interviewed by JR Foley

     Ronald Sukenick, born in 1932, grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and took his B.A. in English from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis, with a dissertation on the longer poems of Wallace Stevens. It was the highly charged yet extremely unacademic intellectual atmosphere at the time which drew him to Brandeis. Determined not to pursue a tweedy collegiate faculty career, he quit academia for the Lower East Side of New York, about which he writes in his American Book Award-winning Down & In: Life in the Underground (Beech Tree Books, 1987; Collier Books, 1988), a history of the literary bohemia after WWII. While expanding his dissertation into Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure (New York University Press, 1967), Sukenick also published short stories and wrote his first novel, Up (The Dial Press), whose publication in 1968 caused a sensation. Death of the Novel and Other Stories (The Dial Press) followed in 1969 and his second novel Out (The Swallow Press) in 1973. In 1974 he joined several other writers dissatisfied with the returning conservatism of the publishing industry to found The Fiction Collective. The Collective published Sukenick's next three books -- 98.6 (1975), Long-Talking Bad Conditions Blues (1979), and The Endless Short Story (1986) -- as well as the more recent Doggy Bag (1994). Sun & Moon Press published his Hollywood novel, Blown Away, in 1986. The year before Southern Illinois University Press had brought out In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction (1985), a book of essays about "the ongoing struggle with the angel of form."
      When the Collective reorganized as FC2 in 1988, Sukenick became (along with Curtis White) a permanent director. (Recently he demoted himself to "impermanent" director, and by the time this reaches print: "I'll probably have demoted myself to ex-director on the grounds that FC2/Black Ice Books is now on firm footing, while I'm not.") He had already served, in the late 1970's, a two-year term as Chairman of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. He had also founded and continues to publish the American Book Review. In 1988 he also acquired and redesigned Black Ice, a magazine of innovative fiction.
      Until the mid-1970's Sukenick had supported himself with sporadic teaching and free-lance writing jobs (including "the longest book I ever wrote," a thousand-page government report on birth control in small African countries like Gambia and Lesotho.) He also worked on a couple of movies, one of them an adaptation of his novel Out, starring Peter Coyote and Danny Glover, which is available on video. In 1975, on the strength of his published work, Sukenick was hired as a Full Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he continues to teach.
      Lately an instigator and exemplar of the trend-become-its-own- anti-trend called Avant-Pop, Ron Sukenick read from several of his books in November 1995 to an overflow crowd at Niel's Books, 1615 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. The reading was co-sponsored by FlashPøint in conjunction with Alphaville Books, Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. The following interview was conducted by Jack Foley before the reading at Jim Angelo's house, with Jim, Rosalie Gancie, and Carlo Parcelli also participating.

JF: Have you ever written poetry yourself?

RS: When I was pretty young.

JF: Because your prose seems to me to have the kind of control and precision, especially with imagery, very evocative, which one would associate with poetry. Not that you write like [Wallace] Stevens. But in your book of essays and other writings you've said you're trying to break through received 19th Century forms of fiction to make a closer contact with real life. You're not imposing an order; but it seems like you're doing something similar to what you see Stevens doing. Stevens facing the chaos of experience, seeing and abstracting, drawing connections.

RS: First let me say one of the most pleasing results of Musing the Obscure was that a lot of poets have told me it was their way into Stevens. Especially the ones I remember were [A.R.] Ammons -- who I think is a lot like Stevens in certain ways -- [Robert] Creeley, and [John] Ashbery. Three of the major poets of that generation. They were probably just flattering me, but it's a way I'm pleased to be flattered. It was a very hard book to write, actually, but apparently very useful. I still meet people who went through graduate school at the time -- the book was in print for 19 years -- who say, "Oh, I know you, you're the writer of that Stevens book." [Laughing]
      But let me start from another angle. One of the things that seems to impel me is it never made any sense to me to separate the genres so much. Ideally, I would move towards incorporating poetry into narrative. I don't see any reason why you couldn't even move in and out of poetry. A lot of poets stick a lot of prose in their poems now. What holds the separation in place is, I think, money. For example, I wanted to call Out "a long narrative poem in prose."

JF: Which is what you call "Doggy Bag" [the title story of Doggy Bag].

