest enemies. "There are all these talented people around trying to write in this form which doesn't suit them at all, so that instead of releasing their energies it blocks them out," Sukenick told interviewer Joe David Bellamy in 1970 for The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Sukenick posited that a new tradition could be built to replace the old without rejecting the works upon which the old was built. "It must already be there awaiting only one final element—that we say it exists," Sukenick wrote in "The New Tradition in Fiction," an essay collected in Ray Federman's Surfiction. Sukenick elaborated: "It's not modern . . . . The modern behaved as if a new age were due tomorrow, and as if it were it, the final goal of progress. Here in tomorrowland we have a more tragic sense of things. We know there's no such thing as progress, that a new age may be a worse one, and that since the future brings no redemption, we better look to the present. In consequence the new tradition makes itself felt as a presence rather than a development. Instead of a linear sequence of historical influences it seems a network of interconnections revealed to our particular point of view. Like Eliot's view of tradition, it would resemble a reservoir rather than a highway project, a reservoir that is ahistorical, international, and multilingual." Sukenick's criticism and fiction supported the establishment of this new tradition. His first book, Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure, studies a poet who was concerned with the complex relation between language, imagination, and reality. Sukenick looks at forty poems separately, taking them as "chapters in the life of the poet's mind," according to Denis Donoghue in the New York Review of Books. Condemned for being unconventional by some reviewers, the book was hailed by others as the first study to offer an accurate approach to Stevens's work. Wallace Stevens became the first installment of a body of criticism that was esteemed for its clarity and well-defended iconoclasm.
Sukenick's novels have been noted for the attempt "to define a distinct voice while expanding the genre's potential," according to Frederick R. Karl in American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation. "They show that there is some territory novelists have yet to explore." In addition, noted Jerome Klinkowitz in Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism, they present some of "the strongest American innovations" in fiction and fiction theory. Sukenick's innovations are best understood in the context of his thinking about the relation between fiction and reality at this crucial point in the history of the genre.
In the 1970s many writers turned away from writing realistic fiction. "Realistic fiction presupposed chronological time as the medium of a plotted narrative, an irreductible individual psyche as the subject of its characterization, and, above all, the ultimate, concrete reality of things as the object and rationale of its description. In the world of post-realism, however, all of these absolutes have become absolutely problematic," Sukenick explained in The Death of the Novel, and Other Stories. "The contemporary writer—the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is a part—is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn't exist, time doesn't exist, personality doesn't exist." Sukenick told Bellamy: "People are surrounded by all sorts of information coming in to them through all sorts of media now, and the novel, on that level, doesn't have anything to say to them." However, Sukenick argued, with readers going to other media to experience "reality," writers were presented with a challenge to create new forms and techniques for handling new types of content. "One model for a work of fiction is the jigsaw puzzle," Sukenick explained in "The New Tradition in Fiction." The picture "is filled out but there is no sense of development involved . . . . Situations come about through a cloudburst of fragmented events that fall as they fall and finally can be seen to have assumed some kind of pattern . . . . A novel is both a concrete structure and an imaginative structure—pages, print, binding containing a record of the movements of a mind."
In some of Sukenick's novels, instead of progressing through time, the narrative expands only through space; the sequential order follows the author's sense of what is to be revealed at any point in the continuum. In Out, the pages count down from Section Nine to Section Zero; the spaces between lines of type increase so that the reader turns pages faster when approaching the end; in Section Zero, words disappear into white space on a blank page. Out "is a spatial fiction, the idea being to conquer space so as to convey the sense of moving on, fragmentation, things breaking up and never cohering," noted Karl in American Fictions, 1940-1980, who further suggested: "Sukenick wanted some way to convey the spaced out dimensions of the sixties: spaced out in terms of those who move counterculturally as a consequence of drugs or radical politics; spaced out in the alternative sense of those who move continually . . . . [His] characters belong to a loose organization that blows things up; they carry explosives and move across the country according to certain plans which develop at the last moment. The point is that at any given time, they do not know what they are supposed to do, who their cohorts are, or where their next move will come from. They are lost in space, spaced out, and yet they must move in it." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Cowley commented that Out "challenges the dominance of analytical intelligence; in its place it offers synthesis, attained through intuitive and extrarational means."
The novel Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues is one long sentence broken into paragraphs. Its style conveys the workings of the narrator's consciousness to connect disparate worlds of "individual and culture," to build bridges of contact between a personal inner world and an alien environment, according to Karl. "At every level," he continued, "Sukenick's inhabitants are exiled: men from women, each from the other, as individuals or as people seeking, however tentatively, a community. Sukenick tries to wrap these meditations in stylistic equivalents: mainly interior monologue, paragraphs that occupy only a fraction of the page, endlessly run-together sentences which become coils and wraparounds, phrases and sentences interrupted by white space, removal of punctuation so as to approximate consciousness."
98.6 is a record of the search for community as it plays itself out in three different spatial contexts. The landscape of the first section, "Frankenstein," is America, a patchwork of dispossessed remnants. "The land of the living dead," Frankenstein "is a territory the Aztecs would have recognized, death-oriented," observed Karl. The nightmarish lives of "Frankenstein's Children," troubled by experimentation with drugs, group sex, and violent altercations with people from outside their commune, comprise the second section. "Palestine," the third section in which members of a kibbutz achieve the sought-after communal life, seems utopian by contrast. Parallel to the search for new forms of social organization in the novel is Sukenick's quest for a new kind of fiction. "For the unities of realistic fiction—plot, character and causation—Sukenick substitutes the 'discipline of inclusion,' an unceasing energy, and a belief in the primacy of language," Thomas LeClair noted in the New York Times Book Review. LeClair credited the novel's success to Sukenick's approach: "Because he sees life as continual invention, he can get at the imaginative bases of the alternative culture with sympathy and humor, without trapping himself in hip cliches." E. M. Potoker, writing in a Nation review, commented that Sukenick's work holds together better than the shattered culture he writes about: "Out of broad humor and a sense of structural irony . . . Sukenick manages to balance the sentimental, the emotional, and the pathetic with the obscene, the trivial and the absurd."
Because personality as it was traditionally perceived also "no longer exists," characters in Sukenick's novels do not conform to traditional expectations. The narrator may give a character contradictory traits at different times in the story. He may describe another character first as short, then as tall, then confess he doesn't know what the other looks like. Some characters are Sukenick's actual acquaintances and others merely borrow their names. His fictional people are amorphous, he told Bellamy, because contemporary people are multi-faceted, and because readers engage in the act of imagining who people are apart from their reality at all times. "You're always making people up, in effect . . . . There you are, and I don't know much about you, but, in a way, I'm making you up. I'm filling up the gaps in my mind, and I create the Joe Bellamy that happens to be there. And probably there's a great gap between my version, which is imaginative, and the real Joe Bellamy . . . . Maybe there isn't a real Joe Bellamy. Maybe there aren't real characters. That's the important thing. Maybe people are much more fluid and amorphous than the realistic novel would have us believe." In The Life of Fiction, Klinkowitz commented: "His characters are not so real that they 'walk off the pages.' Instead they stay right there, on the pages, as figures remain on the canvas, so it might be appreciated as art and not life. What the reader reads is an honest account of the artist's work, and what the artist presents is a piece of genuine fabrication and craftsmanship, his imaginative response to a world we share. Not the shabby lie that this is the world itself."
Such fiction does not represent reality, it represents itself. However it highlights the role of the imagination in order to make readers more, not less, sensitive to reality. Sukenick told Bellamy, "I don't want to present people with illusions, and I don't want to let them off cheaply by releasing their fantasies in an easy way . . . . What that does is allow people to escape, obviously, from reality, and I want to bang them with it." He explained that in Out and 98.6, he employed different techniques to deconstruct standard form in fiction in order to reach beyond literary artifice to actual experience, though conscious of the inherent contradictions. He commented that the same paradox is at the heart of post-modern literature; behind new fiction is the urge "to get at the truth of experience beyond our fossilizing formulas of discourse, to get at a new and more inclusive 'reality,' if you will. This is a reality that includes what the conventional novel tends to exclude and that encompasses the vagaries of unofficial experience, the cryptic trivia of the quotidian that help shape our fate, and the tabooed details of life—class, ethnic, sexual—beyond sanctioned descriptions of life." The actual business of writing, he said later, "is to tell it like, to use a cliche, it is. That's not as easy as it looks and you get it only in the greatest, yes, literature."
