FC2's 40 Years of Brainbending

By Blake Butler

For almost 40 years now, the publishing group known as Fiction Collective has been a vital wild limb of new American literature. Founded in 1974 by a group of young, innovative writers including novelist Ronald Sukenick, as a backlash against “literature defined by a committee, books designed by cereal packagers, marketed by used-car salesmen... and ruled or overruled by accountants,” and later restructured as Fiction Collective 2 in 1989, Fiction Collective has published more than 200 works each of a wholly singular, innovative nature, spanning a breadth of work that constantly updates the possibilities of what can be done with the space between two covers.

Entirely non-profit, free of governmental support, run by a board of artists published by the Collective, dedicated to keeping all of their titles in print, and always producing content of a nature unlikely to be found anywhere else, you couldn’t really ask for more out of a literary institution—ethically or aesthetically. It’s a model for what the cutting edge of a house concerned with new fiction should be.  

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to keep up with what FC2 is publishing. Out of the nearly 50 books I’ve digested, it’s always the kind of work you will remember having read. Below is a short list of some of the highlights of that experience. 

The Book of Lazarus by Richard Grossman [1997]

Billed as the story of a collision between the Mafia and a weird gang of revolutionaries, The Book of Lazarus is a continually shifting display of the possibility of form and affect in storytelling. Besides its forward and linguistically engaging text, the book gathers weird handwritten crib notes, crude drawings, photography, hyper-shaped paragraphs, and verse to assemble an experience both tricky and spinning in how it works around the reader. “Unlike far too many American writers,” wrote William Vollmann, “Mr. Grossman is deeply interested in ideas—a failing which doubtless will impair his commercial career.”

Hogg by Samuel Delany [1995, re-released 2004]

Originally released on FC2’s Black Ice imprint, a sub-label dedicated to even more unusual writing than their regular press, Hogg is anomaly even among the usual spree of strangeness FC2 is known for. Essentially the story of a young kid sold into sexual slavery and the rapist truck driver he’s dragged around by, the novel is jarring in that it seems to aspire only to the level of a snuff film. It doesn’t seem to give a shit about literary theatrics or fresh language or anything except playing out one brutal reaming after another. It’s almost more revolting for how flat it flows than just how gross it can be, which is a pretty unusual achievement. Shit eating, dick cheese, nails through genitals, cross dressing, violent rednecks: truly an unafraid pig-pile that might challenge the most adventurous of readers.   

The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson [2004]

Probably my favorite story collection of all time, The Wavering Knife to me is a guidebook to possibilities of labyrinthine mystery in logic and style. Here Brian Evenson finds a way to somehow make the edges of a story seem to come out of the book and into the room, using a particular tone in description and image and voice to tell such stories as two men trapped in a house with an upper floor that is inexplicably off limits and a man describing to a jury why he made a questionable art installation out of his wife’s death. Eerie like Lynch and rich like Robbe-Grillet, you couldn’t ask for a more haunting gathering of ideas that make horror actually feel real.

La Medusa by Vanessa Place [2008]

Maybe the most massive of all books produced by FC2, and certainly overflowing with styles and ideas, La Medusa is the kind of book I keep finding myself coming back to at random just to open up and look at what’s going on inside. Assembled from a collage of voices and forms around Los Angeles, each rendered in whip-smart and constantly surprising language, it’s kind of like a Ulysses for the 00s, though in its own day involving what seems a much wider sprawl of textures and tones and characters that works on the reader’s head as tools. Vanessa Place is the kind of writer who could write about a flat white dot and make you go whoa, though here the stage is wide as a vibrating city full of cops and pagans and ice cream vendors and rappers and the dead.

Impotent by Matthew Roberson [2009]

Another story collection that pushes the level of what can be done with text, Impotent manipulates drug terminology and markets language into surprisingly emotional stories about faceless humans addicted to prescription drugs, including Ambien, Oxycodone, Paxil, and Nicotine. Roberson is a great example of a writer who seems interested in exploring new entrances into how a story can be told, inventing his own narrative devices while also staying tied to the idea of people. Impotent has a weird boiled-down manic energy behind its well-spaced out lines, and seems to elevate the idea of a series of stories into a kind of phenomenon.

Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith by Joanna Ruocco [2012]

A winner of FC2’s annual Innovative Fiction Prize, Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith is a pair of magical novellas, surprising in how much strange space they carry in a deceitfully spare lyrical style. Kind of like Beckett retelling Aesopian legends about old strange mansions and frustrated blacksmiths, but drawn out in a tone that is clearly Ruocco’s own, this pair is great evidence of how much freshness and fear and tragedy can be packed into what seems the oldest mode of storytelling forms, and with sentences that change and mutate the modern current along the way.

Other Books To Check Out:

The Endless Short Story by Ronald Sukenick (from the original FC)

The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? by Cris Mazza

The Bird Is Gone by Stephen Graham Jones

Real to Reel by Lidia Yuknavitch

Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls by Lucy Corin

What Begins With Bird by Noy Holland

The Book of Portraiture by Steve Tomasula

Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray

Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen

Light Without Heat by Matthew Kirkpatrick

@blakebulter

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