Ronald Sukenick

Ronald Sukenick

Fellow: Awarded 1976
Field of Study: Fiction

Competition: US & Canada

University of Colorado, Boulder

Ronald Sukenick (born July 14, 1932) was a prominent figure in the generation of American novelists that came after the Beat movement. Although not popularly accessible, Mr. Sukenick persisted throughout his life in pushing the boundaries of fictional form, even playing with typography and the blank spaces between his printed words to represent what he saw as the breakdown in human communication, pointedly, often humorously criticizing contemporary society and culture. He was born in Brooklyn, where his father, Louis, was a dentist. He attended Midwood High School and Cornell and Brandeis universities, receiving his doctorate in English literature in 1962. His thesis became his first published book, Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure (NYU Press, 1967), a study of the poet. In a long teaching career, Sukenick taught at Brandeis, Hofstra, City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence, and in France and Israel. He was a professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder (1975–2002), where he was also director of creative writing until 1977 and director of the publications center (1986–1999). He was a member of the executive council of the Modern Language Association and chairman of the board of the Coordinating Council of Little Magazines (1975–1977). Using the leverage of his successful teaching career, he encouraged other writers with similar bents. In 1974 he helped start the Fiction Collective, a publishing cooperative, and in 1977 he founded the American Book Review to focus attention on writers outside the mainstream.

Sukenick fueled his writing with his own life. He was a visibly unconventional figure, dressing in brilliant colors and a trademark leather vest, known as a bon vivant with sometimes scandalous behavior. He kept a flat in Paris with his partner Julia Frey, who, after years of defying American convention by living together, became his second wife in 1992. His first marriage, to poet Lynn Luria, had ended in divorce in 1984. His literary output was diminished for the last fifteen years of his life by a progressively debilitating degenerative disease, inclusion-body myositis (IBM), which affected everything except his brain. Nevertheless, he remained at the center of a large group of writers, many of them university professors like himself. His affability and conversational skills made him a popular figure in Europe as well as America, and his courage in trying to lead as normal a life as possible was extraordinary. For the last five years of his life he was almost entirely paralyzed, yet managed to continue writing and communicating with colleagues using mechanical aids such as voice transcription software, computers, and the Internet. Julia Frey, an art writer whose biography of Toulouse Lautrec is now a standard work, published a personal memoir in 2011, detailing her life with Sukenick for six months at Ground Zero after September 11, 2001. Balcony View—A 9/11 Diary describes Sukenick’s struggles to continue writing and living normally during the final stages of his illness, despite the view out his study window of the burning ruins of the World Trade Center. In 2002, wheelchair-bound by IBM, Sukenick received the Morton Zabel Award for innovative writing from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for pushing ”the formal possibilities of American fiction to its limits” and in the process ”illuminating new pathways to the center of the human psyche.”

In his first novel, Up (Dial, 1968), Sukenick tried to reflect what he saw as an American loss of faith in traditional values as expressed by the counterculture that evolved in the 1960s. It was the story of a writer named Ronnie Sukenick who is writing a novel and believes that fiction is nothing more than markings on paper. The book ends with Ronnie telling the reader: ”I’m going to finish this today. . . . I’ve had enough of this. I’m just playing with words anyway, what did you think I was doing?”

In his next book, The Death of the Novel, and Other Stories (Dial, 1969), Sukenick explained that ”in the world of post-realism,” all the absolutes of traditional fiction ”have become absolutely problematic.” He continued: “The contemporary writer—the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is a part—is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist.”

The further darkening of his vision, always relieved by his sense of humor, was reflected in Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues (1979), in which a fragment of the book’s single long sentence, broken into paragraphs, reads, ”no aims no expectations no hopes and liked it that way.” His autobiographical nonfiction narrative Down and In: Life in the Underground (Beech Tree Books, 1987), is a tour of the 1980s counterculture from the vantage point of Manhattan’s bars.

His posthumous novel, Last Fall (FC2, 2005), describes the dismay and confusion of the American intellectual avant-garde after September 11 via his own experience of living across the street from the World Trade Center during and after the Al Qaeda attacks, but ends on an optimistic note. “Do you remember the pattern of lighted windows in the World Trade Center Towers? How we used to joke they were messages in a code we could not comprehend? How the wind that ripped through the steel and concrete canyons sometimes made the buildings into musical instruments? How they howled mournful and ferocious songs with meanings we could grasp at but never verbalize? . . . I still think this proves that we live in a meaningful world packed with significance, even though we don’t know what it is.”

In 1974, Sukenick was one of the founders of the Fiction Collective, described as "an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction"; he and a number of other out-of-the-mainstream writers established it to publish new writers with funding from a series of small publishers, some of whom hoped to discover a major new writer in the process. It still exists as Fiction Collective Two. The influential American Book Review, founded by Sukenick in 1977, gives in-depth space to writing that receives little attention elsewhere. American Book Review has been supported by a number of universities, beginning with Sukenick’s own University of Colorado at Boulder. The annual Ronald Sukenick American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize includes publication of the winning work by Fiction Collective Two.

Ronald Sukenick died on July 22, 2004.


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