April 25th, 2014 / 10:00 am
Behind the Scenes & Presses

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. 

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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.

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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.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).

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  1. Richard Grayson

      From my diaries:

      Sunday, July 7, 1974

      I drove a few blocks down to Columbus Circle, to the First New York Book
      Fear at the Cultural Center. The exhibitors were from underground and alternative publishing houses and magazines (a lot of Third World, Women’s
      and Gay stuff). I gathered up a lot of flyers and pamphlets: places I can write to and submit material and maybe one day have a book published by.

      The Fiction Collective was there, but no one representing it was at their table, so I stole copies of two new books: Baumbach’s Reruns and Spielberg’s Twiddledum/Twaddledum.


      Thursday, October 10, 1974

      I told Baumbach about my diary and about my psychotherapy, and we had a good talk going. He gave me a manuscript to read for the Fiction Collective: a 300-page thing by a Brian Swann, some poet from Cooper Union.


      Saturday, October 12, 1974

      Unable to sleep because I felt lousy, at 11 PM, I took the car over to Flatlands and Ralph to get the Sunday New York Times from the kids who sell it on the corner.

      The Book Review reviewed the first three novels from the Fiction Collective. They said Baumbach’s book was far and away the best of the three, but they said it could use more character and plot development. What’s he supposed to do, rewrite it and hand it in again to the class? No, that’s what I do.


      Thursday, October 31, 1974

      After work today, I went to BC, catching up with Josh. We went to Baumbach’s office and I turned in the Brian Swann manuscript (I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it) and he gave me another one, to report on for the Fiction Collective.


      Thursday, November 7, 1974

      Baumbach and I talked about the favorable article about the Fiction Collective in this week’s Newsweek, which highly praised his novel.


      Thursday, February 13, 1975

      There was an article on the Fiction Collective in last evening’s Post accompanied by a photo of Baumbach and Spielberg with their books. Spielberg was smiling while Baumbach merely looked uncomfortable because of the photographer’s idea of posing them “cutely.”


      Monday, May 26, 1975

      This morning I drove into Manhattan and went to the old U.S. Customs House (a
      magnificent building) to the Second N.Y. Book Fair.

      The Fiction Collective had a table, but the coordinator of it, Peggy Humphreys,
      would be there on Wednesday.

      Moving from table to table, I felt surrounded by kindred spirits: poets, fiction
      writers, literary people. (It probably was a great place to get laid; various
      black-stockinged girls with granny glasses and long dresses were similarly
      moseying along.)

      I came across the New Writers table and introduced myself to the editors, Connie Glickman and Miriam Easton (both pleasant, Jewish and 40ish),
      whom I’ve corresponded with.

      They showed me Volume 2, Number 3 of New Writers with my story in it; I
      decided to buy a couple of copies even though they said they’d just mailed my
      contributor’s copies out to me.


      Monday, June 9, 1975

      Mom came into my room this afternoon, showing me a piece in Playboy about
      the Fiction Collective; it impressed her, if not me.


      Friday, June 27, 1975

      A million things kept running through my mind. I thought of the Village Voice’s review of the Fiction Collective’s new books and their quote, “Not even the Fiction Collective always errs. . . ”

      Baumbach, Spielberg and Company have such a holier-than-thou attitude, as if, to quote the New York Times reviewer, they were “the last of the beleaguered experimentalists” (I used that line in my last story).

      I would rather reach more people than snobbishly disdain the masses. As the Voice critic stated, if you’re reading James Joyce, the difficulty is well worth it, but feebler talents like me would do better to appease the reader with some plot, characterization and continuity if they don’t want their books to be junked instantly.

      Baumbach can make fun of the late Jacqueline Susann in a magazine article, but who in the end has the last laugh? Millions of people know or have read Susann but I doubt if .01% of them have ever heard of Baumbach.

      His smugness, and Spielberg’s, raises my hackles (to use a quaint cliché). I’d rather write a daytime serial and know how many people were hearing my words than write 100 Fiction Collective books.


  2. A D Jameson

      It does my heart so good to see this post. Thank you, Rachel and Lance, for putting it up.

      I worked for FC2 between 2000–1. Well, I worked at ISU’s Unit for Contemporary Literature, where I assisted the great and wonderful Tara Reeser in the production of some FC2 books, namely Raymond Federman’s Aunt Rachel’s Fur and Cris Mazza’s Girl Beside Him. I was also the layout editor for American Book Review at that time (a related gig). Honestly, though, I didn’t do much besides make mistakes (which Tara surreptitiously corrected, god bless her).

      I didn’t really do anything, but it was my honor to be involved in any way. I applied to ISU because I spent the late 90s reading FC2 books and Dalkey books; both changed my life. I still vividly remember emailing Curtis White on a rainy day in 1999, asking him whether I should apply to the MA in writing at ISU; at the time, I was suffering through a horrible tech writing job in New Jersey. Curt’s honest encouragement led me to abandon a “respectable” career in the corporate sector and pursue the madness that is writing. I have never regretted it. (The company I worked for, Lucent Technologies, later went out of business.)

      In 2004, I made a pilgrimage to what was then FC2’s editorial office in Tallahassee, FL, on the occasion of the press’s 30th anniversary. Days later, Ronald Sukenick died. Soon after that, I met Yuriy Tarnawsky and Steve Katz at Sukenick’s memorial service in NYC. Both remain treasured friends. (At the moment, I’m looking forward to seeing Yuriy in May in Chicago.)

      I’m flattered to even be mentioned in this post (and can’t really remember writing that particular quote). All in all, I will never be able to summarize the many ways in which FC2 impacted my life, and made me the person and writer I am today. (Thanks are due to Jeffrey Nealon, a professor of mine at Penn State, for suggesting that I check out the press’s books in the first place. I walked into a bookstore in Philadelphia and bought all the FC2 titles I could find. That’s how I came across Yuriy’s Three Blondes and Death, and the In the Slipstream sampler.)

      Long live FC2! I’m hoping for another forty years, at the very least.

  3. A D Jameson

      Wow, Richard, thanks so much for posting this!

  4. Talking with Lance Olsen on FC2′s 40th Birthday | Paragraph Line

      […] Check out the interview here. […]