Jonathan Baumbach is the author of numerous books of fiction, and a widely published and anthologized short story writer. He has written about movies for Partisan Review and is a former chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. His FC2 books include D-Tours, Seven Wives, Separate Hours, The Life and Times of Major Fiction, My Father More or Less, Chez Charlotte and Emily, Babble, and Reruns. This interview was conducted in 2003.
There is a scene in Kicking and Screaming, a well-received 1995 indie film, in a college creative writing class where the camera pans the conference table of students and rests on a well-displayed copy of Babble by Jonathan Baumbach. Baumbach even has a bit part in the movie, which was written and directed by his son, Noah. Baumbach himself is the former chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, but we know him best as one of the founding members of the Fiction Collective.
In 1973, I was a fiction writer going on his own way, a teacher of writing, a film critic, husband, and father of four. In 2003, I’m the same person as when I was 30 years old, with a different wife and grown up children, one a filmmaker whose movies I’ve acted in.
What impact did Fiction Collective have on your own writing?
I don’t know that Fiction Collective had any particular impact on my writing beyond — this during the period I was co-director with Peter Spielberg — that it gave me less time to do my own work. Working with other writers may have made a better person of me but writing itself is a private matter and there is no way of determining how I might have developed as a writer if Fiction Collective never existed.
At the time Fiction Collective was being formed, you called Reruns your best novel. What would you now consider your best novel?
The books of mine I like best are the ones I hardly recognize as products of my labor after they appear. That is, they come from some uncharted place inside that is smarter and more daring and more interesting than I am. Though I haven’t looked at Reruns for some time I still feel warm toward it. For an extended period, now past, Chez Charlotte and Emily was my favorite of my books. These days, it’s the one I’ve just published or the one I’m working on at the moment that I tend to prefer. It’s difficult to go on writing if you think you’ve already written your best novel.
How has your writing changed since the formation of the press?
What FC offered us all was the possibility of following our deepest impulses as artists while having a publisher, unconcerned with the world of commerce, open to value what we did on its own merit. The subtext of all my work — it’s probably more use for me not to know this — is the mystery of the imagination and that hasn’t changed. Restrictions on my time may have had something to do with it, but I’ve become more interested in the short story — I was primarily a novelist in 1973 — since the emergence of the collective.
You wrote in an essay, “… it is reasonable to say that the more active we are as readers the greater the potential satisfaction in the reading experience.” What have been some of the most rewarding works of difficult fiction you have read?
The list may be too long to break down, but it includes my colleagues in Fiction Collective and FC2 and much of the French New Novel, and the Magic Realists and Calvino, Borges, Hawkes, Gass, Coover et al.
You remarked in 1989, during the reorganization of Fiction Collective into Fiction Collective Two, that the emerging directors, Ronald Sukenick and Curtis White, were threatening to take the football and go home with it if they couldn’t be the quarterbacks. What were your feelings at that time and how do you feel about it now?
That’s Ron’s recollection, not mine. If I said something like that I probably would have used a baseball metaphor. I was probably glad at the time to get Fiction Collective off my back — I was doing a second stint as director — though I suspect I would have preferred being the one to make that decision. Anyway, I’m generally pleased with Ron and Curt’s reinvention of the Collective — that is, I admire FC2’s openness to the new and daring and feel that they’ve successfully continued Fiction Collective’s mission to be the New Directors (in fiction) of our time.
How did you feel about the congressional uproar in 1997 and what did that make you think about FC2’s future?
In a sense, notoriety — trumped-up scandal — is useful for a small press because it puts it on the big map for awhile and so helps to sell books. Of course, no one wants censorship except regimes deep into hypocrisy who feel threatened by whatever undermines their agenda. Art by definition undermines all totalitarian agendas. At the same time, its prohibitively difficult for serious literature in our culture to sustain itself financially over the long haul without some outside support. In a democracy, the government belongs as much to us as to Jesse Helms — I’m being theoretical here — which means we have a right to be subsidized at least in part by the NEA. That is, for as long as we continue to publish without compromise important innovative fiction.
What do you like about FC2 now?
The survival of FC2 is more important than ever.