RS: I finally got a chance to use it, right. I remember I had a discussion with Ed Doctorow, who I was friends with at the time. He said, "Don't do that because they won't know where to put it in the store." And it's the same thing now. Down and In had the same problem. They couldn't figure out whether to put it in Biography or Cultural History or Sociology. So money holds the genre distinctions up.
     Also "Quality Literature" holds them up. I noticed Terry Southern died the other day. I work with his son [Nile Southern] on Black Ice. I noticed in the obituary that he was always making fun of what he called "Quality Lit." That was in the Seventies, and that surprised me, because that's exactly my bit. I would rather read genre fiction than what they call "Quality Lit." Which is mostly what Knopf publishes, for example. I don't want to use the word "elitist," but it's very narrow-minded -- the kind of literary writing you find celebrated in the prizes, the Pulitzers, even the National Book Critics Circle, of which I used to be on the Board, and fought against. It's recognized Literature with a capital L. So that's another kind of thing that holds the genres apart: there's this kind of thing that you're supposed to write that I just don't see any reason for writing.
      What I'm writing is not in an avant-garde mode, and certainly not in an experimental mode, and certainly not in an "alternative" mode. It comes out of a rival tradition, and it's much older and much bigger than the tradition of realist fiction, which only started in the 18th Century. Whereas this rival tradition you can trace all the way back to the epics, Ovid, Rabelais, and even at the beginning of the realist tradition, to Laurence Sterne, and Diderot, and so on. This is a tradition that's beginning, I think, to break loose again.
      I trace it back, actually, to the rivalry between Socrates and the Sophists. On the one hand you have a tradition of logic that has to do with the gaining preeminence of written language. Then, on the other, you have the tradition of the rhetoricians, which is antithetical and self-contradictory and flowing. I wouldn't exactly say anti-logical, but it doesn't have the same kind of syllogistic logic based on fixed philosophical ideas and definitions. It's an improvisational sort of intelligence, based on the way we think and speak more than on the way we read. I think it's much more appropriate to our mode of thinking these days, especially when you think of the kinds of popular and innovative arts we're surrounded by that have gotten started in this century. I'm thinking especially of modes like jazz, like Abstract Expressionism. These are forms that move sometimes in alogical, anti-linear, anti-syllogistic, improvisational ways. So this is the kind of rival tradition that, I would say, is coming to the fore. And it's not exactly avant-garde. It has deep, deep roots.
      I don't think the avant-garde applies in this country, anyhow. I think it's a whole different kind of thing that goes on here. Because the continental avant-garde was, first of all, elitist. It depended on the existence of a literary class, which we don't have here, not in the same sense as you have there. It implies a militant approach, it implies leaders and followers. What we have here is much more diffuse throughout the country at large.
     There is no literary elite in this country, unless it's the corporate elite that runs the book business. It's a totally different situation. What I'd say we have here is an underground that exists perennially, a steady kind of thing, and out of this movements occasionally arise and subside, but it's always there. Whereas in France, especially, you have this series of avant-gardes which are, actually, nothing more than the cutting edge of bourgeois culture.
      Clement Greenberg in an essay called, I think, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," already in 1939 was saying the avant-garde really depended on an elite class, for the simple reason that it needed the money of that class to support it. The money, the background, the education, and so on. And much as I don't like Clement Greenberg's take on things, I think he was right. I think the fact that he knew that was the reason he was so successful and influential as a critic. He even got the Government to support Abstract Expressionism as an export item. That was at the beginning of the New York School of painting, and its worldwide triumph.
      There's actually a book about that, called How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War. By a French Canadian, Serge Guilbaut, so naturally he has a Francophile slant. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.] But he has a good take on how money, after a certain point, supported Abstract Expressionism. Like it was no accident, I think, in the late Sixties that certain seemingly avant-garde writers and painters and movie-makers started getting some recognition and success. It happened very fast. And those guys, the so-called Abstract Expressionists, had been obscure and poor for 15-20 years. Success hit almost overnight, especially a guy like Pollock, and I think they were very disoriented by it.
      I remember, going back to '68, '67, suddenly there were articles in TIME magazine about Beatniks and then Hippies. I think the Hippie movement was actually a media-pushed extension of Beatnikism, and not at all the same thing, really. I mean, when we lived on the Lower East Side, we dreaded when the Hippies moved in, because they were ruining it for everybody. First of all, they irritated the hell out of the local population, especially the Latinos. Because they looked at these guys and they thought they were "Faggots," you know, and would start all sorts of fights. Where we were living, we dressed like people in the neighborhood, and there weren't any problems to speak of. So the Summer of Love was when things got violent, if you remember! [Laughter]
      But I think somebody at Hearst or Chase Manhattan, those people, got the idea that the culture needed to be shaken up or loosened up, because all of the uptight attitudes that were involved, that almost got me kicked out of Cornell for writing "birdshit" in a story, were beginning to inhibit the productivity of the culture. [Laughter] So I think they decided that we needed a little loosening up from the Puritan tradition. They overdid it, released erotic, Dionysian forces that they didn't expect to get unleashed, and all hell broke loose, luckily. [Laughter]

JF: You say your writing is not avant-garde but in a rival tradition, going back through Sterne and Rabelais to the Sophists.

RS: The rhetorical tradition, yeah.

JF: Do you see this rival tradition, through the ages, as always oppositional -- to use another term of yours -- to a mainstream or more dominant mode of art?

RS: I'm not enough of a historian to really answer that question. I would doubt that it was always oppositional. But I would suppose it was always contentious, because it's the tradition of argument. Rhetoric is argument, and argument implies two sides to things, criticism, dissent, and assent. I think it's automatically a stance that questions. It's what the legal tradition comes out of, and it's probably no coincidence that people are getting interested in the connections between literature and law now.


JF: You say, "There's no avant-garde in America, but there is an underground." Where do you see that arising from?

RS: I know there was a kind of bohemia in New York, based in beerhalls and a particular beer cellar, which I forget, that Whitman used to go to, in the second half of the 19th Century. So I suppose it begins after the Civil War. Then I would say, in a certain way, the Boston Brahmans and Transcendentalism would fit in this, especially Emerson, because this is not necessarily a movement associated with poverty. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Stevens was in that tradition, and Stevens, of course, was a wealthy corporate lawyer. Personally, I find Emerson a great source of wisdom and support; my beginning essay in In Form is about Emerson. There probably should be a better name for what I mean than underground, simply because underground implies economic level. But everybody understands "underground," so that's what I've been using, a kind of shorthand. Maybe "shadow culture" would be a better term.

JF: Where does "Avant-Pop" come in? RS: That comes partly out of the Lettriste-Situationist movement. The Lettristes and the Situationists were a group in France -- I think the Lettristes were first, and it was more of a literary movement; then in the Situationist phase it became more of a movement of social criticism, something on the order of Surrealism or Dadaism. One of the important characters, especially in the early phase, was a guy named Isadore Issou. Anyway, the Lettristes-Situationists came up with the idea of "detournement," which was to latch onto the content of the middle class-popular culture and distort it. The translation of "detournement" would be something like "hijacking," maybe. Or diversion. It "hijacks" a phrase or an image from the commercial culture and uses it for other purposes. It's basically using the mass market against itself.

JF: How does the mass market suffer? Or does it?

RS: Hopefully what happens is it creates an audience for other modes than what the mass market is pushing. In that sense it might erode the mass market. It's an interesting question: how does the mass market suffer? You can't defeat the mass market; you can only alter it, change its center of gravity. Also I'm not so sure the mass market is bad, in any case. It's just a question of who's controlling the means to it; and it's usually forces I don't approve of. The music industry is the most sensitive part of it: rock-and-roll, Punk. The mass market will tolerate certain kinds of entertainers, give them a voice, give them a platform; and the audience will pick them up in ways that are unexpected, and movements will arise that weren't preplanned. The mass market has become our environment; and it's gotten so big and complex that you don't know what's going to happen. It's gone beyond anybody's control, even though some people, some groups have more control than others. It's, like, there are no outsiders any more. Because there's no outside. You can't get beyond the reach of the culture any more, especially the popular culture. Unless you're a hermit or something, totally hermetic.

