by Shari Beck
Commercial presses: “literature defined by a committee, books designed by cereal packagers, marketed by used-car salesmen…and ruled or overruled by accountants”
A Brief History
The Fiction Collective arose in 1974 as a response to the increasing commercialism of large presses. Concerned that talent was being sacrificed for sales, Jonathan Baumbach, Peter Spielberg, Mark Mirsky, Steve Katz, and Ronald Sukenick founded a small press to publish work “considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu.”
The press was not well-received by members of that commercial milieu, who objected to the Collection’s charge that they published works of questionable literary value. But according to the FC2 website, it was this “anger—by writers, editors and publishers—that gave the Fiction Collective a sense of credibility.” Indeed, the press’s longevity seems to indicate it took its mission to heart.
And while the large presses looked unfavorably on the Collective, many, including the New Republic and the American Poetry Review praised the early works it published.
FC2’s longevity can be attributed, in part, to its unique structure. The press functions as a cooperative in which authors review and edit manuscripts, solicit new work, and market existing books. This cost-saving measure also establishes a shared investment among authors. Collective members find a personal attachment to each new work and have more of a stake in the press as a whole. In addition, the process of writing comes together with the process of production so that the latter is less cereal packaging, more integrated component of the book.
By the 1980s, the Collective had grown to over forty members, which it found difficult to sustain without a comprehensive leadership structure. Thus, in 1989, the Fiction Collective became the Fiction Collective 2, managed by a board of directors who oversaw the division of labor among Collective members.
Since then, one of the press’s main concerns has been the availability of funds, often diminished during the 1980s and 1990s because of political opposition. Notably, a member of the House of Representatives, Peter Hoekstra, was an outspoken opponent of the press. Hoekstra objected in particular to a scene in the anthology Chick-Lit 2 that depicted two women having sexual relations.
Continued financial issues have plagued the press, and in 2008, FC2 was unable to continue its liaison with the University of Florida, which had supplied funding for FC2’s executive director. The press continues to work with the University of Alabama, who handles the physical aspects of the book—printing, distribution, etc. While the university provides in-kind grants to FC2, the press does not receive any proceeds from the sales of their books. Rather, those funds are given to the university to be used at Alabama’s discretion.
Despite these struggles, the press continues to grow, and to produce works that buck the confines of formulaic, mainstream fiction. In particular, the press has begun to seek younger authors, who bring new conceptions of fiction to the press. Such authors include Joseph Cardinale (The Size of the Universe), Joanna Ruocco (Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith – A Diptych), Lucy Corin (Everyday Psychokillers), and Sara Greenslit (As If a Bird Flew by Me).
In its efforts to seek out new authors, FC2 holds two annual contests, the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize and the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.
The Ronald Sukenick prize is awarded to new and upcoming authors. According to Lance Olsen, one result of the prize has been “the discovery of a diverse group of authors exploring diverse approaches to innovation, which is to say this contest serves as a continuous replenishment of energy and aesthetics for FC2.”
The Doctorow Prize is an award of $15,000, given to an author who has published at least three books, the intent being to help such authors continue their work beyond publication with FC2.
The contests broaden FC2’s pool of potential publications, and, according to Olsen, they “are an amazingly effective way to continuously reenergize the press. They keep us fresh, remind us and everyone else that the one constant about FC2 is that nothing is constant.”
While FC2 does not have a specific aesthetic (former acting publisher Jeffrey DeShell said that this would needlessly limit FC2’s range of works; the only aesthetic is good fiction), most books do seem to have a sense of play. The books explore the boundaries of fiction by playing with language, structure, time, the act of writing itself—in the end to arrive at a reconstituted notion of narrative.
Take Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets. Organized around the months of a year, the book begins in September and runs through August before reversing itself, picking up the second half of each story as it runs backwards through the year. Questions of permanence, mis/understanding, and memory weave through the book, following characters as disparate as Dan Rather and Hieronymus Bosch.
Another example is Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, a chronicle of strange tales that include an entrée of human hair served at an upscale restaurant, a bitter penguin who drowns his ire in gin, ruminations on death, existence, and power prompted by a breakfast of cottage cheese. Though some of the tales stagnate in their attempt to reach the weirdness of the title, most are whimsical examinations of obscure yet everyday concerns, from relationships to fears of death.
Two further examples: Lidia Yuknavitch’s Real to Reel provides a sometimes humorous, sometimes deeply disturbing landscape of human relations, addiction, and abuse. One story presents an imagined episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with Keanu Reaves, whose stunning idiocy is countered by fleeting moments of brilliance. Another addresses a boxer’s struggle with heart disease, paralleling the beating of a man-shaped punching bag with the physical mechanisms of his heart.
And finally, Michael Martone by Michael Martone presents a catalog of contributor’s notes, the small blurbs on the backs of novels meant to encapsulate an author’s life. Each contributor’s note in the book presents a very different Michael Martone, raising questions about how an author creates his or her own persona. How much is that persona as fictional a literary character? How does the way in which an author presents herself change the way the work is received?