WHAT BOX? Talking with Lance Olsen on FC2’s 40th Birthday
Founded in 1974, FC2 is one of America’s best-known ongoing literary experiments and progressive art communities. In honor of FC2’s fortieth birthday, publisher Lance Olsen has generously answered the following questions about publishing, longevity, and innovation.
Rachel: What is FC2?
Lance: FC2—short for Fiction Collective Two—is a small, independent, not-for-profit press run by and for innovative authors. One of America’s best-known ongoing literary experiments and progressive art communities, for the last 40 years FC2 has dedicated itself to bringing out work too challenging or heterodox for the commercial milieu. Originally founded in 1974 as Fiction Collective by a handful of writers—Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and Jonathan Baumbach among them—FC2 has so far published more than 200 books by more than 100 authors.
Rachel: What does FC2 mean to you?
Lance: FC2 is an ongoing investigation into what innovative writing means—and that meaning is continuously in flux. One of the great joys for me about our editorial meetings, which take place once or twice in the fall, and once or twice in the spring, is that they make up an ongoing conversation about such troubled and troubling terms as “cutting-edge,” “artistically adventurous,” and “experimental.”
Those terms mean something else now than they did in, say, 1974; will mean something next Tuesday than they did last Monday; will mean something different to one person than to another—which is to say such terms are inherently unstable ones, open to ongoing modification, depending on who you are, where you are, what you’ve read, and so on. That is, they are terms always-already in-process.
By my lights, at the heart of them are a series of implied questions: what is narrative? what are its assumptions? what are its politics and social dynamics? its limits? how does narrative engage with the problematics of representation? identity? temporality? gender? genre? ideas of “literature” and “the literary”? authorship? readership and the act of reading in the twenty-first century?
In other words, perhaps a fruitful way of approaching a tentative definition of such narrativity—represented with respect to FC2 by such diverse authors as Lucy Corin and Brian Evenson, Cris Mazza and Amelia Gray, Michael Martone and Stephen Graham Jones, Matt Kirkpatrick and Samuel R. Delany, Michael Joyce and Clarence Major, Vanessa Place and Hilary Plum, Joanna Ruocco and Leslie Scalapino, Melanie Rae Thon and Yuriy Tarnawsky, Steve Katz and Mac Wellman, Diane Williams and Lidia Yuknavitch—might be to suggest it is the sort that includes a self-reflective awareness of and engagement with theoretical inquiry, concerns, and obsessions.
Rachel: You’ve said that the founders of the Fiction Collective never imagined the press lasting more than a few years, and yet, to everyone’s surprise, FC2 is now celebrating its fortieth year of publishing. Why do you think FC2 has survived for so long? Do you have any advice for young publishers with respect to longevity?
Lance: First, we honestly aren’t interested in making money. We’re interested in bringing out exceptional innovative work. It’s really that simple—and complicated. So as long as we can rub two pennies together, we’ll remain functioning.
Second, FC2 has survived as long as it has because its core modus operandi has been adaptation and literary activism.
Not too long ago I was talking to Noy Holland, one of our Board members, on the phone about some matters related to FC2, and I delighted aloud for a moment about how we’ve always been able to think outside the box.
“What box?” she asked.
That’s it exactly.
Rachel: How has your work with FC2 impacted the ways in which you think about writing, reading, and publishing?
Lance: I remember as an undergraduate coming by complete chance across my first Fiction Collective book, Ronald Sukenick’s amazing 98.6, in the library at the University of Wisconsin. I was sifting through stuff on the new-acquisitions cart and happened to pick up and begin to thumb through Sukenick’s novel, and everything skewed. In a very real way, I couldn’t write what I write now, read as I read, move through the publishing ecology I do, without FC2’s books and larger vision having been available. Without it I wouldn’t be this Lance Olsen, but another. It was one of the deepest, most humble satisfactions for me the evening Ron Sukenick contacted me and asked that I inherit his position as chair on the FC2 Board of Directors when his health began to fail in 2001.
Rachel: Do you agree with A.D. Jameson’s notion that “to take an artwork seriously, to take an artistic method or technique seriously, demands that we understand it in relation to its time”? (http://htmlgiant.flywheelsites.com/craft-notes/experimental-fiction-as-genre-and-as-principle-2/) And if so—if a text can position itself against the culture today, but potentially lose that positioning tomorrow—then what does this mean for FC2’s project?
Lance: Jameson’s is a very old idea, and a very important one, that simply (and not-so-simply) emphasizes a text’s relationship to its sociohistorical contexts along the lines we have been discussing. With regard to your second question, we should probably be careful not to frame the temporal issue along a binary axis. In other words, what I’m not suggesting is that a text that felt “innovative” in, for instance, the eighteenth or first century will necessarily have lost its “innovative” charge today. One need only think of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Petronius’s Satyricon, which for many still serve as touchstones of the experimental. My point is, rather, that the concept of the “innovative” isn’t one housing some utopian evolutionary impulse—you know, that somehow the “innovative” is progressing toward some sort of telos. Instead, the concept of the “innovative” is by its very being in the world one challenged and deferred for the reasons I cite above.
What does this mean for FC2’s project? It means—as with all such projects—that it had already failed before it was first conceptualized in 1973 (a year before its first books appeared), but failed in extraordinarily rich, provocative, and productive aesthetic/political ways.
We could say FC2 has been failing for 40 years and, if all goes well, it will to continue to fail for at least 40 more.
Rachel: Does FC2 think about the future and its own end? Will FC2’s project end?
Lance: Thinking about FC2’s expiration date is like thinking about your or my biological one. It’s going to happen. There’s no doubt, no wiggle room, no one to argue with. But the thing is: we never know in advance when or why. It may well happen in fifty years. It may well happen next Tuesday. Once one carries the hard knowledge of Mr. Blue-Eyed Death inside one, the problematic no longer becomes how or when one is going to die. Rather, it becomes how to live as fully, richly, and productively as possible before the knock arrives on the front door.
Lance Olsen is the author of twelve novels, one hypertext, five nonfiction works, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about innovative writing. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two and teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. With his wife, assemblage-artist and filmmaker Andi Olsen, he divides his time between Salt Lake City and the mountains of central Idaho.
Rachel Levy is currently a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Utah and co-editor of DREGINALD (www.dreginald.com).