JF: You and Larry McCaffery developed the specific notion of "Avant-Pop," a term he gives credit to jazz musician Lester Bowie for inventing. McCaffery has written about it in many places, especially his two anthologies, Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation [Black Ice Books, FC2, 1993] and After Yesterday's Crash [New York: Viking Penguin, 1995]. I understand the term as meaning two things: one, the tendency of popular culture since the early 1960's to co-opt and repackage avant-garde techniques from art, music, literature, and film; and, two, a highly unorganized but now self-conscious literary counter-movement to expropriate the expropriators and invade, rip-off, subvert, and explode mass market genres (like noir, sci-fi, porno).

RS: Avant-pop was always self-conscious. But this line has been more self-conscious, or more conscious, than you might think. As in the Punk phase. For example, Malcolm McLaren, who was the entrepreneur of the Sex Pistols, picked up a lot from the Situationists. I think the connection with McLaren is outlined in a book by a music critic called Lipstick Traces. [Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Greil Marcus; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.] I first came across this line of development when I was doing interviews for Down and In; I was talking to a lot of people in the music industry who were involved in the beginnings of rock-n-roll or Punk. That's where I discovered the influence of the Situationists on McLaren and the Sex Pistols. He also picked up a lot from certain American groups. In other words the beginning of Punk was anything but English, it just happened to click in England. It was an international confluence of influences. So this was a movement that was more conscious than you think; and we're just picking up on its line of consciousness, rather than its line of popular effect.


JF: The summer 1995 issue of Black Ice magazine is called "Degenerative Prose," which is now also a book from FC2. I haven't read it all, but I've read the exchange between you and Mark Amerika at the beginning. It seemed to me you were more interested in the word "interventive" than "degenerative," which referred to the break-down or interpenetration or dissolution of different genres into one another. I quote: "interventive: i.e., aggressive, interactive, ... leading to action or even itself overflowing into overt gesture, performance, theater, or practical organization, including its own production and distribution." So you seem to be talking about a movement of which "Avant-Pop" would be a mere part rather than the whole.

RS: The way to best understand my concept of "interventive" is as the end of a series of things. First there was the idea of holding a mirror up to Nature, the realist tradition. Then there was the idea pushed by Surfiction that writing could be, not an imitation of reality, but an addition to reality. The next phase is what I conceive of as interventive, meaning that writing can actually intervene in and change reality, or experience. I hate to use the word "reality." But these are labels, frankly, "interventive," "Avant-Pop." They come up at certain times because they're strategic, and they highlight certain aspects of what we're doing. But I know, as early as my first novel, Up, I was already writing this kind of thing. For example, I remember in Up, in the middle of some tirade or other I just stop and I say, "Look, why don't you just contribute $15 to the ACLU?" [Laughs] That's the kind of thing I mean, actually getting people to do stuff, or at least to think stuff that they wouldn't have thought of doing otherwise, wouldn't have done otherwise. That's what I mean by interventive.

JF: It also comes across as tongue in cheek.

RS: Right. But fiction's always tongue in cheek.

JF: But you actually expected people to do that.

RS: I didn't expect people to do it as they were reading that page, that's what's tongue in cheek. But I did hope the ACLU would benefit in some way, sooner or later, by somebody writing a check. [Laughing] That's a crude example, though. I can do an interventive pornographic piece in which I try to get people to behave sexually, for example. [Laughing] Interventive also has to do with interactive, because once you're trying to do something interventive, you're interacting with the reader. I guess that's why I thought of that, because my porn piece ["the burial of count orgasm" in Doggy Bag] is interactive.

JF: I suppose most writers would say they want to move the reader, make him/her laugh or cry, or get angry. What I'm listening for is how you expect interventive fiction might go beyond that.

RS: A writer like E.L. Doctorow would, I think, use fiction like an editorial opinion piece to influence people to think a certain way. I have nothing against that, except I think there's a difference between what writers like Doctorow do and what I do, inasmuch as the contract with the reader is quite different. The whole grounds for reader-text interaction are different. What I'm really trying to do is re-engage from the position of the voluntary suspension of disbelief, which is at the base of our Western fictive tradition. It's the heart of the conventional tradition in Anglo-American fiction. (Even though it's a poet's phrase, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth/Coleridge.) I don't put down Doctorow's writing, he writes well. But he's still using that suspension-of-disbelief kind of approach. My point is that you can't really come to grips with the reader on a platform of suspension of disbelief, because that's like a fairy story, or a children's story.
      What I do is breach the conventional contract with the reader. I cancel that contract and make another kind of contract. I put fiction on the same level as any other discipline of knowledge, and throw out the suspension of disbelief, and move in the direction of the rival rhetorical tradition, which goes back to the Sophists. Which is a tradition of argumentation, and presents itself as a legitimate means of making valid statements and discovering information and imparting knowledge on the same level as other disciplines. For that matter, the old tradition of rhetoric was indistinguishable from psychology. Actually I think all of the humanities may have branched out from rhetoric in a kind of false and disastrous splitting up in multiphrenia of the way we research knowledge. In any case, my feeling is that whole notion of fiction in the Anglo-American tradition is on a very shaky basis, if not a totally false one. Or to put it another way, there's a much more fruitful way of going about it, and that is to just consider the whole thing narrative, and forget about the fictive quality.
      What I'm looking for is direct interaction. I mean if it's something like "Go-down-to-the-Post-Office-and-mail-a-letter" kind of thing, or "STOP AND WRITE A CHECK TO THE ACLU." Anything that will make the reality of the reading situation and the writing situation manifest as opposed to hidden. It's part of my Reader's Liberation Movement.

JF: Do you consider that what you have written fails if the reader doesn't do that?

RS: No, because it changes the basis of the contract between reader and writer. So that other things become possible, at another time.

JF: So that even if the reader doesn't write the check to the ACLU, you have succeeded in making him or her react in a way they're not used to reacting when they read.

RS: It's not a question of reacting, it's a question of changing the way people understand writing. And once that happens, much more is possible. You then take writing more seriously, like you take history seriously in a certain way, or philosophy, or physics. Because you have faith that these things are directly about experience. Whereas the way you take fiction, now, it's at several removes, it's make-believe. So you don't take it seriously.