In the Bellamy interview, Sukenick commented, "I think that writing styles are very personal things, and it's a mistake to make theories of writing, really. My theories of writing are for two things: mainly, they're to release me into my writing, but also, I suppose, there is a propaganda side. I want people to get off one kind of book and get onto another kind of book which seems to me more appropriate for what's going on now—to get people unstuck from a formulated kind of response and open them up to another thing." Connected to this, Sukenick continued, is his belief that fiction is "a normal, if I may use the word, epistemological procedure; that is, [fiction] is at the very center of everybody all the time at any period, and you don't have to search for psychological reasons [behind it], although they may be there too. But I think the epistemological ones are far more important and anterior. It's a way of making up the world and making sense of it."
The practice of fiction persists also because it is an exercise of freedom against all that tries to regulate experience, as Sukenick said in the journal Lillabulero: "writers . . . are not thinking of Poetry or The Great Novel or Humanism or even of Experimental Writing or of anything more ponderous than stringing words together in ways that give pleasure and allow one to survive one's particular experience. And in so doing meet the only serious obligations of art in a world that constantly pushes in the direction of the impersonal and systematic and that is to be completely personal and unsystematic thereby saving experience from history from ideology and even from art."
Down and In: Life in the Underground is an autobiographical tour through the New York counterculture of the eighties by way of Manhattan's bars. Included are "the confidences of friends, high times" and "4:00 A.M. despair," Stuart Klawans noted in the Nation. "The final ingredient, of course, is an argument, which should flare up periodically and be left unsettled when day finally breaks . . . : a debate on the nature of adversary culture, moderated by Sukenick with rare intelligence." The work also affords the author a retrospective glance at his electronic novel—an earlier work in which a tape recorder was used as a technique of writing. It was never published because it proved too complex for transcription. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Cowley maintained that in Down and In, "Sukenick's skills as a collagist stand him in good stead as he weaves fragments of report and recollection into a vivid and highly informative evocation of a place and its people."
In 1994 Black Ice Books/Fiction Collective Two released Doggy Bag, Sukenick's "sometimes painful, sometimes funny, occasionally graphic but always intriguing" view of a world "littered with the flotsam and jetsam of American, European and Egyptian culture," to quote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The novel displays Sukenick's sociopolitical dimension, which is also evident in his earlier works. "The main aim of Doggy Bag is to analyze a polarized cultural situation in which mass media implement behavioral programming in the guise of entertainment, while the European tradition of high culture constitutes no real alternative for those who would live fully in contemporary conditions," declared Cowley. In Contemporary Novelists, Klinkowitz observed of Doggy Bag: "Here scenes from the global culture of European travel and international terrorism are played out within a cleverly comic language in which imaginatively dead citizens are not only called 'Zombies' but are said to suffer from an unstoppable mind control plague called Zombie Immune Tolerance Syndrome, or 'ZITS.' Thus life becomes atomized, everyone mounting his or her own private revolution in isolation from others, a condition the author calls 'the privatization of revolution.'" Klinkowitz added: "Though clearly recognizable as a satire of contemporary life, Sukenick's writing moves a step further by creating its own typologies, taxonomies, grammars, and eventually a language itself in which to comment on present conditions."
Mosaic Man is a fiction that explores Jewish identity through wordplay and innovative text design. In Booklist, James O'Laughlin commented: "The perennial postmodern epistemological concern with truth/fiction is wrung out again here . . . with sometimes comic results." Section titles allude to the Hebrew Bible, with titles such as "Genes," "Ex/Ode," "Umbilicus," "Autonomy," and "Profits." In the New York Times Book Review, William Ferguson called Mosaic Man "an expertly fictionalized journal," in which the narrator, Ron, muses about his family, his experiences as a writer in Paris, and his journey to Jerusalem, where he experiences "a fountain of epiphanies," to quote Ferguson. The critic further cited the work for its "carefully managed disorder, [which] this book reminds us, may be closer to human truth than even the cleverest artifice."
The impact of Sukenick's technical innovations and his call for a new tradition in literature have been considered radical and far-reaching. Considering Sukenick's contribution to the establishment of a new tradition for fiction, Malcolm Bradbury concluded in The Modern American Novel: "the transformation from older realism into new systems of creative notation has been of the largest importance, and has had the deepest implications for the novel internationally, because it has questioned the act of imaginative writing at its heart." In Contemporary Novelists, Klinkowitz deemed Sukenick "the most representative example of the innovative writers who contributed to the transformation of both American fiction and its supporting culture.... Sukenick has undertaken a revolution himself, leading developments that have reformed the culture in and of which Americans write."
Ronald Sukenick contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
AUTOGYRO: MY LIFE IN FICTION
Unfortunately my life is not very interesting, even to me. However, what is even less interesting is certain accounts of my life and work that are sloppy or inaccurate if not downright false. It is the impulse to correct such accounts that is the chief motive in this exercise.
My first novel, Up, to begin at the beginning of the confusion, was a way of relating my Brooklyn past to my underground present. In order to do it I invented a new genre, which I call pseudo-autobiography. Novelists have always used their own lives, more or less disguised, as the main source of data for their fictions. Why not do away with the subterfuge and frankly use one's own identity? On the other hand, fiction does not aspire to the factuality of history. Fiction is recreation—in both senses. The distinction between Ronald Sukenick and "Ronald Sukenick," one of the "real" characters who appear in many of my works, has confounded some naïve critics, though I've never had any complaints from common readers, who seem to assume, correctly, that fiction is an extension of fact. This mode derived basically from Henry Miller, but there was a lot of iconoclastic Laurence Sterne influence in Up that challenged the by-then overly literary artifice of the dominant realistic novel. From the beginning my major effort was entirely in the mainstream of the novel in its effort to pierce the veil of conventional artifice that has become so familiar we don't even realize that it's artifice anymore, don't realize that it's not real or even interestingly "real"—to break through the artificial to the actualities of experience.
Ironically, the label for this effort bestowed by some reviewers and book marketeers interested in maintaining a standard literary product was "experimental."
If you call me an experimental writer, you assume that I disdain the wider audience for writing. You can call me anything you want but let me set the record straight. The question of audience is always a painful question for American writers in a way that it is not for writers in other countries. In other countries you either have an educated class for whom you write, or you have a popular tradition of respect for and interest in the well-written word, as in Eastern Europe. In either case, you know for whom—and for what taste—you are writing. In this country the case is much more complicated. We have a large and half-educated audience that prefers cheap, simplistic writing, or the electronic media, but, not to underestimate it, will on capricious occasion take to its heart in large numbers some of the best writing around. So, for the American writer, the problem is always to find that elusive formula for communication that will satisfy his sense of quality as well as the audience's mysterious imaginative needs. Needless to say, you avoid the debased formulas favored and encouraged by the merchandising system. If you're actually getting rich, you're probably doing something wrong. Though you, no doubt, will be the exception.
This is essentially a rhetorical problem, though I have always contended that no real distinction can be made between what is said and how it is said. Of course, in the equation expressing the relation between author and reader, the author is the more important term. He has to be. People ask me whether I write for myself, as if, in a democratic country, that were some sort of sin. Of course I write for myself. What do you think I'm in it for? I could make more bucks in any number of other professions, not to mention businesses. But since I'm in it for the kicks, the kicks I get out of the writing itself, if you deny me that then I'm left with nothing.
And yet, besides that, there's nothing I'd like better than to reach the large, general audience. Not merely the professionals of the book—the critics, editors, and academics—but, much more important to me, the common reader and especially those on the fringe of the reading public. In fact, it's always been certain of the book pros who've given me most trouble, probably because those who pretend to know what good writing is are often precisely those who are stuck with an idea of good writing they learned about in their sophomore English classes from professors who are themselves often forty years behind what's going on in contemporary writing. Or they are class-bound, Ivy League white males with corresponding attitudes and a usually nonconscious reflex to defend their turf. Or they belong to the ex-socialist elite, loosely defined as intellectuals, who used to wear jackets and ties to demonstrations and still wear them when reading fiction. So that in many ways I prefer an audience that is innocent, open, and unspoiled by preconceived notions. If I can reach it through the distribution monopoly the book pros exercise.
