THE FENCE YEARS
Serving as a literary editor has always seemed thankless and difficult. You labor in obscurity and alone to help out other writers, but your efforts cannot match their sense of entitlement. You flense their work, you endure chest-thumping defenses of frail sentences load ed with chuff, you put aside your own work as a writer or teacher or family person to help another writer's stuff find distinction in print, and they, in the end, only blame you when their fame turns out to be merely mortal, when they are not given the keys to the city. Or they blame you when you don't sustain your devotion to their work over the years, reading and praising everything they write, assisting it into print, reviewing it, nominating them for grants and prizes, and maybe even feeding them food and bathing their hands in milk. By loving their work, however briefly, you only designate yourself as someone who may one day stop loving their work. And for this you are resented.
In other words, there's no reason to edit a literary journal unless you are blindly driven by your excitement and your urge to share brilliant writing with potential readers. Beyond that, the rewards are nil, yet within that, well, it's an immense and gratifying place. You must forget the hairy writer with his vain desire for adoration. Instead, you must thrill at the ability to share your literary enthusiasms with people, to help an unsuspecting reader feel amazed by new writing the way you were amazed and moved.
My role model in this regard—the superhero who showed me how paradoxically rewarding literary editing can be—has always been Peter Gizzi. Peter is now a renowned and well-established poet, but back when he was inadvertently mentoring me, he was the editor of a landmark journal called oblek. Peter, like all great editors of literary magazines, worked against incredible odds, fought for what he loved, edited and published a significant and influential body of work, and thoroughly gave his life over-day and night, really—to the discovery and cultivation of amazing poetry. He was nearly unbearable to be around, so thrilling and intense was his energy and commitment, and he put out that magazine for no reason at all other than that he loved the work he found and believed in its power. He understood that if he didn't stand behind this work and see it gorgeously into print, then he'd have no right to complain that only crappy work was getting published. Peter's devotion overwhelmed all obstacles, even if that turned him into a kind of madman.
And I loved this example. I've since seen this kind of species only a few more times, and each example breaks the scale of passion, generosity, and commitment. Bradford Morrow, the novelist and editor of Conjunctions, a crushingly good journal that keeps getting better, allowed me to read slush for a time and then offered me a mini-section to edit in the magazine. This was probably rather reckless of him, but it was also the mark of a great editor, to help spawn offshoots, to seed the fever in others. Brad has always seen the virtue in not just publishing a great journal, but in teaching by example and giving parts of his space over to the curation of others with different sensibilities.
Around this time, I also saw some of the editorial workings at the Quarterly, edited by Gordon Lish. This was a journal l tore through every time it came out. The fiction was unusually ambitious but often showed impeccable control and stylistic daring, and many writers I knew at the time sent all of their work there, because one could be assured of being published in fascinating company. And the rejection letters came so quickly they sometimes seemed to cross paths in the mail with the submissions. The Quarterly, too, rebuked the paranoid sense that getting published is all about who you know or where you went to school. Lish was furiously indifferent to everything but sentences, and it was clear, judging by the table of contents, that the magazine was about discoveries rather than affiliations.
This is just a bit of background to my short involvement with Fence. I had read and admired the journal and so it was a happy moment when Rebecca Wolff offered me an enviable chance: to take over a fiction section that had been masterfully edited by Jonathan Lethem at a magazine that was already splendidly up and running. All of the nuisances of journal editing were kept from me: the budgeting, the production hassles. I was just meant to choose work I loved, and this is what I did, with the help of a terrific bunch of editors: Adrian Taylor, Justin Haythe, and Zoe Rosenfeld, then later Sam Stark. Fence, to me, did not seem so much defined by its editor as by its collective and nearly Catholic approach to the selection of writing, which I remember causing some anger in one of the outlying poetry camps, who scolded the magazine for trying to bridge different aesthetic territories. It was a ludicrous criticism that was finally ignored rather than rejoined. What I recall was a number of passionate editors advocating for work that moved them, and I'm proud to have been able to provide space in the journal to writers such as Jane Unrue, Matthew Derby, Rebecca Curtis, Joe Wenderoth, and Gary Lutz, among others. And I am proud to have been able to work with such an energetic and ambitious group of editors. It's great and rare when a journal is still around to celebrate its own birthday. Here's wishing many more to Fence as it pursues its noble course.
 Rw: Ben lived so far uptown that it seemed impossible that he come all the way downtown to stuff envelopes. His tenure marked the first ti me that a division of labor was imposed at Fence; previously all had been as Jonathan describes .It was a bit difficult for me to wrap my brain around the increasing appropriateness of these divisions— some of us starting to have really big jobs that made it less logical—or less seemly?—that we all share work equally—but eventually wrap it I did, and adopted the more common intern-fueled approach to nitty-grit ty tasks.
 . RW: I had wanted to include essays or short pieces by all these, in addition to Lynne's crew, but this to me grew too large.
 RW : Yes. Another important thing to understand about Fence: our editors do not agree with one another; instead they learn to understand one another.
 RW: See Caroline Crumpacker's essay for more elaborate description of same; see Matthew Rohrer, for another; see Jason Zuzga, for another.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019