PREHISTORY: A FOREWORD
I was there at the beginning. In fact, I was sort of there before the beginning of Fence. In the following way. I had a gig teaching in Houston. This was twelve or thirteen years ago. They were going to put me up in a hotel, I was going to read some student work, and then I was going to meet with the students individually. In this case, the disconcerting feature of the post was as follows: No one from the English department ever called me or came to see me or take me out to dinner—not until the last night. I think whoever had suggested me for the position had moved on, which is often how things go in writing programs. So I was on my own in Houston. Where I'd never been before. There was a live butterfly exhibit just up the block from the hotel—it was the first time I'd ever seen one. I'd collected butterflies as a kid, and thus a live butterfly exhibit called out to me. I spent an excellent couple of hours there. There was also the Rothko Chapel to see. Rothko, for me, runs in second place, right after John Cage, among my enduring heroes. Who can complain about being paid to fly down to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel?
Despite these welcome distractions (and the hours of CNN), I found the gig in Houston really painfully alienating, and I would probably go to great lengths to wipe the whole thing from memory, were it not for one of the students there, one Rebecca Wolff. Despite the fact that I think she already had an MFA from some other program, Iowa maybe, she was in Houston getting a second graduate degree. And here's another factoid. In the moment that I was reading her work, she was writing prose, though she was better known as a poet.
All of which is to say that this student was ambitious and unlikely to proceed in the usual fashion. And as further befits the editrix of Fence, Wolff's prose, which I was reading in my lonely hotel room, between fits of CNN, didn't exactly feel like prose, nor did its structure exactly feel like short fiction. It seemed to stand astride the genre question, refusing to make up its mind. For these reasons, I hit it off with the student in question—she was an easy person to like—and it wasn’t long after (back in civilization)—that I got a note from her saying she was thinking of starting a magazine and did I want to be involved.
I did not want to be involved! Not at all! And I could think of no less good idea for this Rebecca Wolff. She should have been, in my view, off writing her poems, or her genre-busting prose works. And I knew this because of my own experience, which for some years had included attempting to edit and write at the same time. The two couldn't be done at the same time! They created a terminal bifurcation in the personality from which one never entirely recovered! Bad idea! And anyway the road to hell was littered with literary magazines. There were too many of them, and most of them were irresolute, half-hearted, or excessively parochial. Nor could I, heading into the season in which The Ice Storm movie came out, with all of that attendant excess, and in which I was trying to finish a novel and edit a book of essays on the New Testament, really find any time to work on this project. No way! Bad idea all around! But l was bad at saying no, am still, and so I said yes.
Later, before I convinced Rebecca Wolff that I really couldn't be fiction editor, though I was more than honored to be asked before I realized I would be crushed beneath the weight of that responsibility, I did manage to be involved with the first iteration of Fence, the first few issues. Here's what I thought: I thought that in a magazine that was doing an impossible thing—creating a vision of American poetry that didn't get into the partisan and pusillanimous bickering that so afflicted that form, the autophagic poetry world rampages—the fiction should also range far and wide and steer just as clear of conventional wisdom. For example, it should avoid the formula of New Yorker- style realism, and it should avoid the deliberate and self-satisfied obscurantism that was associated with some experimental presses, at the other extreme. In short, I felt like Fence fiction should do, more or less, what Fence poetry was trying to do. It should create its own history and momentum and point of view. Because if the poetry world had its own distractions, American fiction was not out of the woods either, not with the myopic literary publishing efforts at the larger publishing houses. Not with the cookie cutter realism of the larger writing programs. We needed some vision in fiction, just the way American poetry did. Fence has gone on to exhibit that very thing, vision. And it has done a fine job of it.
Since I have been enjoined from hortatory language here, I'm not going to belabor my feelings on the success of the fiction department at Fence. But I will note that this volume gathers together fiction from the three administrations that have presided over fiction at Fence, each of them, it seems to me, more than successful at finding prose work that digs deeper and goes farther, taking the American narrative work to a place it rarely goes these days. I was proud to be associated with the magazine at the beginning, I'm still proud to be associated with it, and this is a really excellent place at which to begin, if you are wanting to get acquainted with Fence. Behold what a decade or more of commitment, taste, and style can do. There are stories here to challenge, confront, arrest, and to send you off in search of the later work of these many excellent prose stylists, most of them now rather well known. And if you like this volume, you should definitely investigate the volume of Fence poetry as well.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019