Turning On

An Electronic Conversation with Ron Sukenick

by Mark Amerika

Ron Sukenick is a Co-Director of Fiction Collective Two, a small press that will be celebrating its 20th year of publishing innovative fiction this year. Sukenick has a new book out called Doggy Bag, part of the new Black Ice Books alternative trade paperback series that was launched last year, and I recently sent him an electronic-mail message to see if he'd be interested in doing this interview. He suggested that we take advantage of the new media and conduct the dialogue over the Net. I started by asking him about the new book:

Q
You call your new book, Doggy Bag, a collection of hyperfictions. What are hyperfictions?
 
A
Hyperfiction is fiction plus hype. All literary labels are hype. On another level--subhype--hyperfiction is the fixed print equivalent to the computer's hypertext--hyperfiction is interactive and intercuts sources, styles, genres. Hyperfiction is the sequel to surfiction. Hyperfiction is the scraps from the table of the culture feast that you bring home in your avant-pop DOGGY BAG.
 
Q
So you're saying that hyperfiction is the sequel to surfiction. When I hear the word surfiction, I think of surrealism and when I hear the word hyperfiction I think of the hyperreal or hyped-up reality. What we're talking about is the interfacing of reality and fiction. But who's reality? And why fiction?
 
A
The point of hyperfiction is to hype up reality--not to phony it up, but to make it more intense, more inclusive and more responsive to the needs of the spirit. This is more akin to the function of "art" in a "primitive culture," where it is considered to be instrumental to having an effect on reality (curses, blessings, healings, prophecies) rather than as an end in itself. Euroamerican art is considered to be an end-in-itself, an elitist point of view that results in the imprisonment of art in cultural zoos known as museums and universities.
 
Q
It sounds as if you're saying writing can be a kind of shamanistic practice. In fact, shamanism as a way of "conducting" one's creative life seems to be at the heart of a number of your characters, not the least of which would be Ronald Sukenick. Considering that we're now caught up in the era of multi-national publishing conglomerates, how does a contemporary writer maintain that intense connection with his/her practice so as to feed the needs of the spirit?
A
Do it in the morning, do it at night, do it while you're reading, do it while you write. I.e., keep writing your narrative while doing other things, so as to include them; include the other things in your narrative while you're writing it. I think the answer to this question has something to do with image, or more exactly, lack of one. The international-multiconglomerate culture operates in the currency of images, therefore it becomes important not to have an image. Once you have an image you're caught in the conglomeration web, but if you avoid an image you're still free to glide through the net. Lack of image keeps you mobile. I've noticed that when people meet me they're often surprised because I'm not like their image of me. That's to the good. Not having an image is freedom. Shamans don't have images, they're chameleons. When you don't have an image you can have any image or none. This is the doctrine of anti-imagism.
 
Q
I've always coiled at the thought of creative writing as an exclusively literary practice. You once said we need to break out of the cage called Literature. What did you mean by that?
 
A
Literature is a false category. Literature simply doesn't exist. That's all I have to say about it. Literature is a way of saying that a basic human faculty which is supposed to be potent and efficacious isn't. It's just literature. Or you could take it the other way--what you find in a science magazine or nature magazine, the two places where scientific discoveries are published, you could call that literature--if literature exists, that's also literature.
 
Q
I want to change gears here. Do you think your fiction has been influenced by any of the other arts or, for that matter, television?
 
A
Fellini films, especially 8 1/2, were supportive and illuminating at the time. Painting: abstract expressionism in its action painting form. Music: jazz improvisation for sure. Dance: in the revolution of the everyday phase, yes. TV: channel surfing is a biggie. All the arts form an atmosphere which all artists of consequence thrive on breathing.
 
Q
Which contemporary authors do you feel represent the direction fiction is going in and is likely to continue going in?
 
A
I can only give a wish list on this and it would include Kafka, Celine, Beckett, Genet, etc.--all pre-postmoderns.
 
Q
You're one of the few writers I know who is very active in the publishing and non-fiction scene. You publish American Book Review and Black Ice magazine, you're a co-director of Fiction Collective Two, your last book (Down and In) was a look back at the different undergrounds in New York City over the last 50 years. How do you find time to do it all?
 
