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Ronald Sukenick Biography

Ronald Sukenick comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1932. Education: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, B.A. 1955; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, M.A. 1957, Ph.D. in English 1962. Career: Lecturer, Brandeis University, 1956-57, and Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1961-62; part-time teacher, 1963-66; assistant professor of English, City College, New York, 1966-67, and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1968-69; writer-in-residence, Cornell University, 1969-70, and University of California, Irvine, 1970-72. Since 1975 professor of English, and director of the Publications Center, University of Colorado, Boulder. Taught at Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, France, Fall 1979; Butler Professor of English, State University of New York, Buffalo, Spring 1981. Contributing editor, Fiction International, Canton, New York, 1970-84; chairman, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, 1975-77. Since 1974 founding member and co-director, Fiction Collective, New York; since 1977 founding publisher, American Book Review, New York; since 1989 editor, Black Ice, New York. Awards: Fulbright fellowship, 1958, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Faculty fellowship, 1982; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines award, for editing, 1985; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1988.



Up. New York, Dial Press, 1968.

Out. Chicago, Swallow Press, 1973.

98.6. New York, Fiction Collective, 1975.

Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues. New York, Fiction Collective, 1979.

Blown Away. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1986.

Doggy Bag. Boulder, Colorado, Black Ice, 1994.

Mosaic Man. Normal, Illionis, FC2, 1999.

Short Stories

The Death of the Novel and Other Stories. New York, Dial Press, 1969.

A Postcard from "The Endless Short Story" (single story). Austin, Texas, Cold Mountain Press, 1974.

The Endless Short Story. New York, Fiction Collective, 1986.

Uncollected Short Stories

"One Every Minute," in Carolina Quarterly (Chapel Hill, NorthCarolina), Spring 1961.

"A Long Way from Nowhere," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Fall1964.

"Extract from The Fortune Teller, " in Trema (Paris), no. 2, 1977.


Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure. New York, New York University Press, 1967.

In Form: Digressions Towards a Study of Composition. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Down and In: Life in the Underground. New York, Morrow, 1987.

Narralogues: Truth in Fiction. Albany, State University of NewYork, 2000.

Editor, with Curtis White, In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader. Normal, Illinois, FC2, 1999.


Critical Studies:

"Getting Real: Making It (Up) with Ronald Sukenick," in Chicago Review, Winter 1972, and "Persuasive Account: Working It Out with Ronald Sukenick," in Seeing Castaneda, edited by Daniel Noel, New York, Putnam, 1976, both by Jerome Klinkowitz; "Reading Out " by Melvin J. Friedman, in Fiction International 1 (Canton, New York), Fall 1973; "Imagination and Perception" (interview), in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers by Joe David Bellamy, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1974; "Tales of Fictive Power: Dreaming and Imagining in Ronald Sukenick's Postmodern Fiction" by Daniel Noel, in Boundary 2 (Binghamton, New York), Fall 1976; "Obscuring the Muse: The Mock-Autobiographies of Ronald Sukenick" by Timothy Dow Adams, in Critique (Atlanta), vol. 20, no. 1, 1978; "Way Out West: The Exploratory Fiction of Ronald Sukenick" by Alan Cheuse, in Itinerary Criticism 7 edited by Charles Crow, Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Press, 1978; The Novel as Performance: The Fiction of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman by Jerzy Kutnik, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

(1991) My fiction is not "experimental."

* * *

As the most representative example of the innovative writers who contributed to the transformation of both American fiction and its supporting culture, Ronald Sukenick has remained active for over three decades, not so much adapting to conditions as challenging and in some cases changing the literary, publishing, and academic worlds about him. As such, he suggests the activist role of his artistic generation; not content to be, like Ken Kesey, a seismograph of cultural shock and a barometer of radical change, Sukenick has undertaken a revolution himself, leading developments that have reformed the culture in and of which Americans write.

Like several key figures of the 1960s group of innovators, Sukenick earned a doctorate (in English from Brandeis University) and undertook a career as a university professor. His first book was a revision of his dissertation on the poet Wallace Stevens, and while not directly related to any theory or style of narrative does demonstrate Sukenick's affinity for writing that exercises imaginative control. Aware of how Stevens believed that "a fiction is not an ideological formulation of belief but a statement of a favorable rapport with reality," Sukenick began his own efforts as a writer by following this code for ordering reality: "not by imposing ideas on it but by discovering significant relations with it." The most significant section of Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure is collected in Sukenick's book of essays, In Form: Digressions Towards a Study of Composition, where it complements an aesthetic underlying the fictive art of an era.

Sukenick's first novel, Up, activates this imagination as the generating force for narrative. As a gesture toward suspending the suspension of disbelief, Sukenick names his narrator/protagonist "Ronald Sukenick" and has him doing many of the same things Sukenick did at the time: struggling to study and teach free of the inhibitions that had smothered academic life in the preceding age, working to complete a novel (titled Up), and trying to establish a rapport with the reality around him—a reality that includes the just-developing countercultural world of the New York's Lower East Side and the community of artists and hustlers who are his friends. Fantasy merits the same treatment as experience, and at one point Sukenick's protagonist teaches a lesson from Wallace Stevens to his class: that art is "the invention of reality" that seeks "a vital connection with the world that, to stay alive, must be constantly reinvented to correspond with our truest feelings." Up is a Bildungsroman of just such a struggle, and by the end, when the artist has come to maturity, the point is not to celebrate this status but to appreciate how it is achieved.

