Worth a Look, Amateur or Not

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The Threepenny Review has long been one of America’s finest literary magazines. Let’s leave aside whether that amounts to much more, in today’s cultural climate, than producing the most elegant cries from an isolated, wilderness outpost. It’s a no-frills publication, devoted to print – little of its content is available online – and home to work by a staggering lineup of writers from around the world. The most recent issue alone featured work by C.K. Williams, Richard Ford, Geoff Dyer and Louise Glück. That it exists at all is a feat attributable almost entirely to the determination and vision of one woman, Wendy Lesser, who founded the magazine in 1980 and has maintained these tastes and standards ever since, in spite of major financial and logistical pressures. The roots of this long run, and insights on much else from Lesser’s life, make up her memoir The Amateur, now more than a decade old but no less worth reading for it.

Early on, Lesser notes that her character and values have made her, “well, an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in twentieth-century Berkeley.” She traces her progress from her childhod in Palo Alto (I felt foolish for not realizing Millicent Dillon, who wrote the great Jane Bowles biography, A Little Original Sin, is her mother), through her time at Harvard, when she encounters Benazir Bhutto, among others, to a self-deprecating account of her early days as a consultant, when,

All we had to recommend us were our Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees, which were prominently cited on our business brochure…Our implicit motto was: if you can write, you can think; and if you can think, you can do public policy consulting. There may have been a flaw somewhere in this logical train. Or the problem may have just been our clothes. (We hadn’t discovered Dress for Success). At any rate, no one hired us at the beginning.

Misadventures follow, but the real payoff for the reader, as in Lesser’s life, is her move to editing. “Until I was twenty-seven,” she writes, “I had no idea I was intended to be an editor. Editing is not the sort of thing they discuss in high school vocational seminars or teach in college courses, and even if they did no one would be interested in pursuing it.” Her account of opting for a career outside academia, despite earning a Ph.D, is forthright and easy to respect, especially in light of her insistence that “I wanted to exercise a kind of judgment that was not normal there”, and the very valuable work she has produced in the service of exercising that judgment. She is equally balanced in writing about her attraction to and eventual writings on dance. In her openness about the unexpected opportunities she encountered, and her misgivings in tackling these new directions, Lesser’s book calls to mind a more recent memoir, Some of My Lives, Rosamond Bernier’s account of her years starting out as a journalist and later founding and running the influential French art magazine L’Oeil. But where Bernier is gossipy, and her account takes in a roll call of art world greats, Lesser offers a more modest cast. For instance, on the occasion of guest-editing an issue of the San Francisco Review of Books, she runs up against budget constraints and a discouraging fortune-cookie message, a tale she relates to the writer Vikram Seth, who eventually includes it in his verse-novel, The Golden Gate. The budget constraints were no less daunting when she struck out on her own:

Financially, things were not so simple. At the beginning, every month’s bills caused me enormous angst: I couldn’t see how I was going to go on paying them, yet I couldn’t bear the idea of terminating the infant magazine…After ten yearsI got a larger grant which allowed me to pay myself a nominal salary for the first time, and twelve years into the magazine’s history I finally got enough to hire a full-time assistant – a young writer named Lisa Michaels who steered us through the shoals of software and hardware acquisition into the smoother waters of desktop publishing, and who became, in the course of five years, a treasured colleague rather than a hired hand. The Threepenny Review, which now has about nine thousand readers, is still run by a paid staff of only one and a half people, and it still operates out of the apartment I lived in when I started it.

That was more than a decade ago. I can’t speak with any authority on how times have changed at the Review, or whether they have appreciably, but only Lesser’s name and email address grace the top of the Contact Us page. She has launched The Lesser Blog, in the interest of finding a home for material that doesn’t fit the print publication for one reason or another, and because, “if you are not Diderot or Karl Kraus (and I am certainly neither), it is never a good idea to write the whole magazine yourself.” She may not be willing to write the entire magazine herself, but her sensibility, her preferences, have kept it afloat all this time.

Prior to the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s novels here in the U.S., I emailed her to ask if she’d be interested in a piece on them. She had just read them all, back to back, she said (I should mention she responded the same day), and felt the first book was far and away the best of the five. I had read the first two, preferred the first, but was prepared for a St. Aubyn rebound starting with the third book. She passed on the pitch and said she’d have been more enthusiastic if she’d liked the books better herself. Many readers have felt otherwise, to judge from reviews which have appeared in the past year and a half, but my experience, unfortunately, ran along the same lines as hers. None of this proves anything really, except maybe that it’s natural to admire work by people whose opinions dovetail with your own, and that Lesser’s is still the hand on the tiller at The Threepenny Review. She pushes on, in defiance of the times. Maybe all any literary magazine needs is an eighteenth-century man of letters, who happens to be female and lives in the twenty-first century, to take the helm. 

– John McIntyre

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