JF: I can't speak for E.L. Doctorow, but I will play ventriloquist for somebody else. Tom Wolfe, writing The Bonfire of the Vanities. Did you happen to see that essay he wrote a couple years afterwards, "The Billion-Footed Beast?" Where he's telling writers, "Drop out. Go down, become a reporter. Learn society from the bottom up."

RS: Yeah, I seem to be his bete noir. He always likes to quote, with outrage, this writer Sukenick who claims he writes without any clothes on. [Laughter] He must have read Up. In Up there's a passage where I wrote, "You know what I'm doing? I could be writing without any clothes on. I always write my erotic scenes without any clothes on." Something like that. So I think that got Wolfe's goat. He takes that as the benchmark of, quote, "experimental writing."

JF: Wolfe sees himself in Bonfire of the Vanities as resurrecting the 19th Century novel, the one you say and many have said is dead. He would say that he is not just telling about bond traders but he's going from the top to the bottom of society; and that he's telling us things, not only about the judicial system, but that the U.S. is becoming a Third World country, etc., etc. So he would say, "I'm bringing the news about real life today, I'm doing exactly what the novel is supposed to do."

RS: The trouble is he's doing it in this castrated or self-castrating form. The novel loses its power as a mode of knowledge because, again, you read Wolfe's novel and you know it's only a novel. It's specifically not reality. If he wants to do that, why doesn't he do it as the kind of reportage he's always done, which he does well. I like his non-fiction, not all of it but I like a lot of his non-fiction books. He's very good at it, and I think that's very important. It's much more direct and has much more credibility, instead of this kind of cardboard construct, which is barely even up to the standard of journalistic writing, much less artful writing. I read part of that book; it's horrible, Bonfire of the Vanities. It's certainly not up to his own standards as a good writer. It's curious how much his style suffers from using that form. I mean here's a good writer who's suddenly writing pure crap.

JF: But it's what he's always wanted to write.

RS: I know. Tangerine Baby, or whatever it was called, Snowflake--.

JF: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

RS: Yeah, that's a really well-written book. By the way, I thought it was a great irony that when Down and In was reviewed by the New York Times Book Review on page three -- that is, the second most important page -- Bonfire of the Vanities was reviewed on page one, and I was writing like Wolfe and he was writing like me! [Laughing] Maybe with his non-fiction he wanted to write badly, but he couldn't quite do it. That's his own fault. So I guess now he's a fulfilled person.


JF: Maybe Wolfe, in self-defense, would say your own books at times sound like conventional fiction. In 98.6, for instance, you set scenes, you have characters come on, there's dialogue, there's description. There is also some occasional editorial comment on the characters, but from the sense that this is Ron the character speaking, the one who brought everybody together to the commune, and is writing a book about them. If "interventive" means changing the contract with the reader, how does the argumentative dimension you're just describing apply to 98.6?

RS: First of all, language is referential. Sometimes I've been criticized for saying I don't want to write representational fiction, which is true, because you can't avoid that in language, which is also true. The point is the basis of representation. Language is referential and can hardly avoid being representational in some sense. The question is really whether there's the make-believe of conventional fiction, or whether you can maintain a non-factitious relation with the reader, by admitting precisely what the reading and writing situations really are. This has been called self-conscious fiction, or self-reflexive fiction; I would call it, simply, conscious fiction. I always do something to point to the textual quality of the book, to the fact that it is a written artifact. I try to make the reader conscious of what the hell is going on.
      In 98.6 one of the textual, consciousness-rendering ploys I use is having myself as a character in the book, writing the book. Another is the gradual destruction of the fable quality, the fictive quality of the book. In other words, as the book progresses, the fiction becomes more and more absurd, till there's no way you can really believe in it as fiction.

JF: Especially in the last section.

RS: Especially in the last section. The first section is quasi-documentary. The second section moves into something like conventional fiction, although it's broken up in a lot of ways. The scenes in California are impossible in California, because they bring things together that couldn't exist together, like the snowy mountains and the ocean. There are also inventions of things that are slipped in, something like the way Borges slips in bits of fabulous reality into his Library of Babel. I slip in things like a vegetable I made up called squam, that the people grow. But then the third section becomes nakedly imaginary. That serves to point to the textual quality of what's going on. But also paradoxically it points to the imagination as a way of solving dilemmas, the saving power of the imagination. Because in the last section Bobby Kennedy is still alive, and the Arabs and Jews love one another in Palestine. Maybe a little prophetic there? The book is resolved in the imagination.
      So put fiction, poetry, the arts in general on the same standing as other ways of gaining knowledge. If fiction or painting or any of the arts don't give you some access to knowledge, some increased understanding, some expansion of your comprehension of experience, then it's a useless game. I'm not interested. But this is what we expect of all the other disciplines. That's the test we apply, that ultimate test of usefulness to the culture. That's what we apply to philosophy. When a philosopher is grappling with epistemology, it's a serious pursuit, because it has to do with the way we can understand our experience. I think we need to put the same requirements, and give the same test, to the arts. On that basis, if you apply that standard, almost all of what is now known as "Quality Lit" -- contemporary I mean, not the Canon -- "Quality Fiction" especially, just crumbles to dust. There's nothing there.


JF: You concede language is referential and representational. You also speak of language as politics. In "Politics of Language," one of the essays in IN FORM: Digressions on the Act of Fiction, you speak of language as codes of authority, on the one hand, and, on the other, as subversive thrusts against those codes, trying to break them up.

RS: Well, I think it's really a question of introducing a mode of thought that's more independent. Reader Liberation, as I say. Teaching the reader to read in ways that are not dictated, but which in fact are calculated to release the reader's own thought processes and make the reader think for him- or herself.
      You know, this is directly related to what [William S.] Burroughs talks about when he says, "Cut the word lines." Cut the lines of authority that are implicit in most of what gets published. And it is an authority, it's written by stooges of the Establishment, enforced by money and distribution, and promotion. It's absurd to think that the kind of writing that's pumped out of the conglomerate international publishing industry would not have an intellectual -- or I should say non-intellectual -- orientation, basically a political orientation. But it's a political orientation that surrounds us so much -- i.e. free market, capitalism -- that it's invisible. It's so omnipresent it's like the force of gravity. And publishing is also, for writers, invisible as an influence in their writing, but is also like the force of gravity. Everything is pulled toward money, at bottom. And the only way to pull against that is by cutting those lines of authority that are plugged into the money machine. One of the ways of doing it is to write in different ways so that readers can get out of the molds that are prepared for them.
      I mean I think that the control of the media in this country is - - not only in this country, what am I saying! the Western world, worldwide -- is one of the major forces for the move toward the Right now. It's no accident that, all of a sudden, all the publishing companies, the newspapers, the magazines are owned by three or four different conglomerates. And you can even get it down to people in some cases: Si Newhouse, Rupert Murdoch, and what's that guy, "Good to the Last Drop?"

JF: Maxwell?

RS: Maxwell. Before he jumped off the boat, was another one. The English Pearson Company, which owns Viking Penguin and ten million other things. A few German companies, which own American companies as well. How can anybody say this is not a major, major influence on politics at the moment? These people are totally invulnerable from the point of view of direct confrontation. There's just no countervailing power. The only thing you can think of at that level is there might be a technological revolution that will shake them. We have this hope, for a while, for the Internet. That's still up for grabs. So it may well have some kind of modifying and mitigating influence. Anyway, from the point of view of a writer, from my point of view, I see one of the ways of undermining that is to break the molds that are set by money.

JF: You break them for yourself as self-expression. As communication, if there are no readers -- of course, some people read. But let's say it's just a handful of people, like the motto of Black Ice magazine is "Not For Everyone." But if a writer writes, and even gets published, say by FC2, but nobody reads him, how does that cut the word lines?

RS: Well, you always start with small groups of people. And it's better, I think, to have a real effect like that on three people than have a hypnotic kind of masturbatory effect, which, basically, nullifies and numbs the intelligence of any number of readers. It doesn't make any difference in that case. Suppose I had a best-seller, so what? If I had a best- seller on my own terms, which is unimaginable, in my lifetime, that would be significant. Remember the Henry James story about this writer, who's a terrific writer, and every book he thinks, "This one is going to be the best-seller," and it always turns out to be a poor seller but a great book? I have a lot of friends like that. [Laughing] My friend Steve Katz always says, "I'm specifically writing a best-seller. This is going to be my best-seller." But he can't do it because he's not that kind of writer. Of course, you never can tell, and he may prove me wrong. I hope so.
      Anyway, let's suppose there are some writers who probably could do that, and some writers who have done it. Take my friend Mark Leyner, for example, who was started off by the Fiction Collective. (We don't call it Fiction Collective any more. Everybody gets mad at me when I say Fiction Collective, it's FC2- Black Ice Books.) Anyway, he was started off by FC2 -- since Collective sounds so dated is the problem -- and he actually ran the Collective, he was one of the directors for about six years. He gradually accommodated himself, when he was picked up by Crown Books. The first thing they said was, "Will you punctuate?" His second book, which was his first one with Crown--.

JF: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist? [New York: Crown/Harmony Books, 1990.]

RS: Yeah. It was going to be a Fiction Collective book, and we let it go when Crown picked it up. Our version, I think, had no punctuation. According to Mark, Crown said, "Will you punctuate?" He said, "O.K., I'll punctuate." That really struck a note for me, because I remember, and I'm not trying to oppose myself to Leyner, he's a friend of mine, it's just that there are different kinds of writers and different kinds of careers. I was in the first issue of a fiction magazine published by an editor named Solotaroff.

JF: Ted Solotaroff, New American Review? A piece from Up.

RS: Yeah, New American Review, a piece from Up. Solotaroff is a good editor, right? he's not a sleaze-bag editor. But I went to talk to him, he said, "I want to talk to you about the story." And he wanted me to change the punctuation. [Laughs] And we argued and talked and he was a very reasonable guy, and the reason he gave me was, which made me feel sorry for him, he said: "Look, this is the first issue of this magazine, I'm trying to get it off the ground. If I don't have the correct punctuation, people will think I'm stupid." So I said, "O.K., change the punctuation." Then I had a sleepless night, and I called him up in the morning, I said, "Look, I changed my mind, I can't change the punctuation." [Laughing] So he didn't change the punctuation, but he never would touch me again as a writer. [Laughter]
      Leyner changed the punctuation. But that was just the beginning. Then he came to me and he said, "They're pushing me as a cult writer, Ron. I don't have a cult. But now that they're saying I have a cult, I'm getting a cult." [Laughter]
      And then the next thing was, "Well, yeah, I'm trying to be more comic. I'm trying to, specifically, be funny because people like it better." And then not long ago he said, "Well, you know, I'm not trying to be a great writer any more, I just want to do what's amusing." And he can do that, but the writing is already different from what it was in the beginning. It's good, but it's a different kind of thing. He's become what you would call, instead of a novelist, a humorist, I think. Which is fine.
      But the point is, once you accommodate to that market, you have a completely different effect. You help support the market. At this point it's hard to imagine somebody who could be a real seller, who's also undercutting the market. But anything is possible, so some genius will probably come up with that.
      The next writer who's going to come up from the ranks, I think, is Steve Dixon. It's always puzzled me -- Steve Dixon's a terrific writer, and we've pushed him a lot in American Book Review because of that, and because he's been totally ignored. Steve Dixon publishes about fifty stories a year, and three novels a year, something like that. Very prolific. He gets published all over the place, but in tiny, tiny places. Habitually he was getting published in presses much smaller than FC2, if you can believe. And I was always wondering, you know, this guy is not so far from mainstream writing, it's just that the pace is a little different. It's very good, it's much better than mainstream writing. And I think that with Dixon, there's really something there.
      Basically, I think, the publishing industry does not like writing where there's something there. They like vacuums better because vacuums are easier to sell, you can put any kind of label on them. So I think probably the fact that he was a substantial writer held him back a little bit. Now he's, I think, been recommended for a second National Book Award, I predict his writing's going to take off, even commercially. But he was always fairly close to that, with a twist. I mean the guy is probably 55 now, so he's had this long career of shadowing the commercial.
      Another example is Burroughs. Burroughs is now published by, what? Random House or Knopf or some big publisher, I think it's Viking. Anyway he's got a big contract; he might make enough money to support him. Although his friends tell me he's stopped writing because he discovered he can make more money as a painter. What he does, he smears paint on canvas, then he shoots it. [Laughter] He says, "I can sell one painting for much more money than I ever made on a book!" So they say he's painting and not writing. Anyway he does have this contract which I presume he'll fulfill.