The Death of the Novel and Other Stories collects a novella (from which the volume takes its title) and five short stories, all of which suggest various strategies for such imaginative connection with the world. "The Death of the Novel" is famous for its opening paragraph, a statement that not only sums up critically the eclipse of realistic fiction but, as the protagonist's lecture notes, propels him into a narrative experience that proves each point. Equally significant are "Momentum" and "The Birds," two stories that propound Sukenick's belief, stated later in In Form, that fiction "is not about experience but is more experience." The test of such work, which another essay from In Form compares to the anthropological tales of Carlos Castaneda, is the degree to which the teller can present "a persuasive account." In league with how anthropologists understand the world, Sukenick argues that there is not one reality but only various accounts of it, the most convincing of which succeeds as the culture's model.

A cultural model for the revolutionary America of the late 1960s and early 1970s is provided in Sukenick's second novel, Out. Its structure draws on the vernacular American format of a cross-country journey with characters being formed and reshaped by their experiences along the way. Its East to West movement expresses both the historical settling of the Continent and the rhythm of increasing speed and opening up of space that the geography implies. To replicate this experience for the reader, Sukenick numbers his chapters backwards, starting with 10 and proceeding in the manner of a rocket-launch countdown; at the same time, each chapter reads more quickly, with chapter 10 offering 10-line blocks of print, chapter nine introducing a line of blank space for each nine lines of print, chapter eight adjusting the ratio to eight-to-two, and so forth until chapter one is rushing by with only one line of narrative for every nine of open space. Yet the novel, which has by now progressed to the near-vacancy of California, the virtual opposite of New York City's cluttered accumulation, has one more chapter: chapter zero, whose 10 lines of space and no lines of print at all send the reader spinning off into emptiness, much like the drag-racing cars in the James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause, that speed out over the cliff into the nothingness beyond.

From the mid-1970s onwards Sukenick has devoted much of his energy to organizational causes, a commitment that has both biographical and artistic consequences. As a full professor at the University of Colorado, he attracted several key writers as faculty, including Clarence Major and Steve Katz. For a time he directed the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, working for grant support of alternative publishing venues; at the same time he became one of the founders of The Fiction Collective, a collaborative venture in which writers would fund their books' publication and therefore retain control of all phases of production, distribution, and sales. Working for equal reform in the profession of English, Sukenick became a member of the executive council of the Modern Language Association. His greatest impact, however, has been as publisher of The American Book Review, a tabloid dedicated to covering books neglected by the commercial reviews. He also began editing the magazine Black Ice.

His own novels began reflecting this increased social awareness and offered models for both resisting control by others and initiating personal reform. 98.6, published in 1975, offers three models for society: an initial section which interpolates dreams interfacing ancient and postmodern worlds, a central narrative detailing the attempts of countercultural revolutionaries to establish a commune, and a third part devoted to a utopian venture in psychic consciousness called, with pun intended, "the state of Israel." One of the author's most comically exuberant novels, 98.6 nevertheless answers critics' objections that innovative fiction was ignoring social and moral issues. Though ending in an exceedingly up-beat manner, its central indictment of the 1960s generation for failing to produce an enduring model is compelling (the title refers to the body temperature being monitored as a woman from the commune miscarries the child meant to be this world's future).

Sukenick's later works play with elements from realistic fiction in the service of just such social commentary, but always in ways that reaffirm the primacy of the imagination as the creative force in any world. Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues takes its form from a blues/jazz narrative, the style of composition Sukenick favors as proceeding by improvisation and being fueled by its own compositional energy. Set in Paris, where Sukenick owns an apartment and lives for a portion of each year, it is reminiscent of Up in that its world is created by not just a community but a central intelligence coming to terms with the experience of its being. Blown Away draws similar energy from the Colorado-California life the author has lived in the decades since leaving New York. Here the focus is on how Hollywood seeks to produce the country's imagination, a power based on the willing suspension of disbelief Sukenick scorns as the undoing of art. If audiences yield control of their imaginations, he argues, others will do their imagining for them—which means they will have no effective experience of life. Blown Away creates a culture suffering from just such imaginative stasis. Antidotes are found in the author's second collection of short stories, a book that bears the optimistic title The Endless Short Story—endless because the model is that of creation itself, on the order of Simon Rodia and his Watts Towers, an assemblage whose essence consists in a state of continual building from the detritus of an otherwise dead culture. Such rebuildings take the form of what Sukenick calls "hyperfictions" in the novel 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." The counterforce to such stasis is to avoid rigidity by "getting your mojo working," something the hyperfiction of Doggy Bag enacts. 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.

Respect for the genius of creation and a curiosity about the ways in which it functions motivated Sukenick's writing of In Form: Digressions Toward a Study of Composition, his commentary on the nature of postmodern narrative art, and Down and In: Life in the Underground, an autobiographical account of Sukenick's fascination with the transformative styles of literary art initiated in Greenwich Village and the East Village during the 1950s and early 1960s. Behind both studies is the example of Henry Miller, who in Paris a quarter-century before had learned how to deny "official experience" and shape both his life and art according to a more imaginative model. Such has been the imperative for all of Sukenick's work, in literature and in the professions of English and publishing alike.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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