To illustrate the problem let me tell you a story. A true story, since this is autobiography. Once upon a time, when I was a young writer, a well-known editor agreed to publish a section of my soon-to-appear first novel, Up, in a well-known magazine he was starting. This editor was widely known as one of the quality saints in the publishing establishment. By quality saint I mean those editors known to favor quality at all costs as against the tide of shlock that always threatens to overwhelm the industry, editors known for their willingness to make a stand for integrity, editors who are willing to take risks and go out on a limb for literature by, say, giving Philip Roth a million-dollar advance on a new novel. Such editors are few and far between and when you meet one you can sometimes actually see a halo hovering over his head in dim light.
Anyway, this editor called me in to talk about my piece before finally agreeing to print it. Turned out he wanted me to change the punctuation. It's true my punctuation in that book is quirky, though not as quirky as in some of my books. I was using punctuation as a kind of scoring, as in music, rather than as an adjunct to grammar. The editor was bugged by this, and I couldn't quite figure out why. I guess it was too experimental. Despite the fact that I was terribly intimidated by my first meeting with a big-time editor, I had no intention of changing my punctuation. But we went back and forth for a while and finally the reason for his wanting the change came out. It was the first issue of the magazine and this editor was afraid the readers would think he didn't know correct grammar. Smart, smart. He chose the one argument that would bring me over to his way of seeing things. My piece was threatening his literary integrity. Of course, I agreed to change the punctuation.
I left his office, nevertheless, feeling that I had sold my soul. After lying awake all night, I called him in the morning and told him I was sorry, but I'd changed my mind about the punctuation. Much to my amazement he published the damn thing anyway, but I'm sure that to this day there are people out there in the reading public who are convinced this guy doesn't know a comma from a coma.
I have to say that I think it's preferable to write for people who have no attitudes about the placement of commas and colons than for people with the knee-jerk
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conventionality that shores up Proper English Usage. If nothing else, punctuationil literates are at least likely to know their colons from their elbows.*
Which brings me to my childhood. And this is the point. Which is that, though I eventually blundered onto Ivy League turf, I grew up outside the great middle class. Proper English Usage we didn't know from. We were too experimental. And when as a college-bound adolescent I finally found myself in the middle of the great middle class I didn't think it was so great. In fact, I thought it was absolutely loony. The only thing that made sense to me about the great middle class was that it liked to make a great deal of money. Okay, that's what it was supposed to do. But that everything else should be so geared to that seemed to me a little, frankly, sick. This made me even more experimental.
If you've read Malamud's Assistant then you know where I grew up. And if you know where I grew up you begin to understand why I ain't got no. Satisfaction. I ain't got, I ain't got, I ain't got, I ain't got. I ain't got no. Not in the great middle class. And why whatever it was that I did I did it—my way. I did it my way. I did it my w-a-a-a-y.
They used to make me go to Malamud's depressing delicatessen, my parents, down the block and around the corner under the El. I hated going there because it was such a down, empty shelves and a herring or two in the refrigerator case, the glum old guy behind the counter always looking like he was about to go out of business. This was the deli of The Assistant, a moralistic, if not Pollyannish, book I'm not crazy about, but interesting to me because my father used to give me the lowdown on who was who in what seemed in fact to be a neighborhood roman à clef. My parents made me go there because, number one, the Malamuds were poor, number two, my father was their dentist, and number three, they were among the few other Jews in the neighborhood. My father used to fix their teeth at very cut rates, even after Bernie started making money on teaching and his books—I remember that in later days he even had to urge my father to charge more to make false teeth for Bernie's brother, who was, according to my father, not "quite right." My father was very experimental with money. When I told Malamud that my father had died he reacted with the kind of regret you have over the death of a good man. This should be said, so I say it.
I wrote bluntly about this Malamudian scene in Up. When my father sent Malamud the book, he wrote back a note saying it was "an interesting experiment that doesn't quite come off."
My playing fields were the streets, East Second Street between Avenues I and J in Brooklyn, to be specific, my companions were kids who probably found it easier to imagine going to jail than to college, and my discipline was stickball and stoopball. Not that life was all that rosy. I was a Christ killer among the Christians, a clumsy kid among energetic athletes, and my family was New Deal liberal while the neighbors literally ran through the streets cheering the day the news spread that FDR had died. These kids had no ambitions. They never thought about their "future." Instead they were very experimental. They improvised a present. They played hard at sports because they enjoyed it. The kid next door raised chickens and rabbits with his father in their backyard. They plodded through school, learning little, because education was minimally relevant to their concerns. They didn't have to know a hell of a lot to be cops, postmen, factory workers.
We lived halfway between Ebbets Field and Coney Island, where we used to play hookey. The big thing for all of us, for the whole community, the thing that even created community, was the Dodgers. The most exciting thing in my life was going to Ebbets Field. On the radio, Red Barber's anomalously soothing southern voice serenaded the neighborhood with the play-by-play. If a game was on you could hear it in the streets, out the windows, in the shops. Little kids who pronounced oil like erl and Earl like oil, including me, would talk about eatin' high on the hog and sittin' in the catbird seat. Probably because we were experimental. None of us had ever seen a hog, and I used to imagine a catbird as something like an alley cat with furry wings. Instead of saying, Hello, you said, What's the score? Malamud's best novel (if you subtract the mythy modernist Golden Bough bullshit), The Natural, is about the old Dodgers.
The other big community amusements were betting on the horses and the numbers, small-time rackets run by the local Mafia types, though the neighborhood Mafia wasn't all that local. The brick house where all the Murder Incorporated killings were planned under the supervision of Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was a few blocks away. But nobody talked about this stuff. Mysterious gestures were exchanged, small wads of paper were passed in the local barbershop.
It was a vestigially bucolic world in some ways. People grew grapes and a few other things in their yards, raked and burned their leaves in the autumn. We played in the numerous empty lots and in the tall grass and bushes of the Long Island railroad "cut" a block away. There also we hopped freights when the frequent steam locomotives chuffed ferociously through. As a result of which a thumb would be mangled here, a leg amputated there, sometimes an entire child sent to the netherworld either by the steel wheels or the high-tension electric wires they put up when they modernized the locomotives. Death was literally all around us in the form of the giant cemeteries that bordered the neighborhood on two sides and my grammar school, P.S. 121, on three. The main drag was called Gravesend Avenue, though it was later renamed McDonald. The vegetable man, the milkman, the coal and ice man would come around on horsedrawn carts. Later the milkman and the baker got these little trucks, but I still remember the sparrows pecking at the horse shit in the streets, and there was a stable across the avenue and halfway down the block. I've written about this scene, particularly in my novel Out. It was, of course, experimental.
Not so many people had cars early on. My uncle Benny was one of the first in our family—we never got one—and his was a beauty, a bright red coupe with a glorious rumble seat that everyone in the neighborhood loved to ride in. He kept it for years. It was probably from him that I developed my respect for durable old cars, like the '37 Ford I used to crisscross the country in during the early fifties and which may have been, I figured out later, the same '37 Ford immortalized in Kerouac's On the Road (see my book Down and In). Or the Deux Chevaux I travelled all over Europe in. Or the '68 Dodge Dart my ex-wife still drives. Or the '66 Volvo P 1800 I've driven for the last fifteen years. By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a piece of side trim for a '66 Volvo P1800, please let me know.
Anyway, my uncle Benny, an exceedingly humble mechanic who in some ways resembled Dostoyevsky's idiot, had a romantic streak which expressed itself in gestures like suddenly showing up with a spectacular red coupe or, later, dropping out and living in Mexico for some years. He was a role model. While almost everybody else in the family was out grubbing money his attitude seemed to be why not do something magnificent?—though he would never, in his timidity, have put it that way. I have to say that my father never cared much about money either, much to the aggravation of my mother. He was something like a playboy jock without the bucks. Benny and my father were both very experimental.