JF: And he does Nike commercials.

RS: And he does Nike commercials. You know, I think writers should be able to make money, but, what the hell, it's a matter of personal taste. But the fact is that Burroughs himself has become an icon. It's not Burroughs writing any more, it's Burroughs the Character. He had a bit part in some movie I saw the other day.

JF: Drugstore Cowboy.

RS: Yeah. And it was foolish. I mean he wasn't foolish, he was good, he was playing Burroughs. But it was foolish to have him in the movie, I thought. It was just a kind of shtick.
      But Burroughs' influential books were the first three or four books. They had enormous impact. They had a lot of impact on me. Since then his writing has been getting progressively tamer. The Cities of the Red Night, I think, is a very mediocre kind of book. I know there are people who would disagree with me. But it's much more conventional than his earlier books. So -- Burroughs is now around 80, so maybe when I'm 80, people will be saying the same thing about me, I hope so. [Laughing] "That guy's making lots of money!" Good luck. I should live so long.


JF: One last question about language. In 98.6, especially, but also in Doggy Bag, you have the Ron character, or his surrogates, looking for a "Secret Language" -- in 98.6 called "BJORSQ" -- which he finds more and more clues to but never quite finds the Rossetta Stone. What are you driving at?

RS: Well, they've discovered the Secret Language. It's the genetic code, which is called Gnomic. Apparently they're applying textual analysis to the genetic code. I don't know with what success. I mention it in Handwriting on the Wall. Another interventive, interactive bit, I say "Check out the New York Times!" [New York Times, July 9, 1991, page C1.] But I find it fascinating and the techniques they discovered the genetic code uses are really much like Joyce's techniques in Finnegans Wake. Like puns. My whole thing about the Secret Language is a language that will connect body and mind, or body and spirit. And that seems to be the key.


JF: Speaking of body and spirit, let's jump right into sado-masochism.

RS: Splash! Into the mud!

JF: From 98.6 until even the story you've given us, "life/art"--.

RS: Let me say something about sado-masochism. This is something that I've been hit with ever since I started publishing, and especially with 98.6. I'll tell you a little anecdote. First of all, you have to realize I have a bad reputation. From the beginning, from my first books. We were talking about this before. When I published the Wallace Stevens book, I was the darling of the New York Review of Books. Then when Up came out and The Death of the Novel, everything turned over. I was really surprised, and somewhat flattered, at the violence of the reaction -- on the basis of form -- to those books. It wasn't the politics, because my politics of that time were approximately the same as the New York Review of Books, which was much more radical, "How to Build a Bomb," that kind of stuff. But I was accused by the incipient neocons of trying to dismantle the whole tradition of Western Humanism. I mean I was really very flattered, I hadn't thought I was doing that. I probably got a big head from that. But the thing is -- I didn't understand until much later what was going on. It's like the E.D. Hirsch, the Great Books tradition, that whole debate, the "Something of the American Mind," what is that?

Carlo P.: The Closing of the American Mind.

RS: The Closing of the American Mind.

Carlo P.: Like, when was it ever open?

RS: Right, yeah. But these people have got a huge stake attached to the forms of grammar, the forms of fiction, the forms of this and that, because it's identified with the Anglo- American tradition. Not even the Euro-, not even the Western, but the Anglo-American tradition. When you screw around with these, especially if you change the look of the page, God forbid, they go crazy. They don't care what the look of the page is, I mean, not really, because they can't read. If they were able to read, they wouldn't have this kind of reaction. But what they see is somebody's fiddling with the Canon, you know. This was a debate that didn't really come out into the open until about ten years ago.
      That's point number one about sado-masochism. There are people who can't read. What especially they can't do, they can'tseparate what is represented from what the author might happen to think. They miss the whole sense of dramatic irony that's part of any kind of fiction that's worth anything. You always find some kind of irony at some level, I think. (I don't want to go back to the New Criticism, because I don't like that kind of irony. I don't want to get into that discussion right now.) But the point is, they confused certain things, especially in 98.6, with my particular point of view. Whereas 98.6 was specifically an investigation into what's going on with sado-masochism in American culture. My theory was, I identify it with the displacement of power.

JF: Just to be clear: when you say sado-masochism, you mean, essentially, one dominates, the other submits, then they change roles?

RS: Yeah, that's what it is. And people find it very sexy.
      The anecdote I was going to tell was that I met this guy at a cocktail party that I crashed, because it was a literary cocktail party, and I don't usually get invited to those, except when I'm an official member of something or other. And I met this guy, who started talking to me and asking me searching questions about 98.6 and sado-masochism and so on. And at the end of a half-hour he looked really illuminated and enlightened. And I said, "Why are you asking all these questions?" He said, "Well, I just wrote this book about the American novel. I just wrote this long piece about you, criticizing you for sado-masochism. And if I had known then what I know now, my whole tack would have changed." So I said, "Why don't you go change it?" He said, "I can't. It's already in proofs." [Laughter] That was Frederick Karl, who wrote this big history of American fiction since World War II.
      So that's the story with sado-masochism.
      In a certain way I think I was ahead of the game, because there's a lot of that in Death of the Novel. But certainly by the early '70's, mid-'70's I was doing this kind of analysis. And it was really pre-Punk. I mean, it wasn't, maybe, quite pre-Susan Sontag -- and how come Susan Sontag is never criticized for the strange sexual implications of her work? Is it because she's the darling of the Establishment and I'm not? [Laughter]
      I have nothing against Susan Sontag, I think she's a good writer, a good critic, better critic than fiction writer maybe, a good movie maker. But it was the Punks who caught this theme and began re-enacting it in their own experience. I don't think it came out of thin air. It came because they picked up this tone from the culture and embodied it.
      So you get the costumes. The Punks in England, who are reputedly the most ferocious, I meet some of these kids, they come to my house. And first of all they do a double-take, they know my books, especially they know Doggy Bag, with the picture [of a wolf-dog baring its fangs, from which hangs a green bag bearing a skull-and-crossbones]. So they do a double-take, because they think I'm 25 like them, or younger. [Laughing] And once they get over that, then I do a double-take, because I see behind the chains and the whips and the handcuffs and the pierced eyelids, that these are really sweet, clean-cut kids. Very clean. I remember an interesting debate from the '60's. Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg are on stage in front of a hostile audience, and somebody makes a remark about "dirty beatniks" in the audience. And Allen says, "When was the last time you took a shower. I bet I took a shower more recently than you took a shower!" [Laughs] I thought that was really brilliant. Anyway, so these are really clean- cut, nice, nice kids.
      I remember one of them invited me to a rave, and I said "O.K., I'll go as long as I don't have to use any drugs. Because I don't have time and I don't like drugs." And the kid says, "Well, you know, frankly, I don't take them either, because I don't have time." [Laughs] So there's something theatrical about this. There is a re-enactment, an embodiment of currents in the culture. You have to ask where it comes from. I think it comes from the misuse of power. When power becomes pervasive and filters through all levels of life, and it's the only value, then it's going to affect erotic life, because everything gets re-enacted in erotic life also.

