Jonathan Baumbach, who upended traditional ideas of narration, linear progression and more in his novels and short stories and helped found a collective that gave experimental writers the ability to publish their own works, died on March 28 at his home in Great Barrington, Mass. He was 85.
The death was confirmed by his son Noah Baumbach, the film director.
Mr. Baumbach had already published two of his 12 novels when he and Peter Spielberg created the Fiction Collective, a publishing house run by authors, in an effort to give avant-garde works a clearer path to publication. His novel “Reruns,” about a man reinventing his life through real and imagined past events, was among the first three the collective published.
“Compared to the other books,” Michael Mewshaw wrote in reviewing all three in The New York Times in 1974, “Jonathan Baumbach’s ‘Reruns’ looms above the landscape like Mount McKinley. It too is non-narrative, inconsistent in point of view, and structurally askew, but with reason and frequently to good effect — it’s intelligent and often funny.”
Mr. Baumbach’s subsequent books continued the type of experimentation often labeled metafiction. In “Babble” (1976), the hero is a baby. “Chez Charlotte and Emily” (1980) uses a sort of novel-inside-a-novel conceit. “Separate Hours” (1990) employs dueling narrators — a husband and wife, both psychoanalysts — to paint a portrait of a marriage under stress.
“Like old friends of an unhappy couple,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review in The Times, “we hear both sides of their story, eavesdropping on their problems from a polite distance. There’s a voyeuristic fascination to our interest, and we accept the resolution they choose for their marriage as inevitable and real, if a little long in coming.”
Such works, Mr. Baumbach thought, might not have found a home with conventional publishers interested in profits.
“What F. C. offered us all,” he said in a 2003 interview posted on the website of FC2, a successor to the original Fiction Collective, “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.”
Jonathan David Baumbach was born on July 5, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Harold, was a noted painter, and his mother, Ida, was a teacher. For a time as a youth he would paint alongside his father in his studio, but he soon gravitated toward writing.
He graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Brooklyn College in 1955 and a master’s degree in playwriting at Columbia University in 1956. After service in the Army, he earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Stanford University.
He taught at Stanford and several other universities before joining the faculty of Brooklyn College in 1972. He soon helped establish a master’s program in creative writing there.
He published his first novel, “A Man to Conjure With,” in 1965. Haskel Frankel, reviewing it in The Times, admired the writing if not the complete package.
“Because of the qualities of the author that come through on every page, one is forced to reread his novel in the belief that there must be some important point or purpose that was missed,” Mr. Frankel wrote. “A second reading, unfortunately, merely reaffirms the talent — without lifting the surrounding fog.”
His other novels included “What Comes Next” (1968) and “Seven Wives: A Romance” (1994). He also published four story collections, including “The Life and Times of Major Fiction” (2007).
His most recent novel was “Dreams of Molly” (2011), a sort of sequel to “Reruns” that consists of three sections of numbered dreams. It showed him to be as exploratory as ever.
“As experimental fiction,” Jody Kordana wrote in reviewing it in The Berkshire Eagle, “the book does not break rules as much as it creates new ones.”
Mr. Baumbach’s brief early marriage to Naomi Miller was annulled. His marriages to Ellie Berkman and Georgia Brown ended in divorce. His fourth wife, Annette Grant, a longtime arts editor at The Times and contributor to it, died in February.
In addition to his son Noah, from his marriage to Ms. Brown, he is survived by another son from that marriage, Nico; two children from his marriage to Ms. Berkman, David and Nina Baumbach; two brothers, Danny and Jimmy; and three grandchildren.
In addition to writing fiction, Mr. Baumbach was a critic. He wrote about film for Partisan Review and reviewed books for The Times and other publications. In a 2015 interview with The Berkshire Edge, he talked about having never quite achieved the fame of either his father the painter or his son the filmmaker.
“I haven’t tried to avoid it,” he said simply, “but it hasn’t come to my door.”