Benny was my first literary influence, having more or less taught me how to read with comic books and the Sunday funnies. I think a lot of kids in my generation would still be illiterate if it weren't for comic books. And I suspect that comic books are still the most experimental influence on my style, an influence that separates me unbridgeably from the classics. While I'm at it, let me say that, contrary to a lot of well-meaning commentary on my work, Wallace Stevens was not a major influence on my writing, though I did write the first, and some say still best, extensive explication of his poetry. (Published by New York University Press in 1967, it's still available from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley.) Rather, the case is that I chose to work on Stevens because I felt he was close to my already formed, if not totally crystallized, literary posture. The really crucial influences, the ones that got me going finally, were Laurence Sterne and Henry Miller. Some smart critic could probably trace my
whole evolution on the basis of those two. Sterne, Miller, and the experimental rhythm of the Gravesend Local rumbling over the nearby El when I was a kid going to sleep at night. Clickety-clack, take me back, clickety-clack, take me back.
Arthur Miller partially catches the quality of the family life I grew up in, especially in Death of a Salesman. In fact, Miller is in a vague, in-law way related to my mother's family through the Mendelwitz family, in some complicated manner that only my mother and Sadie Mendelwitz can figure out. One of my mother's most radiant memories is of going to the funeral of Miller's father and exchanging a few words with Marilyn Monroe. ("Excuse me," said Marilyn as she passed my mother. "Of course," answered my mother. Just so the immortal conversation doesn't go unrecorded.) Miller and Monroe had already been divorced. "He wouldn't even look at her," says my mother. "And she was so timid." But the Brooklyn tone that Miller gets is one of pathos—the pathos of uprooted first and second immigrant generations with no values but money—or, rather, nothing to measure their innate values by except money. In this, Miller is quite experimental.*
In my mid-teens my life took a new turn because my sister married a guy who was taking a doctorate at Columbia. This guy, who had a European background, was openly contemptuous of Brooklyn culture. One day he showed up at the door with dollar bills sticking out of his ears, nose, and mouth. He never missed an issue of the New Yorker. He papered his walls with old New Yorker covers. I mean, sophisticated. I'd never even heard of the New Yorker. But there were kids in Brooklyn who had never seen the ocean. Certainly a lot of them had never been to Manhattan, except maybe to go to Times Square to see a movie. Anyway, my brother-in-law opened up new vistas. The snide New Yorker comments on snippets from the media were a revelation. I discovered the possibility of irony.
When the time came for me to go to college there was trouble. My parents didn't know from college—my father had gone to dental school before it was necessary to go to undergraduate school first—though they understood it was important to go if you were a boy. I had already in effect dropped out of the mad grade
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grind in middle-class Midwood High (see Down and In) and my grades were no match for the median 99.8 average of most of my classmates. I was hardly considered precocious, or even interested, and students and teachers alike were always surprised that someone who did not want to go to Harvard Medical School or Yale Law School would show occasional signs of intelligence. My main claim to fame in the community was in writing a sports column for a local paper.
I didn't even know where to apply to college, and my school advisers told me the application limit was three. Actually, nobody could stop you from applying to as many schools as you wanted to, and kids who knew the ropes applied to as many as ten colleges, I discovered too late. My only criterion was that the school not be in Brooklyn, and I applied to some unlikely places, one of which I got into. Then I won a New York State scholarship as the result of an exam, but it could only be used in-state and the school I got into was not. This vexed my father, who was very—shall we say—thrifty. So he asked a lawyer friend who sent his kid to prep school and on to the Ivy League how to do such things. The answer—as I discovered years later—was bribe somebody. As naive as this may seem, it worked. The quid pro quo was a gift certificate for a suit to an admissions dean at Colgate.
So there I was at Colgate, mid-America, 1950. There were three Jews there, including me, all with complicated, unpronounceable names, and all three were the smartest kids in the school. There was one "Negro." His name was Laff. He did. All the time. Or else. There were no girls. Everyone had to belong to a fraternity, and you were beaten out into the snow to learn the football songs. The school elite were the guys on the cheerleading squad. Turned out they were all secretly gay and would seduce freshmen in their frat rooms. I left after a term.
I got a scholarship to a crazy place in L.A. called Pasadena Branch of the Telluride Association. Nothing could have been more different from Colgate. Though Telluride is nationally a conservative and boring organization that pretends to turn out "leaders"—it actually turns out boring and conservative liberals—Pasadena Branch was run by a radical Quaker pacifist and was full of dissident New York intellectuals and West Coast kids in the Wobbly tradition. My roommate, Norman Rush, was taken off by the FBI for refusing to register for the draft during the Korean War. Recently he's published an acclaimed collection of stories about his experiences in the Peace Corps in Africa.
Pasadena Branch was in some ways a mini Black Mountain, chaotic but challenging. I remember meeting there Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, the one who torpedoed NASA by dipping a piece of O-ring into a glass of ice water at the congressional hearings on the Challenger disaster. When he came over to Pasadena Branch, he started talking about how he drove the authorities crazy at Los Alamos during the A-bomb project by cracking safes and leaving notes inside for the security people, about bongo-drum rhythms—he was about to go down to the Amazon to study drum rhythms—and I don't remember what else, all very funny, nonstop, very fast, and in a glorious Brooklyn accent (Far Rockaway branch). It was the speed and complexity of connection that fascinated me. No plod. This was the opposite of the kind of education that had been pushed on me since P.S. 121. His discourse was a perfect model for good writing, though I didn't know it at the time, nor did I know that I was observing one of the major geniuses of his generation.
Not to make a whole short story out of it, what was going on with me at this period was the discovery of thinking. The best way I can describe what that felt like is through an erotic analogy. I remember, long ago, making love to a virgin (I say long ago not because I'm so old but because I have the impression that there are no longer any virgins—or I should say virgins as a distinct class—as there were then). At first it was like trying to make love to something inert, self-contained, and impossible—like trying to kiss a statue. Then at a certain point there was a sudden awakening, I could feel it in her body, an opening, a flowing, a coming to life, desire, and possibility. This is what I began to feel in myself—the possibility of and the desire for the worlds within worlds, and worlds within words, that thinking opens up. The discovery of thinking was for me like the discovery of the fifth dimension—oh, this is what it's all about.
The discovery of sex, never mind analogies, was another dimension evolving in my life at the time. My own experience persuades me that evolution in the sexual dimension is connected with evolution in the intellectual dimension, especially during times of rapid development (and I'm not speaking only of youth). Any suppression of the sex glands suppresses the intellectual glands. The mind is part of the body and is part of its economy. But just as an unbalanced mind can repress sexuality, so can an unbalanced sexuality repress the mind. Like the Playboy mentality. However in the fifties the imbalance was tipped way over toward the mind. Forget sex, anything to do with the body was taboo. I was almost kicked out of Cornell for using the word "birdshit" in a story (see Down and In). Girls at the time were American as apple pie—frozen apple pie. Luckily for me there was a community of European women on campus, emigrés or children of emigrés, very sophisticated in the academic context, and these were the women I hung out with. Thanks, ladies.
It was at Cornell that I first stumbled across the swine factor in American life. I had met rich people before, I had met ambitious people before, I had met unprincipled people before. But this was a genteel set that you ran across in the wealthier fraternities that combined these charming traits with an element of supercilious callousness that they seemed to consider the key to success. And you have to think that maybe they were right when you look at the Reagan administration. I have a heavy streak of Jewish moralism and I find the domestic swine offensive. Foreign swine are usually more up front—the American equivalent would be somebody like Roy Cohn or maybe Jimmy Hoffa, but these types ultimately enrage the domestic swine. The essential trait of the American Swine is a certain nasty smugness. Plus all of the above. Add a dash of hypocrisy where necessary. The Ivy League schools are full of this type, some are even famous for it. Despite William Buckley's title, I doubt that you can find either God or Man at Yale. Or Cornell or you name it. But you can find a lot of Swinus americanus. And these people end up controlling most of our institutions, the swine factor going off the scale in corporate and bureaucratic circles. These are the people I don't write for. I wouldn't be caught dead writing anything they could understand or, worse, like.*
California, to get back to California, was also the opening of a new life: the discovery of the possibility of life beyond New York. Some of my novels show the impact of California on me, especially Out, 98.6, and Blown Away. Again there was an opening out, a relaxation, a discovery of new possibilities. California, where I have lived on and off for a considerable time, was a place that immediately felt both strange and familiar. Strange compared to Brooklyn but, yes, this was the way one should live, in a supportive harmony with one's physical environment, as opposed to the mean puritan attitude of life as struggle and survival. My new California attitudes brought me into some comic conflicts with people back east. I remember flying in from California and arriving at the door of a New York friend in my comfortable Mexican shirt. He opened the door, blinked, and said, "Why are you wearing your nightgown?" There is still a big difference between the East and the West in the U.S., despite the same fast-food restaurants, and the two cultures still have a lot of trouble understanding one another. There aren't too many fiction writers around who can take in both without animosity, contempt, or paranoia. I guess it's appropriate that I now spend most of my time in Colorado (when I'm not in New York or Paris), practically on top of the Continental Divide, so I can look both ways.
I owe my academic career to the U.S. Army. I created my own GI Bill of Rights—the right not to be drafted. Every time I was about to drop out of college the swine started some new war to stay out of. That's how I got a Ph.D. at Brandeis. There I studied with J. V. Cunningham, the poet, and Irving Howe, the critic, and it was a study in contrasts. Howe is one of the more respectable New York Jewish Intellectuals and Cunningham was basically a cowboy from Montana. I didn't agree with either of them about anything. But, much more important to me, they were both very smart. They both provided me with effective new thought weapons to use against them. I think that's the best thing a teacher can do for a student.
Somewhere during that period I went to France on a Fulbright, thanks to Howe. The fellowship was about to be cancelled at the last minute because the French-language reference had come in and it was apparently devastating. I had requested it from an old French teacher of mine who also, it happened, had been a lover. How was I supposed to know she was mad at me, mad enough to be vindictive? But she was older, and French, and her rules were different from the ones I was so far familiar with. Of course she was right, my spoken French was lousy, but why did that skin her teeth? I figured after a year in France it would be a lot better, and it was. Anyway, Howe persuaded poet Claude Vigée, then head of the French Department, to right the injustice, and so began my long and ambivalent relation with French culture. That was my first chance to see French culture on the hoof. I loved it. And I hated it. I still do. Not only that, I had the chance to do the Grand Tour, which gave me my first inkling that Pound, Eliot, and that bunch were basically culture tourists creating an intellectual Baedeker for the deprived American intelligentsia.
Many years later, in Paris, I invited Vigée over to my apartment. At that time I was renting an apartment on Place St.-Michel, spectacular in its way, black walls, mirrors, I think it must have been decorated by a hooker. I had published several books, one of them translated into French, I had been the subject of articles in French journals, I had participated in Paris symposia, and I spoke fluent French. A grey-haired Vigée walked in, looked at me in disbelief, and said, I quote: "This is little Ronnie?"
When I finally left the shelter of graduate school for good I thought I was home free because the army wasn't supposed to be drafting anyone over twentyfive. But I hadn't counted on the antiwar movement. I had been protesting. I had been photographed at the famous Justice Department-Pentagon demonstrations of The Armies of the Night. I had signed petitions. I had contributed money. Suddenly, at the age of thirtyfour and a half, I got a draft notice. The legal cutoff was thirty-five. Anyone who thinks the government doesn't keep secret lists for illegal purposes, baloney. I investigated every possibility, physical and mental, but none of my recorded maladies would get me a 4-F. I went to my physical with a sense of doom, but for once being from Brooklyn turned out to be helpful. The physical was at an army base in Brooklyn. At the very end of the physical, last stop, there was this very Brooklyn sergeant who was supposed to gather all the papers and give you your final rating. Here was a guy I knew how to talk to. He looked at me, he looked at the papers, he looked back at me.
"You're thirty-four and a half?" he asked.
"And they're drafting you?"
"Yeah." I shrugged. "So what can I do?"
He looked back through my papers.
Finally he said, "You had a collapsed lung once."
"Yeah," I said. "But I already checked it out. It was too long ago. And besides, it doesn't keep you out."
He looked at me. He didn't say it but I knew what he was thinking: Shmuck. "So you use it for an appeal," he added.
"What good does that do?"
"They have to process it," he says, exasperated.
"So it takes six months and by that time you're thirtyfive."
Wherever you are, buddy, here's to you. I would have fought in World War II. I would have enlisted. If it's true as they say that FDR manipulated us into it, he was right. But the wars since then have been bullshit, basically swine wars tragic for those fooled or flogged into them. That's the truth and you know it. Ask a Viet vet.*
By this time I had pretty much dropped out of academe. I was living on New York's lower east side in an apartment that cost thirty-three dollars a month. For the next fifteen years I would live basically on academic odd jobs and free-lance writing. A lot of people couldn't figure out why I lit out for the underground at this point, but the answer is simple: freedom. In America, freedom for an artist means freedom from money, and there are only two ways of getting it—having money, or not needing it, i.e., low overhead. So I retired to the lower east side to begin my campaign against Literature with my first novel, Up.
Literature is both the friend and the enemy of the novelist. The novel is a way of salvaging experience from the flux of time and the impositions of official history and the media. It is inherently experimental. By the point some form has become certified as Literature it has become a formula useable in prefabricated repetitions. But experience is never prefab. It is immediate, metamorphic, and unpredictable. Writing that tries to package experience can only falsify it. Literature is packaged experience. You can and must learn a lot from the best Literature but you don't learn anything new from it, unless it happens to be new to you. So half the fight when you're writing is to avoid Literature. The other half is to find forms that accommodate, discover, and even create your particular experience.
When I started writing there had already been some breakthroughs. Burroughs was a good model, though his collage technique was still the tail end of the exhausted Modern tradition. Beckett had utterly broken down the convention of verisimilitude, and Genet had shown how fiction could be used to invent rather than imitate reality. Borges I always thought of as a secondary figure, Kafka without anguish. The best of the modern Latin American tradition comes from Faulkner, whom I had long since absorbed. Of the best contemporary examples Barth was inventive but bookish, in his attempt to exhaust the literary tradition of its treasures exhausting to read; Brautigan was brilliant at transferring techniques of poetry to fiction, but a little facile; Gass knew how to use the medium as medium but was a little too heavy with ideas to be useful to me; Hawkes was splendid but had been doing the same thing for years; Barthelme wrote wonderful sentences and used language as language, broken away from reference to create new reference, but seemed to have no sense of longer form. Besides, his style was too much of the world he was out to subvert, the consumer world, which may be why he had such a successful relation with the New Yorker. Coover was lively, but just getting started.
While I'm at it, let me spike a cliché that went around for years, that Barthelme was America's most imitated writer. Nobody, but nobody ever imitated Barthelme. First of all he's inimitable. His particular stylistic fingerprint is so characteristic anyone trying to imitate him would immediately be run out of town as a copycat. I was teaching hundreds of creative-writing students all over the country during those years and I never ran across one who was imitating Barthelme. There was some character actually writing Barthelme stories and getting them published under Barthelme's name, but that's a different story. Though maybe that's what they meant—that Barthelme was America's most completely imitated writer, by this particular counterfeiter.
What I did, following the success of Up, was I started working with the tape recorder. My idea was, all right, you want to get an accurate description of reality into fiction, let's find out what reality really sounds like. Hey, very experimental. It was in a way a challenge both to "realistic" fiction and the formalist tradition out of Modernism and especially Joyce and Gertrude Stein. The result was the stories in The Death of the Novel and Other Stories. Immediately, of course, the intellocrats, confronting a kind of writing beyond their narrow ideological categories, labeled me an experimentalist, a formalist, and even worse, an elitist. Masturbatory, academic, pretentious, and art-for-art's-sake were also pulled out of the old epithet bag. What, me, a kid from Brooklyn, an experimentalist? a formalist? I was almost flattered.