JF: I think you've already answered the next question I was going to ask, which is: do you see this more as a symptom of what's wrong with the dominant society? Or is it more a rebellious reaction against, or is it both things, going back and forth?

RS: I think it's both things. It's an embodiment.


JF: You've said that as a writer you'd rather be a medium than a creator, "a (shaman-like) intermediary between the spiritual world, that is, the world of collective consciousness, and the world of the living." Andre Breton and his fellow Surrealists developed disciplines for inducing the dreamy state between waking and sleeping, which is where they wrote. In part I'm thinking of what you say in Doggy Bag about tuning in to the white noise, to what you ordinarily screen out when you focus on something. The flow of imagery and free association you display in a number of things, but especially in the "Fourteen" and "5 & 10" sections of The Endless Short Story -- when you're writing, in the old days at the typewriter or in front of the computer screen now, is there anything you do to attain that sort of negative capability to let the flow come through, and you behave more as a medium?

RS: I think negative capability is a key. I don't dislike all parts of Western Romantic tradition, and negative capability, Keats, was also picked up by the Beats, especially Kerouac. It's a very aggressive culture, so the aggression filters out a lot of stuff that you can retrieve by relaxing, being passive, and letting it come.
      However, as far as my own writing goes, I don't do anything particularly ritualistic. But I think I do go into something like a trance when I write. The first thing I learned is I can't will things when I'm writing. I remember when I was writing Up, a decisive moment in my stylistic development, I was typing along, I typed something, then I went back to cross it out, because I heard a little voice in my head, I literally heard this, that said, "You can't do that!" Because all my life people were telling me, especially with writing, "You can't do that! You can't do that!" So this voice in my head was saying, "You can't do that!" and I go back without thinking about it and I rewrite, and suddenly, for the first time, I thought: "Why can't I do that?" And I put it back in. And I think it was partly because I was reading Henry Miller, and Henry Miller is the guy who puts in the things that everybody else leaves out, and gets a lot of energy out of that. So, in a way, Miller was a decisive influence for me.
      So I've learned I can't really will things. I really just try to relax, and try to write, and I know that the way I feel has nothing to do with what's going to come out. I sit down at my desk, and I know from experience I feel I can't write shit today, I feel terrible, I'm creatively constipated, and I don't have enough time to do anything. And some of my best writing will come out of that, there's no telling ahead of time. And sometimes when you sit down, feeling really rarin' to go, nothing will come. I know that when I'm deep into my writing, the telephone rings, I can jump up and hit the ceiling.


JF: Let's talk about FC2. You were one of the founding members of the Fiction Collective in 1974, and you became a permanent director when it reorganized in 1988 as FC2. You had three books published by the Collective before you became a director [98.6, Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues, The Endless Short Story], and one since [Doggy Bag]. How does FC2 differ from commercial publishers? What reasons have commercial publishers given for rejecting any of your books?

RS: Because they supposedly don't make money, which is not exactly the case. You never know till you try. But I think the only function of the publishing industry, according to its own proclamations, is not simply to make money; it's supposed to be a culture industry. So they should pay a little bit of attention to that. In any case, I guess they don't think I make enough money. I don't think I've had a fair market test, however. [Laughing]
      At FC2, on the contrary, we publish anything we think is good, that's also in that rival tradition. It's really broader than that. It's really what's beyond the spectrum of the publishing industry. What's beyond the spectrum of the publishing industry is very surprising. For example, we publish a writer, and she's a director also, called Cris Mazza. She can't get published by the commercial publishers. Why is mysterious. Like Steve Dixon, she's very close to being a conventional writer, only a little better and a little different. I think her books would really have a wide audience. But apparently it's just a little too far beyond the spectrum.
      And also there's a kind of ideological narrowness. I remember I tried to get her latched onto my then-agent. She didn't have an agent. She sent in her manuscript, the agent said she wouldn't take her on because she didn't like the way Cris portrayed women. She said the women always seemed to be too oppressed. I won't mention names, but my agent had strong feminist tendencies. So Cris comes back to me very confused, she says, "Look, I mean, women are somewhat oppressed! What's she got against this?" [Laughing] A kind of narrowness intellectually there, I guess, that accrues to people who spend all their time making money. But we need those people, because we're not too good at it ourselves, so I don't put them down. But it's just that the whole center of gravity is money. That's basically what it is.


JF: You've mentioned some writers here, but what other writers do you find exploring language and experience as you do?

RS: The way I do? Nobody. [Laughing] I'm not a good person to ask about other writers.

JF: What other writers do you read, what writers feed you?

