I believe I first became aware of Ronald Sukenick when, as an undergraduate, I began to cultivate an interest in experimental fiction and came across a book called Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, edited by Raymond Federman (author of Double or Nothing and a writer with whom Sukenick would himself long be associated). Published in 1975, this was one of several "academic" books from this period that were being produced as a result of the successful introduction of contemporary fiction as a legitimate subject of academic study. Most of these books were indeed about postwar experimental fiction, the sort that would later become categorized as "postmodern."
Sukenick was a contributor to Surfiction, through an essay entitled "The New Tradition in Fiction." Thus I initially thought of Sukenick as a literary critic of sorts, an advocate of the experimental and the innovative in fiction. Yet it is significant that this essay speaks of a "new tradition." Sukenick saw experimental fiction as merely the latest phase in a literary history, at least where the novel is concerned, itself characterized by continual experiment. The essay begins: "Obviously there's no progress in art. Progress toward what? The avant-garde is a convenient propaganda device, but when it wins the war everything is avant-garde, which leaves us just about where we were before. The only thing that's sure is that we move, and as we move we leave things behind--the way we felt yesterday, the way we talked about it. Form is your footprints in the sand when you look back." "The first thing that must be said about the new tradition of the novel," he writes a few paragraphs later," is that it's not modern." The new fiction, in Sukenick's view, could trace its roots at least as far back as Cervantes and Rabelais. And it should be pointed out that Sukenick's first book was not fiction but a study of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, where he found inspiration for the kind of writing he himself would later do in fiction.
This sort of what might be called traditionalist iconoclasm, by which the very act of rebellion against past or established practices is done in the name of preserving the continuity of past and present, was greatly inspiring to me, as I loved both the great literature of the past I was then studying and the current fiction I was also reading, the latter otherwise so often dismissed by professors specializing in the older periods. I also found it in such writers as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Gilbert Sorrentino, who were writing what some people wanted to call anti-literature, but in my view were doing it because they too loved literature and did not want to see it become ossified in particular forms and assumptions. Anybody who really pays attention to what writers like Sukenick actually did in their own practice of fiction, and to what they actually said about that practice, knows that all talk about how postmodern literature is anti-literary or contemptuous of the past or is engaged in irresponsible game-playing is just plain nonsense. These writers knew more about their great predecessors in literary history and about how contemporary literature could contribute to this ongoing tradition than all of their detractors put together could ever hope to know.
Although I ran across this piece only recently (courtesy of the Literary Saloon), I was gratified to learn that Sukenick also held this view, one which I myself have come to hold, although I arrived at it separately from my interest in Sukenick's work:
Innovative fiction is not inherently better than any other kind of fiction. It’s a genre like any other, and like any other there are mediocre examples as well as a few brilliant ones.
I personally am enamored of the traditional Canon but not interested in repeating it. . . .
Too many critics of the innovative and the postmodern in contemporary fiction think that those of us who defend such writing do so because we think it is the only legitimate way to go about writing fiction, that more conventional or recognizable styles and forms have no value. This is not true at all, at least not in my case. I simply feel that it is a legitimate "genre," one that has the added benefit of provoking us into thinking about other alternative ways of fulfilling the possibilities of fiction as a literary mode. And, with Sukenick, I think there's merit in not wanting to merely repeat what's already been accomplished.
Sukenick's own fiction was characterized by the critic Jerzy Kutnik (The Novel as Perfomance, 1986) in this way: "As a result of its abstractness and opacity, the kind of novel Sukenick has in mind is neither a mirror nor a window, and not a lamp illuminating some other reality, either. As such, it resists interpretation in terms other than its own and directs our attention to its own reality as both an imaginative and a concrete structure. The technological aspect of the novel, its objecthood, is for Sukenick as important as the imaginative aspect, for it plays a crucial role in making the transaction between the author and the reader possible. A novel is most immediately apprehended as a book. . . ." Sukenick himself adds to this in the Surfiction essay: "A writer may wish to convey an illusion, an imitation of reality, or he may wish to create a concrete structure among the other concrete structures of the world, although one which, like a piece of music, may alter our perceptions of the rest."
In practice, this means unorthodox uses of syntax and punctuation, of paragraphing, of typography, all done to emphasize the "technological" qualities of the book as book, of fiction as print. These experiments with "inscription" are perhaps at first perplexing, even frustrating, but one comes to understand what Sukenick is up to, and his books are in their own way both aesthetically coherent and even, ultimately, enjoyable to read. His first novel, UP (1968) is less experimental in this way, and might be a good place for those unfamiliar with Sukenick to start reading his work. However, I believe that his best book is 98.6 (1975), which also is somewhat less freewheeling in its typographical idiosyncracies but is nevertheless thorougly representative of Sukenick's achievement as a writer. It's a metafiction which also manages to present a compelling portrayal of the America of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Also worth seeking out are Death of the Novel and Other Stories (if you can find it), Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues, The Endless Short Story, and Mosaic Man, the latter also perhaps one of Sukenick's more accessible books.
Sukenick remained a passionate advocate on behalf of innovative fiction throughout his career, founding American Book Review for its discussion, and the Fiction Collective (now FC2) for its publication. At its homepage, ABR announces that, fortunately for us, Sukenick completed a final novel, entitled Last Fall, to be published by FC2 next year. ABR also tell us that "The November/December issue of American Book Review will be dedicated to Ron and will contain statements from his many friends and admirers. Selected statements will be published in the special memorial section of the issue, and all of the statements will be posted on ABR’s Web site."