Some of the New York Intelligentsia got absolutely hysterical in their criticism of the work I and friends like Steve Katz and Raymond Federman were doing. Whether I liked it or not, I became part of a movement, but it was better than being part of a stasis. I suppose it is no accident, as they say, that many of these same critics turned out to be among the worst Reaganite neoconservatives. Since there's no arguing with people of hardened understanding, there was nothing to do but bait them, which I did in a Partisan Review essay called "The New Tradition," in which I made light of every literary term I could think of in the social(ist) realism that these people held up as the one valid model for fiction. I suppose it's partly my fault, then, that the label "experimentalist" stuck, just as later the label "postmodernist" stuck. I wonder what the next one will be. But of course movements are often labeled by their enemies, derisively in intention, though the derisive label often turns into a term with the cachet of prestige. The label "surfiction," invented by Raymond Federman, would have been a much more accurate one to apply to those of us who published with the early Fiction Collective, the writer-controlled publishing house, writers such as Clarence Major, Russell Banks, Jonathan Baumbach, or to others like Walter Abish, Rudolfo Anaya, Steve Dixon, Harry Mathews, and Ishmael Reed.
But though there were critics who were hostile, there were also those who were friendly. One who never gets the credit he deserves, and is practically boycotted by the old-boy academic establishment, is Jerome Klinkowitz. Klinkowitz's voluminous commentary on writers like myself and Clarence Major has been of
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great importance in bringing us into the public eye. His criticism is sometimes put down as naive and inadequately bedded in contemporary theory. But those critics interested in contemporary theory are usually not interested in contemporary writing, unless it illustrates their theory, so there's a sort of catch-22 operative here. I think the crude fact of it is that Klinkowitz, out there in Iowa, just isn't part of the Ivy League old-boy network. Klinkowitz is what I would call an advocacy critic. He actually reads contemporary fiction, he actually tries to explicate it and so create a bridge to the general reading public, and he actually takes the writers seriously enough to ask them what it is they're trying to do. This, I believe, is an old and honorable and critical critical role, one only recently surrendered by theory-oriented academics. Okay, Jerry?
As to the neocon intelligentsia, let's not pretend they're not influential. They're more influential than I would like to believe. They grasp the connection between culture and politics in a country where that connection is beyond the civic imagination of most people. What? police dramas on TV? what has that got to do with politics? Social realism? what has that got to do with distributing a standardized commodity to the maximum number of people? what has that got to do with using your imagination only in prescribed ways that don't conjure up any visions of any oppositional flies in any establishment ointments? The ointments of the establishment, its facilities, its networks, and its rewards to dispose, thus flow oleaginously into the neocon troughs, where the swine lap gratefully and become strong. I won't even bother to go into the effect of similar influences on the grunt reviewer out in the journalistic trenches. Do you think it was purely coincidental, amigo, that cultural conservatism began to establish its hold the year, the very year, after Nixon was elected? that certain films were discouraged by the studios (I was writing one of them) and others soft-pedaled in distribution? that music with lyrics about social issues began to disappear? that some writers, especially those from Eastern Europe with certified anti-red attitudes were promoted, while domestic "experimentalists" were tabooed as elitists?—even as their foreign experimentalist clones, writing of course about strictly elsewhere, were welcomed? Ay, ay, ay, amigo! We live in the real world, where we are nothing but cucarachas on the levers of power. La cucaracha, la cucaracha. Allan Bloom is culture czar. La cucaracha, La cucaracha. Irving Howe is commissar.
And now I have a startling announcement to make. I am actually Tom Pynchon, and it's me who's written all his books. If Jerzy Kosinski could do it why can't Pynchon? All right, just kidding. Just trying to get your attention for the next episode, which is titled—The Resistance.*
Besides cultural conservatism, by the early seventies the economics of the publishing industry, which were changing, made it doubly hard for the kind of writing that needs a certain amount of economic support because it takes time to be absorbed by the culture.
The first step in the direction of an organized resistance to the difficult cultural situation had been the establishment of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM), which had wrested money from federal and state governments to subsidize the country's literary magazines—an important development since just about all such magazines run at a permanent deficit. CCLM was started by William Phillips of Partisan Review, and editors of some other, similar magazines. These magazines were mostly East Coast, intellectually oriented, and had substantial budgets, but as the organization grew into a genuinely national one, the membership tipped in the direction of small-budget West Coast poetry journals with distinctly different tastes. This created an organizational strain that eventually helped to tear CCLM apart. I was brought onto the board of CCLM, I believe, to mediate between the East and West Coast contingents, since I was one of the few who had allegiances to both.
At my first meeting in San Francisco, organized to conciliate the two groups, the strains were symbolized by Phillips's misguided attempts to extend friendly hospitality to the Frisco underground poetry scene. He made the mistake of holding the meeting in a well-appointed hotel room instead of somebody's pad, and served whisky instead of jug wine. This confirmed all of the poets' worst suspicions about the New York Establishment.
When Phillips retired as chairman of CCLM, he was replaced by Michael Anania, and then by myself. I had to deal with the political situation created by the minorities moving into CCLM, trying to mediate among different interest groups. Middlemen in such situations always get caught in the middle, and I was no exception, almost losing some good minority friends like Ishmael Reed (who succeeded me as chairman) and Rudy Anaya, as well as friends from Phillips's East Coast faction and Anania's Midwest bunch. In fact, probably the greatest benefit of CCLM was in the network of underground literary people it generated, a network I would draw on in future organizational projects. However, the grants function of CCLM should not be underestimated: during my time as chairman, its budget reached the one-million-dollar mark, and its grant support changed the underground literary scene enormously, some say for the better, some say for the worse. Both are right, but those who opt for the better are righter, in that it represented a first significant step by writers (and editors) to take their economic fate into their own hands.
I helped start the Fiction Collective during my CCLM days, aiding the main movers, Peter Spielberg and Jon Baumbach, from the West Coast, where I was living, while B. H. Friedman also provided considerable help.
The Collective was a very visible success, and perhaps for that very reason aroused animosity in certain quarters of the publishing industry. The attitude of many editors, as expressed in a Partisan Review symposium I participated in, was basically that, yes, it's a shame we can't publish more good fiction, but don't worry, if anything good comes along, we'll publish it. Speaking of logic. The resentment lingered. Many years later, critics Larry McCaffery and Tom LeClair presented a manuscript of interviews with eminent contemporary novelists to Knopf. The manuscript was accepted on the condition that it contain no Fiction Collective writers. Since the book contained three Collective authors out of fifteen, and the editors refused to take them out, McCaffery and LeClair took the book to the University of Illinois Press, which published it under the title Anything Can Happen. There are other stories of this sort. For example, Knopf later published Tom Glynn's second novel as his first, ignoring the one published by the Collective.
The next link in the chain was American Book Review. Actually, a review magazine that would give a fair shake to non-publishing-industry presses was first suggested to me by Ishmael Reed in a cab to the airport from a CCLM meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, only he wanted me to do it and I wanted him to do it. Both of us were already doing too many things. Still are. Somehow I ended up doing it, largely because one year I had a big income-tax refund, and someone pointed out that if I spent it that would be that, but that if I used it to start a book-review magazine, I might end up with something important and durable. So we plunged in, Clarence Major, Suzanne Zavrian, and Charles Russell—the original editors—and myself, with some help from the University of Colorado (where by then I was organizing and directing the creative-writing program), and some other writers. As I write this, ABR, under myself and editors Rochelle Ratner and John Tytell, has just put out its tenth-anniversary issue.
Meanwhile I was still writing steadily. Out, which later became a movie starring Peter Coyote, was a novel about the hope generated by the era called the sixties, despite all its conflict and insanity, and 98.6 was about the failure of the sixties. In both books I used techniques—very different in each—to break down standard form in fiction in order to reach beyond literary artifice to actual experience (don't think I'm not aware of the contradictions involved). In general, I think this is the misunderstood thrust of the "Postmodern" in fiction: an attempt to get at the truth of experience beyond our fossilizing formulas of discourse, to get at a new and more inclusive "reality," if you will. This is a reality that includes what the conventional novel tends to exclude and that encompasses the vagaries of unofficial experience, the cryptic trivia of the quotidian that help shape our fate, and the tabooed details of life—class, ethnic, sexual—beyond sanctioned descriptions of life. It is an orientation that is distinctly democratic in tendency, which may explain some of the hostility it meets. What is currently called "Minimalism" seems to be a subgenre of this mode that does some of the same things. Maybe that's why some critics are down on it lately.
In Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues I pushed the narrative form as far in the direction of poetry as I could, using the symmetries of poetic form, albeit idiosyncratic, within which to improvise the rhythms that most accurately express the unpredictable flow of experience. Blown Away explores my idea of the novel as related to suppressed traditions of magic, shamanism, prophecy, and the functions of the holy book, all this based on an interpretation of Prospero, our tradition's most eminent literary wizard. My idea is that narrative is or can be a mediumistic form, rather than the empirical form that positivism has delineated for it. The interconnected pieces in The Endless Short Story represent a variety of formal improvisations, reflecting my conviction that improvisation is at the heart of art in the American mode.
Down and In, though nonfiction, goes back to my interest in the use of tape recorder as technique for writing, and presents the same narrative considerations as any of my fictions. It looks back to a little-known electronic novel I did for the Berkeley Pacifica station, using recorded voices, which I consider unsuccessful because it got so complicated sonically that it became impossible to reproduce it on the page. Warning! Technique as such is baloney. Lately I've seen any number of techniques out of James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, or Nabokov used to produce slick, tricky novels that are the fictive equivalent of fast food. Give me Theodore Dreiser. In a way, Down and In is continuous with Up in its interest in autobiography. There is one major difference, however, in that it is not pseudo-autobiography. "My wife, Lynn," for example, in Up is not Lynn, my ex-wife, but a character in a novel, just as "Ronald Sukenick" in that book, or in any of my fictions, is not Ronald Sukenick.
But of course, as soon as a real-life character is inscribed on the page, even the page of history, s/he becomes a construct of words. And that includes this page. And, curiously, the character "Ronald Sukenick," initially unleashed in the pages of my own fiction, has since become a persona in a number of novels by other writers—Steve Katz, E. L. Doctorow, Raymond Federman, to name some. He has also become a character in a plenitude of critical works, one who has attained an independent existence to the point where he is sometimes unrecognizable, at least to me. But what the hell, we continually make one another up, we make ourselves up, we make our lives up, do we not? That's not experimental, that's experiential. All I'm trying to do is keep fiction as close as possible to the available data, despite the often profitable make-believe of that Romantic concept Coleridge and Walt Disney call Imagination. What can you say about Imagination? Imagination is . . . funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It gave us the Easter Bunny. It brings in a lot of money. But aside from that it's irrelevant to the real business of writing, which is to tell it like, to use a cliche, it is. That's not as easy as it looks and you get it only in the greatest, yes, Literature.
Ronald Sukenick contributed the following update to CA in 2003:
To continue: My book on underground culture, Down and In, was a success d'estime; e.g., reviewed, among elsewhere, by famous boho painter and member of the scene, Larry Rivers, in the New York Times Book Review. Rivers gave the book an elaborately favorable review, but while the Book Review's policy is to call everyone Mr.—for example, Mr. Hitler—he referred to me throughout as "Ronnie." When I met the editor at the book party I told him he could have at least changed it to Mr. Ronnie.
Looking back at this stage of my life I see that I must have been heavily committed to trying to have an impact on public taste. I was involved, often simultaneously, with Fiction Collective Two (FC 2), the writer-controlled publishing house; American Book Review, the oppositional book review; as well as the super-establishment Publication of the Modern Language Association, the National Book Critics Circle, and the PEN Freedom to Write committee; plus Black Ice magazine, dedicated to extreme fiction, Black Ice Books, an offshoot of the magazine under the auspices of FC 2, and Black Ice online; an anthology of innovative fiction called In the Slipstream (with Curtis White), Degenerative Prose, an anthology of extreme fiction (with Mark Amerika), Altx Press (ebooks and print on demand), and a literary prize, the Nilon Award for excellence in minority fiction. Add to these my position as director of the English department publications center at University of Colorado, Boulder, and first director of the English department's creative writing program, plus my earlier long association with the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM), which funded all the literary magazines in the country, and two years as its chairman. It all adds up in retrospect to a sustained effort to do something about the literary scene other than complain about it. And I have to confess that above all, needling the establishment was fun.
All of the above were continuous with the ideas implicit in Down and In, which is basically a critique of the recent history of oppositional art in the United States. In the publishing world, the crunch came down to the fact that the underground writing scene had been co-opted at the same time that the publishing industry was imploding into five or six largely foreign-owned conglomerates with supercommercial publishing criteria. At a symposium held by the National Books Critics Circle I made fun of this trend in a mordant satire that did little to endear me to the publishing establishment present, for whom my name was mud anyway so I had little to lose. (I was probably named Mud from my similar participation in a symposium held by Partisan Review some fifteen years earlier.)
Speaking of losing, around this time I lost another agent—the last in a whole string of lost agents—over the quality of the novel I was working on, which would later become Mosaic Man (this was the agent who said of Down and In that the last draft was the best and the least likely to sell). My next agent was so slow in handling the manuscript I gave him that I had to give it finally to another agent, who quickly came out of the closet, moved to Fire Island, became a painter, and stopped agenting. These are just the last phases of a long history of agent catastrophes involving missed opportunities, mistiming, and just plain mistakes.
But somehow the books kept getting written. This is especially astonishing given that my life was usually divided among several geographic locations remote from one another. For example, when I was running the CCLM, I was living in Santa Cruz, CA, and running a six-person office in Greenwich Village to which I would fly in one week per month. I stayed in New York at the staid Algonquin Hotel, where the English maitre d' would never let me into the dining room in my leather vest. I would claim that the vest was my national costume of the American West, and he would retort that in his country a vest was an undershirt. I finally gave in and bought a suit, not for the anglophile Algonquin but for lobbying Congress for the literary arts. Later, my life was divided among New York, Paris, and Boulder, Colorado, where I held down a full-time teaching job. I had bought apartments in New York and Paris with my second wife, and we have been triangulating ever since approximately 1983.
Add to these activities eight or ten readings per year accompanied by travel to and fro, drinking, partying, and attendant groupies. What? I could have skipped the partying you say? And watched television for hours, insomniac in a lonely motel, as opposed to a lovely and admiring fan, chatting at the bar or bouncing on a mattress? Which would you choose?
I don't know where I got the energy to do all this stuff.
I think it comes from my philosophy of fertile disorder. Time is a one-way ticket to a single destination in a predetermined age-related order. You've got to mix it up, jam circuits, introduce a little disorder by taking things as they come rather than imposing your own agenda. If it's confusing, life is confusing, and my life could serve as a model for my writing. Expect the unexpected is my motto. Disorganization can lead to deeper organization. And you gain all the energy you would use trying to impose an alien order.
Of course all this implies that you're going to recognize and be receptive to new kinds of order, which in itself implies that you are at some level an order freak rather than a nihilist. It's very hard to maintain disorder, disorganization, and nonsense, for there is a bedrock tendency hardwired into our biological being that pushes toward order. It takes a whole screwed up society to create long-term disorder—while individuals, sometimes madmen, discover new levels of order in the midst of disorder. Paradoxically, it's consistency, logic, and linearity that you have to beware of as an order freak.
My life has been both unpredictable and perfectly imaginable from the start. When I was eighteen I imagined that I would have just the kind of life I have had, and yet when I was in the midst of it it seemed that everything would turn out quite differently. Fame, eclipse, rediscovery by a younger generation—it has all been as I imagined when I was eighteen. Illogical but true.