RS: Well I was about to say, for the last ten years I've been reading almost nothing but manuscripts. Actually that's not quite true, because for the three years ending this year, happily, I was on the National Book Critics Circle Board, which reads huge numbers of books. It's supposed to read everything that comes out that's worth reading. In fiction I found that there wasn't very much there, and everybody said that. In fact last year I led a mini-rebellion, the point of which was to get them to not award a prize for fiction, all the books were so terrible. And the spectrum's getting narrower and narrower. They finally awarded a prize to a pseudo-Victorian novel, which wasn't even American Victorian, it was English Victorian, written by a Canadian writer who had one foot in the United States as far as official citizenship goes. I forget her name, and I think everybody will in about six months.
      But there are some good writers. One, who gets published by tiny, tiny, tiny presses, is a guy named Stephen Paul Martin. Nobody's heard of him, but he's very good. Another is Carol Maso, who just got appointed head of the Brown Creative Writing Program. Another is Rikki Ducornet, who last year won a Lannan, and was a nominee two years ago in the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She's a really good writer. These are all younger generation. As is Mark Amerika, my co-conspirator. In my generation, Steve Katz, Raymond Federman, [Robert] Coover of course. I can't say that I'm influenced by anybody any more, because I'm already so off on my own track.
      But you know who I'm most influenced by? I find most interesting to me as a writer, that I get ideas from, is surprisingly the young writers whose manuscripts come into Black Ice Magazine. Some of them are very strong. I don't know if they can continue their careers, sometimes they're flashes in the pan. But they have very interesting takes on things, and very interesting formal ideas. There are some of those in McCaffery's anthology [After Yesterday's Crash], a lot in the FC2 Avant-Pop anthology [Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation]. So it's those younger writers that are, personally, very stimulating to me.

JF: Are you getting tired?

RS: I got tired an hour ago. [Laughs] It's all right, keep going. I'd like to have a beer to drink.


JF: Did you meet any writer in China this past summer who has done with Chinese written characters what you have done with words?

RS: I don't know what the contemporary writers do; I don't think so. I met some of them. It was too much like being at work and I was on vacation. But I got very interested in traditional Chinese calligraphy because it specifically takes advantage of the graphic side of text. I bought some while I was over there.
      This reminds me to tell you what static stories are. Static stories [like "life/art"] are stories that specifically use the graphics of the text rather than the narrative progression as their base. I got started when somebody was having a photography show. She asked me if I would write some material for the photographs, and stick it on the wall, sort of like captions, I guess. But what happened was I started writing all over the wall! I got these brushes, and different colored paints, and magic markers, and I did this incredible thing all over this large gallery. I did some huge story, up and down and around the photos; and this woman got very sore, I think, because this story was eclipsing her show. She would never give me pictures of it, even though she was a photographer and she took lots of pictures. So I have no record.
      So that was writing that took advantage of the graphic side; it was writing on the wall. I did another one in some college in Upstate New York, I think it was last year. This is the first time I tried to do it on the page; and the reason I did it was because I figured I should exploit the computer screen, which is not yet paper and which offers a lot of fluidity as to how you can compose. The result is I use a lot of things that I would use in a different way in a narrative. I let the look of the graphics take over a lot of the communication.

JF: Have you written a number of these things?

RS: This is the third one. But now I'm getting fond of it and I'm thinking of doing a series of them, like The Endless Short Story, for a volume. Some combination of that and the leaving things out bit, the interactive stuff. [As in parts of The Endless Short Story and "the burial of count orgasm" in Doggy Bag.] They really seem to go together, because of the spacing.


JF: I'll wrap up with one last question. This one is more specifically about hypertext and computers. You call the Doggy Bag stories hyperfictions. StorySpace is the software, manufactured by EastGate Systems, that Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, Carolyn Guyer and other hypertext fiction writers play around with. Have you ever played around with it?

RS: No, I've never done real hypertext. Hyperfiction is another thing. I think the coinage is Coover's. I don't use it for that, for computer work.

JF: Have you read Joyce's Afternoon, or Moulthrop's Victory Garden, or any of those things?

RS: No. I'd like to. Right now I have on disk an English magazine that publishes that kind of thing. But you need more powerful equipment than I have to get into that and open it up. So I guess I have to get some new equipment before I start doing that. I wouldn't say that the medium is exaggerated in importance, though; people may do very good things in it. But it is another medium.
      For example, in the story I gave you ["life/art"], in the square brackets I have notations, "Picture of This," "Picture of That." This is directly from the influence of hypertext kind of stuff, because they do include pictures. But when I get it on my program, it comes through "Graphic Here," something like that, because my computer can't pick up graphics, it's not strong enough. But I like it that way, because it's still writing. In other words, if I say "Picture of Something," it's still addressing the imagination in -- how can I put it? -- in a non- specific way. Whereas a picture is much more specific. It may be worth ten thousand words, but it's always the same ten thousand words. Whereas if it stayed in your head like writing, it can be any thousand words. It can be two thousand words, it can be one word.
      Now I'm all for integrating graphics; I think it's an undervalued dimension of writing. Just like Beatniks brought in the tradition of the oral, that had been forgotten for a long time in our tradition. I think the look of print on page is the defining fact in our culture. That's why, if you start tampering with it, the neocons get so excited. Because the look of the page is very important. If you question, as you do if you start playing around with it, the look of the page, that's bringing out a very important side of writing that's been suppressed, except in poetry.
      Poetry, in my opinion, in our tradition, is basically print on page, but with a certain flexibility to it. It's how the print looks on the page, it's not oral any more, despite the reading circuit. I think you can see that in the whole Black Mountain school, through [Charles] Olson and [William Carlos] Williams, even though they thought they were doing something else.
      Anyway, you can play with print on page, and you should play with print on page, but print on page is going to remain basic. Always there are new media being added. Performance is the latest. I have nothing against performance, I just don't think it replaces ordinary drama. It's its own thing. And maybe somebody will make a good thing out of skywriting, I don't know. They're just different things.
      But I'm convinced that writing is going to remain. We're a writing-oriented culture, period. I don't think it's going to change, ever, unless the culture changes in ways that are really, I think, improbable, unless we become some other culture entirely. I can't even begin to think of a culture in which the electronic version is the authoritative version; I can't quite imagine what that would be like, or that it's worth thinking about.
      Writing will retain the authority, in my opinion, no matter how much electronics gets off the ground. Hard copy will be the authoritative copy. We'll always need a hard copy backing up the electronic text. So the bookkeepers will still run the culture. And I think that's a good thing. I think writing allows more freedom.

"Down as Up, Out as In: Ron Sukenick Remembers Ron Sukenick" can be found in FlashPøint #8.

BJORSQ Revived,
a review of Ronald Sukenick's 98.6 and Matthew Roberson's update/homage, 1998.6,
appears in FlashPøint #6.