A
You know the old garment industry joke? I lose a dollar on every garment I sell.--so how do you make a living?--volume!
 
Q
How would you describe the kind of interaction you see between what you do as a publisher, a professor and a non-fiction writer, and what it is you're up to as a fiction writer?
 
A
Down with phony distinctions. I'm not a novelist & publisher, etc.--I'm an always emerging wordturd--it's all part of the same braunschweiger--chop off a bit to fry up as an essay, another bit to boil as a press release, a hunk slowly roasted as a novel, and if you keep moving maybe they won't catch you.
 
Q
Do the electronic networks and the big push toward electronic publishing interest you?
 
A
Mais, oui! In fact, here I am doing the trip at this very instant (another chip off the old braunschweiger).
 
Q
Is your creative process --- your writing routine, assuming you have one --- the same as it's always been? What is it?
 
A
I insert a specially designed crank in my left ear and turn, slowly at first, then with increasing vigor, making my tongue dart in and out and my eyeballs roll around in my head like the images in a slot machine till I start ejaculating ink on the page.
 
Q
Your novel 98.6 is going into its what, fifth printing now, and as I was re-reading it I felt like I was reading about contemporary life. Frankenstein, the mythological landscape where the novel takes place, is America, no doubt, and as I was reading it, I couldn't help but wonder how you view the autobiographical moment in fiction, what some people call pseudo-autobiography. Could you tell me your thoughts on this, on how, say, a novel like 98.6 is or isn't (pseudo)-autobiographical?
 
A
I use myself as a source of data because I know the data, it's at my disposal. What happens to it when I start writing fiction is another thing.
 
Q
There's a scene in the endless recycling of scenes in Blown Away, where the protagonist goes to a reading--I think it's at UCLA--and gets to shake hands with Henry Miller. Did this actually happen to you?
 
A
Yes.
 
Q
I had this strange feeling while reading the book that this was a very important moment for Ccrab? Didn't Anais Nin once say you were the next Henry Miller?
 
A
The new Henry Miller. But she took it back with the publication of OUT because she felt it was too--vulgar. Sexually coarse. You can see why she was always fighting with Miller, which was why I didn't get to see more of Miller. But it was important for me to at least shake hands, because Miller was the one who woke me up to the fact that words on the page can be a vital extension of the life of the writer and therefore of the life of the reader, and this was a passing on of the succession, though Miller couldn't have known it, especially since the dead hand of Durrell swept me instantly out of its way.
 
Q
In Death of The Novel and Other Stories you wrote "The contemporary writer--the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he's part--is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn't exist, time doesn't exist, personality doesn't exist." I remember as an undergrad reading those words and feeling empowered because it spoke of a radical difference, one that I needed to connect with. And yet today, with TV being the one thing that even some of the brightest writers like Leyner seem to be acutely in touch with, how does this effect the radical edge I generally associate with that statement?
 
A
Leyner is starting from his own scratch which may be partly my scratch and katzscratch and burroughsscratch, etc. [Note: Sukenick is referring to novelist Steve Katz and William Burroughs, the former being one of Leyner's college mentors]. Or maybe it scratched its way purely out of TV or even thin air but these days all good writers start from some scratch and keep scratching away. We decide what influences we're going to exclude, while the modernists and before decided what influences they were going to include. We're interested in scratching things out by parody or pastiche--it's a way of scratching the flea of literature. If I were writing the passage you just quoted these days I would add that TV doesn't exist, TV least of all, TV scratches itself out. So go from there. Writing for me is a way of being beside myself so I can get beyond myself and into the unknown, so at that moment everything is to be defined.
 
Q
Can there be a radical edge to language and art nowadays or are we always already setting ourselves up for immediate consumption/absorption and, as a consequence, neutralization?
 
A
The radical edge isn't political, or economical, or consumeristical, or selloutical--it's situational. And you have to get yourself into that situation, if you have a taste for it. Some people seem to be there by nature, so maybe you only think you get yourself into it, while you've always been there and simply haven't realized it.


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