Who could have predicted that I would be looking out my window at the World Trade Center two blocks away when the airplanes hit? But that is precisely what I was writing about the very week before. Writing at a certain level reveals the subterranean structure of experience through which one can extrapolate the spectrum of event. But such speculation aside, what a breath of fresh air it is to come across writing touched by the randomness and illogic of experience. Henry Miller is the master of the mode, and I follow him in writing what I would call fictive nonfiction. The more my fiction is taken as nonfiction the more successful it is, even at the expense of giving me a bad character rep. The convincingness of my fiction, it seems, is in inverse proportion to the virtue of my character. But who cares? Novelists don't have to win elections. Politicians, on the other hand, do, and sometimes the two modes clash. There is a story in my collection Doggy Bag called "The Burial of Count Orgasm," which is what you might call pseudo pornographic. It's like, "she opened her blank, and he reached in blank while she caressed blank." This raised the ire of certain politicians in the Midwest, where the publisher was located, despite the fact that the porn was wholly the product of the reader's imagination. My writing has frequently been labeled "graphic" or "explicit," and it has in fact lately been moving in the direction of the graphic thanks to the resources of the computer. But I digress. The World Trade Center attacks. I was there, I had a narrow escape, I'm in some sense a victim and in some sense also the beneficiary, guilty of exploiting the event in the sense that, having written about it before the fact, I simply continued writing about it after. But before I pursue this train of thought, let me add that digression is a method I believe in, a trope as true to life as any in the rhetorical toolbox. If you want examples, take my last book, Cows, which proceeds on the basis of action by digression, or my next to last, Narralogues, which proceeds on the basis of digressive ideas.
Yes, in reality as opposed to fiction you never know what's going to happen next.
One day I was sitting at my desk and my assistant came in with the mail, including a letter from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Well, the only mail I ever get from such organizations is asking for money, so I almost threw it away. My hand was halfway to the wastebasket when I thought, I have so little mail today I might as well open it. And guess what? It was notification that I had been awarded a sizable cash prize for innovative fiction, the Zabel Award.
But to continue, the World Trade Center. So there I was, stark naked, having just gotten out of bed, watching the World Trade Center go up in flames. Two blocks away. I got out of there fast, just taking the time to throw some clothes on. Just time enough to get to the river when the first tower jiggled a bit and imploded sending a dense black cloud careening toward us and enveloping us in a blinding element, neither solid nor quite gaseous, and for incalculable minutes inside it we didn't know whether we were going to live or die. Weeks later, on getting back to my apartment, when I saw that I had already broached the subject in my work in progress, I had the uncanny feeling that I had foreseen all this, and the rest of the novel became a meditation of sorts on the World Trade Center disaster and the process of digging out of the wreckage.
You might well wonder what I was doing living in New York. In the year 2000 I quit teaching and left Boulder for good. I was almost always a part-time resident anyway, spending parts of each year in New York and Paris. So I came back to the place where I grew up twice: once in Brooklyn, and once in the lower east side where I spent ten years of my life, from 1960 to 1970, living in an apartment for $33 a month while writing my first three books, including the manuscript of my first novel, Up, handwritten in ten or twenty spiral notebooks. Which now reside in the Ransom Humanities Center in Austin, TX. Where one day my wife, Toulouse Lautrec biographer, Julia Frey, was perusing the archival collections and came across scores of letters I had sent to a friendly critic. Whereupon she suggested they might be interested in purchasing my entire archive. This insight eventually grew into purchase not only of my archives but of those of Fiction Collective, American Book Review, some of her (Julia's) papers, and the complete posthumous collection of my ex-wife, Lynn Luria Sukenick.
If the impact of New York on my writing is evident, that of Paris is not so obvious. New York was the fabric out of which the story emerges in my first novel, Up, and it is the explicit subject of Down and In. Out-explodes out of New York, giving it the momentum that drives it all the way to the West Coast. Mosaic Manstarts in Paris but ends in New York City, stretches out all over the map but is predominantly a New York book. Long Talking Bed Conditions Blues perhaps gives the truest geographic spectrum of my writing. The combination is of New York, the West Coast, and Paris, with perhaps an exile's Paris striking the strongest note. But my Paris is not that of American intellectuals or expatriates. For example, at the end of the '70s the editor of Partisan Review, knowing I was about to spend the year in Paris, asked me to write an article about what was going on in France. After interviewing a lot of people in Paris I concluded that nothing was going on in France. The editor reassigned the article to a New York intellectual, one of the usual suspects, who wrote an article about new developments in critical theory. That was my idea of nothing going on.
My Paris was the eleventh arrondissement, a working-class international melting pot, where when I first moved in there were so few tourists that the banks wouldn't even cash travelers checks, where the politics were workers left-wing, and where the bread and croissants were better than those in middle- and upper-class snob bakeries. There I knew the local storekeepers and a lot of people living in the building. Some of them were crazies, but by and large they were a friendly, level-headed community of workers and artisans, with a few artists and actors just beginning to move in because of cheap rent. It was like living in the beginning of the lower east side as the "East Village" all over again. Finally, after fifteen years of on-off residency, I had to move to a rich neighborhood where the buildings had elevators. Besides, the eleventh had acquired a kind of bohemian chic, and the population that went with it had robbed it of its distinctive character.
I first went to the West Coast when I was nineteen. Pasadena. There was only one short freeway and the word smog had just entered the vocabulary. Palm trees and orange groves. From Los Angeles, where I soon moved, I could see snowcapped mountains. This is the Los Angeles of my novel Blown Away. And northern California, where I lived in a later phase, in Santa Cruz especially, is the scene for 98.6 and the end of Out.
Not to mention a stint of three years in Laguna Beach. And don't forget I spent twenty-five years in Boulder. My recent novel, Cows, released as an e-book, is my valedictory to the Rocky Mountains. So with this geographical itinerary I suppose I can lay claim to being one of America's most representative writers.*
American Book Review is now twenty-five years old. Fiction Collective is twenty-eight. These are astronomical ages in the small press universe, unexpected longevity for these institutions I helped found. Almost as unexpected as my seventieth birthday this year. As unexpected as my pace of publication since Down and In when we let the story lapse: Doggie Bag, stories; Mosaic Man, a novel; Narralogues, essays; Cows, a novel. A couple of anthologies edited. Three books about me in various stages of preparation and another already out—a pastiche of my novel 98.6 called 1998.6, which uses the plot, the characters, and the style of the original novel. They say that parody is the deepest compliment.
And Gale's Contemporary Authors series just asked me to write an update.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1974.
Bradbury, Malcolm, The Modern American Novel, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Carlisle, Janice and Daniel R. Schwarz, editors, Narrative and Culture, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1994, pp. 216-37.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 48, 1988.
Contemporary Novelists, sixth edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 962-64.
Dictionary of Literary Biography,Gale, Volume 173: American Novelists since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Federman, Ray, editor, Surfiction, Swallow Press (Athens, OH), 1974.
Hassan, Ihab, Liberations, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1971.
Karl, Frederick R., American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Kiernan, Robert F., American Writing since 1945: A Critical Survey, Ungar (New York, NY), 1983.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, Innovative Fiction, Dell (New York, NY), 1972.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1975.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Life of Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1977.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1985.
Kutnik, Jerzy, Fiction as Performance: The Fiction of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1986.
LeClair, Thomas, and Larry McCaffery, editors, Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1983.
McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen (New York, NY), 1987.
Pearce, Richard, The Novel in Motion, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1983.
Sukenick, Ronald, Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Sukenick, Ronald, The Death of the Novel, and Other Stories, Dial (New York, NY), 1969.
Sukenick, Ronald, In Form, Digressions on the Act of Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1985.
Best Sellers, July, 1973.
Booklist, February 15, 1999, p. 1042.
Chicago Review, winter, 1972, pp. 73-82.
Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1969.
Contemporary Literature, spring, 1982, pp. 129-44.
Critique, Volume 20, number 9, 1978, pp. 27-39; winter, 1987, pp. 88-99.
Esquire, December, 1972.
Fiction International, fall, 1973.
Georgia Review, winter, 1983.
Harpers, May, 1968.
Hudson Review, summer, 1968.
Lillabulero, number 12, 1973.
Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1987.
Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1985.
Nation, July 22, 1968; September 27, 1975; September 19, 1987.
New York Review of Books, February 1, 1968; February 27, 1969.
New York Times, June 22, 1968; September 25, 1969; September 29, 1969.
New York Times Book Review, July 14, 1968; October 21, 1973; May 18, 1975; September 22, 1985; November 16, 1986; March 15, 1987; November 1, 1987; July 11, 1999, p. 22.
North American Review, summer, 1973.
Partisan Review, winter, 1974.
Publishers Weekly, March 7, 1924, p. 66; January 18, 1999, p. 327; August 16, 1999, p. 65.
Saturday Review, July 6, 1968.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 30, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, July 21, 1968.
Fiction Collective Two,http://fc2.org/ (April 2, 2003).