A Best of Fence: The First 9 Years, A Review
A Best of Fence: The First 9 Years, Volume 2: Fiction and Nonfiction
Edited by Rebecca Wolff
“Survival Depends of Flexibility,” An Argument For The Bendable Straw:
In September of 1937, Joseph Bernard Friedman was issued patent number 2,094,268 for his invention of the ‘Drinking Tube.’ Friedman describes this tiny harbinger of consumer culture as such in the opening of his patent proposal:
“My invention relates to drinking tubes and more particularly to that type of drinking tube known in the trade as a “soda straw” which, while sometimes actually made from a straw, is usually wound or otherwise formed from oiled paper, paraffin paper, Cellophane, or the like. The main object of my invention is to provide a soda straw or similar drinking tube with a flexible section so positioned that the tube may be bent during use without substantially reducing the diameter of the straw.”
The flexible section to which Friedman refers went on to be coined the “living hinge.” I was struck by the evocativeness of this term when seeking a way to best capture the scope of the new A Best of Fence, The First 9 Years, Volume II, Fiction & Nonfiction, edited by founder, Rebecca Wolff. How does one reduce to its essence a retrospective whose driving purpose is to reflect “an intentional engine of dissimilarity?” To start, the collection is as encyclopedic as it is exhilarating. I imagine it requires a raucous optimism to collect an anthology which not only spans nine years, but seeks to create a multi-vocal retrospective with internalized sections curated by various prominent editors whose visions have collided/colluded/conflicted/ignited over the life of the publication. What emerges from this firestorm is almost viciously pleasurable, an anthology which reflects the “collective and nearly Catholic approach” of a magazine whose aesthetic purpose from the start was to provide “a reliable home for the fence-sitters,” those works which in fact “resisted easy definition.”(Fence Manifesto 1997) As Wolff herself says, “Fence has never been a product of solidarity, aesthetic or otherwise.” “In fact, the editing of Fence is now and always has been multipart, providential, cacophonous.” Reading the collection felt a bit akin to my experience of the latest Agnes Varda film, Les plages d’Agnès, a retrospective of her life’s work as a leader of the French New Wave: The collection is founded on the idea of accrual, i.e. the stacking together of stories which carry their own weight and don’t rely on each other for context. It embraces a stack and build architecture rather than a string and sew.
“Wailing In An Aesthetic Void:”
Since its inception, Fence has functioned as the ambassador of readers. Opinionated, judicious, discriminating. It exists in almost-future tense, a tense which is as captivating as it is rigorous. It remains flexible without reducing its own diameter. Volume II alone is inimitable, comprised of stories such as Kelly Link’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” Sam Lipsyte’s “Feeling Is Not Quite The Word,” and Miranda July’s “The Man On The Stairs” which I’ve loved since the first time I read them. The collection also housed many personal discoveries, most notably Gary Lutz’s “Her Dear Only Father’s Lone Wife’s Solitudinized, Peaceless Son.” “Wishing for scientific and technological discoveries or an avant garde to save and advance society is futile,” remarks section editor Lynne Tillman on the desire to categorize various fictional aesthetics, even those fictions which function outside any discernable box. “Writing is like doing laps without a pool. Maybe we wail in an aesthetic void or shout in a black hole: life’s empty or dense; we can’t know what we’re in – fish probably don’t know they’re in water (who can be certain though.)”
“Fashioning Tools or Retooling:”
The interesting thing about the “living hinge” is that “the minimal friction and very little wear in such a hinge makes it useful in the design of microelectromechanical systems … These can flex more than a million cycles without failure.” This is not true apparently for putting together a compelling literary collection. Here, friction is paramount and consensus is outmoded. As Jason Zuzga notes in his introduction, “Nonfiction: A Frying Pan,” Fence’s “self-proclaimed mission was to put mainstream and avant-garde poetry in communication, or at least rub them together to create pleasure, discomfort, productive confusion of assumed divisions and productive thwarting of ignorance.” Plainly put, “Our editors do not agree with one another,” reflects co-section editor Ben Marcus, a sentiment which seems important to note as it gives a nod to the sawing off process, the important aesthetic clarifications that arise after editorial meetings, harbingers of the fragile and imminent need to define just what tools you are seeking to create for your readers. This too seems to be the concern of this collection, to destabilize (or at the very least defamiliarize) reading, to both satisfy and subvert various readerly expectations.
“Complacency Is The Enemy,” Or “Redundancies as Barometer of Impact:”
The collection is bound together in the grittiest sense, by a determined mission to seek out those voices which exhibit a pressing drive to create inventions out of even the most utilitarian of devices. There is a blinding urgency to these works, both individually and collectively, which makes them not only salient but solvent. As Wolff notes in her introduction, “Weird Is An Emotion,” the “most integral editorial function and aim is to find and publish writing that bear’s the mark of the author’s singular impulse – it’s exigency, if you will (and I will).” What evolves out of this collection exceeds the urgency that we’ve come to expect, and indeed depend upon, from Fence. From this plurality of aesthetics emerges a virginal sense of emergency. The thrill of forever starting out. Upon reading Lethem’s introduction, “Young and Green,” largely a recollection of founding a then renegade magazine – conjointly thrilling over and slogging through a growing onslaught of blind submissions – for a moment I was reminded of a scene from a recent Madmen where adman and prototypical New York suit, Don Draper, finds himself holed up at a bar on his lunch break, covetously reading a copy of Frank O’Hara’s newly minted Meditations In An Emergency. Cliché? Perhaps. But not without it’s point: with this anthology, Rebecca Wolff has recognized not only the importance, but the private pleasure, of putting forth stories which continually transcend the ranks. In Rick Moody’s words, this is an anthology of works which “challenge, confront, arrest,” and in so doing retain an unexpected levity, and in some cases a nearly catholic imperative, even as they age. As Ben Marcus notes in his introduction, “It’s great and rare when a journal is still around to celebrate its own birthday.” Cheers to that and many more.
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