Montevidayo Survey on Publishers & Genre, Specimen 2: Fence

by on May.08, 2011

[I undertook this survey on Publishers & Genre to explore the idea that genre might not be inherent in the text but rather an assemblage of author, publisher, materials, readers, other texts.   This week’s featured press is Fence. Our first featured press was Spork; their answers are here and here.]

Meanwhile, in the Fence offices...

This week’s featured press is Fence.

1) To what degree is your press a host for new genres? What new genres?

Rebecca Wolff: The main desire of Fence’s first fiction editor, Jonathan Lethem, was to explode the then-persistent distinction made between various kinds of “genre” writings (detective, mystery, speculative, SF, “experimental,” fabulist, magical realist, etc.) and “the literary.” So in a literal fashion he sought to publish writings that were difficult for the publishing community to parse—and thereby was part of the general zeitgeist of the moment (late 90s-early oughts) in fiction toward self-consciously non-transparent environments in which for plot and character to operate.

In general Fence has been supportive of what we now call Other writing (we literally offer this category as a choice for our digital submitters—we encourage them to self-define as being Other than “poetry, fiction, nonfiction.” This certainly does not lead absolutely to the creation of new genres, but rather to a more relativistic way of looking at the existing genre-categorizations.

Our current nonfiction/other editor, Jason Zuzga, is a charming proponent of a kind of writing that one is tempted to call “ephemeral,” but is also understood as “extraliterary”—he likes it when people who are not inherently members of the writing “community,” or are bringing to it specialized knowledges of various kinds, for example bread bakers, police dispatchers, etc—produce writing on their subjects.

I tend to think that the “documentary poetics” mode is kind of a new genre—Fence has not necessarily been a host for it but we have participated in it, most notably in Jena Osman’s recent, deep and excellent The Network, and we think it’s interesting if not always productive of pleasure for the reader in the sense of “Oh, I fucking love poetry because it makes me feel so hot in the brain area.” More like “I love poetry because it can be so smart and elegant and makes me feel like thinking more.”

2)What is genre? What is a genre?

Rebecca Wolff: Some of the above, and then: Genre is a tool, and a tube; a sausage casing. Genre is a marketing option. Genre can be exploratory. Genre is generative, for many, and lays itself down like a dressmaker’s pattern. For me genre roles are like gender roles: available, and fictive, and fun to fuck with, but also repressive and annoyingly susceptible to stupid interpretations of absolute value.

3)To what extent has your own writing and art and your own understanding of genre changed by your work with the press?

Rebecca Wolff: It’s always interesting to hear so many poets say that they wish they could write novels but they just never, ever could. They aspire to the condition of novelist because it provides security, in form and identity? Or they’d like to be able to tell a story but don’t feel that they really want to enough. Or they feel that if they were to write a novel they’d need to work against narrative (see below), and that doesn’t actually sound like too much fun? The novels by poets that Fence Books has published (Flet, by Joyelle McSweeney; The Mandarin, by Aaron Kunin) share the quality that their interest in working with-against traditional novelistic aims (closure, setting, realism, more) includes a “with” as well as an “against.” Eternally surprising to me is how many poets who love reading these poets have NOT read their novels, apparently because they are not interested in reading “novels.” There’s the surprisingly persistent dullness of genre.

6)Anything else you’d like to add?

Rebecca Wolff: Just that as a writer I feel myself enough of an amateur, or unschooled enough, that my approach to genre has always been to feel that I want to attempt each one from within its boundaries and understood confines (and available advantages!). Just as when I was an undergraduate it bummed me out that so many of my friends were art majors who didn’t know how to draw, but instead were encouraged to produce expressive abstract works (a long time ago, this was), I still feel as though it is important to be able to do (not master, but do) the thing you’re planning on later subverting, or working against, or being in conversation with, etc. I’ve attempted: poems, plays, screenplays, short stories (this was the hardest for me), a novel, and book jackets. I’d like to try a biography, and bumper stickers. I guess this list begs the question, or some discussion, of form and genre.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Jake Levine

    “Just as when I was an undergraduate it bummed me out that so many of my friends were art majors who didn’t know how to draw, but instead were encouraged to produce expressive abstract works (a long time ago, this was), I still feel as though it is important to be able to do (not master, but do) the thing you’re planning on later subverting, or working against, or being in conversation with, etc.” – I feel this in my bones, which are angry all the time with ideas which have no merit in their substance…. Sometimes I feel frustrated that either I am a pathetic fallacy or I don’t understand what a pathetic fallacy is. Like for instance going to the contemporary arts centre and entering its space and feeling pushed out of the conversation I am supposed to be having or being subverted from witnessing the event I am supposed to be a part of when I enter some artist’s space, as if approaching that space was supposed to invalidate me as a receiver of art, like I don’t get it, and I don’t know why it or I exist and I feel disengaged and disgusted with myself for not being engaged in what is supposed to be the “art” space.

  2. Jake Levine

    I also feel that way about poetry sometimes. Myung Mi Kim’s Commons for instance.

  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hey, actually I feel a little resistant to the ‘study the fundamentals and then you can experiment’ argument– not that’s exactly what either of you are saying–because I feel like there’s some room for saying, mess around, get messy, find out what you love, and then test yourself against all these different forms and genres that are out there and see what happens… so i guess if you define ‘experiment’ as ‘mess around, get messy’ that leaves a lot of room for other people to get implicated in your mess rather than alienated from a conversation that appears to be going on with out them and, say, in the Bay Area.

  4. Jake Levine

    I think there different types of messing around, for instance you take dead John Candy singing dead Ray Charles in this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmpMqa89wx8, that’s a coordinated messing around which I value for various reasons, but am kind of grossed out by its hyper production, versus this video of a j-pop schoolgirl having a fight to the death with her newborn baby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFHZ2SK-Chc there are so many layers of meaning in the second video, the j-pop, adolescent fantasies, children having, the oedipal complex, female empowerment, tons of fake blood, massive baby costumes…. i think in regards to “experimental” or “messing around”, sometimes “experimental” comes off as clinical, as in the first video, and therefore feels phony. The “messing around” in video #2 is so kitschy, so campy, so overblown that it resonates and strikes something inside me that feels (I hate to use this word) real.

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