Because of FC2’s reputation as a forward-looking press, I’m frequently asked at conferences what I believe is happening in fiction today. My first impulse is to insist that I have no idea what’s happening and don’t believe anyone else does either. My second impulse is to insist that nothing’s happening. These responses avoid the trap of pretentiousness, but they smell of bad faith, and neither is satisfying. What they mean to acknowledge is a difference between our present and, say, 1922 or 1968, moments when, at least in Europe and America, cultural upheaval appeared unmistakable. It might never have been obvious what Freud’s writings or later Lacan’s Paris seminars were expressing, but whatever they were, it seemed inseparable from what Joyce and the Harlem Renaissance and Beckett and those barricades in the streets were expressing. Of course, looking back we can see, or think we can, that some of the fish swimming in these currents were, in fact, chickens, that not every writer claiming to represent 1922 or 1968 was living in the present, but the sense of history unfolding, of possibilities impossible before, remains palpable even in retrospect.
I don’t believe there’s any comparable upheaval occurring in America today. In May I attended the Whitney Biennial in New York. I was deeply impressed by the inventiveness and wild play of the selected works, and the exhibition’s unprecedented diversity seemed to me cause for great celebration. At the same time, I couldn’t shake a feeling of arbitrariness, of disconnection from intellectual breakthroughs or from anything recognizable as art’s history. Why these forms, not almost any others? Twenty blocks away at MOMA, the Gerhard Richter retrospective struck me as a case of precisely the opposite. There seemed much less cause for celebration, little of the fun and spectacle at the Whitney. I had no difficulty imagining a visitor fresh from the Biennial coming away bored. However, if anyone asked of Richter’s work why late twentieth-century painting had to change, she would be deluged with revelations.
So where among such alternatives is FC2? I believe our collective effort is inseparable from the present. That is, either FC2 exists to represent fiction’s present against global efforts to misrepresent it, or FC2 shouldn’t exist. But who are we to say, among so many competing versions, which is really the present?
Ours is probably a period of consolidation, of solidifying labor like that which follows any revolution. In other words, this is when the real work of change gets done and undone. Therefore, our first task as writers must be to grow up, to complete the project enunciated by Ronald Sukenick in his 1974 NYTBR Fiction Collective “manifesto,” that of opening “a path toward the maturity of the American novel” by assuming responsibility for fiction’s current direction. This is what our past demands. Our goal at FC2 must be to produce the writing that can only exist after the great cultural upheavals of the last century, that continues modernism’s revolutionary program of self-critique, that lives up to postmodernity’s achievements by overcoming them. In other words, we are the ones who can’t defer the question of the present. We’re its producers.
So whenever I’m asked what’s happening in fiction today, I stifle my impulse to side-step the question and reply: “At FC2, we’re following four recent developments with keen interest. First, we’re deeply invested in the new experimental writing by women, especially the generation born after 1960. This is the front on which we believe the investigation of writing’s relation to sexuality and the body is progressing most rapidly today, and for the immediate future, our direction as a literary enterprise will be partly a response to it. Second, we’re supporting work that investigates the relation of literature to other media. FC2 remains committed to writing on the page, but we see in literature’s confrontation with computers, the web, film, photography, and video an unprecedented opportunity to find out for the first time what writing on the page actually is. Third, we’re dedicated to fictions of the book. That is, we believe the history of literature is advancing at present in the form of fake texts, unwritten novels, self-generating artifacts, works in which the vehicle of previous literature — i.e., covers, copyright pages, titles, blurbs, spines, print, etc. — occurs within the fiction. And last, we continue to find the present in language. For us, fiction escapes the past, overcomes its traditional absence, wherever its verbal medium exceeds the description of character or action and reasserts its autonomous power. In short, FC2 underwrites fiction’s material existence. This is what, wherever it happens, never happened before.”
And when my questioner guffaws, says I’m mad, and, brandishing his New Yorker, insists fiction today is no such thing, I reply that it could be.
R. M. Berry’s short fiction has been widely published and anthologized and his critical essays have appeared in such journals as Philosophy and Literature and Narrative. His FC2 books include Dictionary of Modern Anguish, Leonardo’s Horse, and Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart.