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

What Their Mothers Gave Them

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The anthology is a strange beast, so often uneven or unremarkable, and destined for a short shelf life. This, like all rules, has exceptions. One notable example is Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by the writer Elizabeth Benedict. Among its charms: “Growing Pains” by Caryl Phillips, which would be worth the price of admission in itself, as well as reflections and mini-memoirs from Z.Z. Packer, Edmund White, John Casey, Denis Johnson and a cast of over two-dozen others. It seems Benedict has some uncanny knack for choosing subject matter which makes an anthology worth revisiting. Her new undertaking, which again hits that mark, is What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. She also appears gifted at charming and cajoling a large number of very good writers to give of themselves in a very forthright manner. “Singly,” Benedict writes in her Introduction, “each piece is a gem to me: a gathering in of memory, affection, and gratitude, however tormented the relationships once were.” Benedict’s pride is not misplaced; the collection is indeed rich and varied, and the timing of its release (just ahead of Mother’s Day) couldn’t be better.

The premise of this collection may inspire wariness in some readers. It could easily tread a Chicken Soup for the Soul type path, trying only to score cheap tears and shaming anyone who knows a person who keeps it on the shelf. Instead, we get Mary Gordon, recounting her reaction to the question and noting that, “My first response was,“My mother never gave me any gifts.” These words were followed by a generous helping of self-pity: that sickish sweet, oily syrup that somehow encourages the tongue and the palate to demand more and more. I try to stay away from its allure, and so, when I feel it coming on (particularly when its source is my mother), I seek alternatives.” In short, these are essays by women unafraid to turn a critical eye on themselves. Better still, they often do so with humor. Elissa Schappell’s mother gave her a scratched, worn cake pan. Her mother was an artist but not a particularly skilled baker. Schappell offers a list of childhood impressions of her mother’s baking handiwork too extensive and specific to be mere embroidery:

Growing up I assumed that every coconut cake leaned forward like a stout opera singer mid- aria, that every chocolate layer cake was propped up or held together with a series of girderlike toothpicks. It never occurred to me that the ring of pachysandra around the Black Forest cake disguised the fact that there was a hole in the side. I didn’t realize that you didn’t routinely cut the bottom off a cake. Wasn’t that just part of the process? I believed there were cookies that were meant to be overbaked, because they were best that way with tea, and others underbaked because they were fun to mold with your hands.

Schappell is a writer but, by her own admission, not a world-beater in the baking category either. Her mother has also taught her not to be cowed by this shortcoming:

“It’s not a problem,” my mother said when I called her in tears. “Just cut off the bottom.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Yes you can. You just tell your guests, ‘That’s how they do it in France.’ ”

My mother laughed, as though she’d said this a million times.

The writer Sheila Kohler’s response is elegant and searching, as befits her gift. “It could be,” she writes, “that the most precious gift I inherited from my mother, the one which led me to become a writer, was not an object but her silence about so much of her life.” A number of the writers here characterize their mothers with remarkable depth and clarity in just a few lines. In “Midnight Typing,” Luanne Rice writes that,

My favorite gift from my mother is a small pen- and- ink drawing she made on a folded- up piece of typing paper. It depicts Gelsey, her ragamuffin Scottie, along with the words, in shaky handwriting, “Beware of wee ferocious beastie.” She’d taped it to the kitchen door of her cottage on the rocks above Long Island Sound, where she was dying of a brain tumor. The sign was quintessential Lucille Arrigan Rice. It managed to be endearing, self- protective, and manipulative all at once. Translated, it said, “Don’t bother me, but if you do, don’t let the dog out, and please think I’m loveable.”

The novelist Elinor Lipman’s portrait of her mother is a little masterpiece:

First, what you should know about Julia Lipman: She was single until she was thirty- six, but answered “twenty- three” when her daughters asked how old she was when she married. She gave birth to me, the second child, six weeks before she turned forty-one. My birth certificate lists “mother’s age” as thirty-four, and it wasn’t a clerical error. She was dainty. She wore housedresses and aprons and never flats. Her bed slippers were mules and her French twist required hairpins. She used Pond’s cold cream on her face, Desert Flower lotion on her hands, and didn’t like drinking water out of mugs. She loved the Red Sox, and mild-mannered British mysteries — Ngaio Marsh a favorite — in which crimes were solved calmly. She wore Estée Lauder perfume and never the colors red, pink, or purple. She did not drive a car, play tennis or golf, ride a bicycle, or know how to swim, nor did I ever see her pitch, throw, or catch a ball. She was a queen of arts and crafts: a Brownie leader, a Lowell Girls Club fixture for twenty-five years, sewer, knitter, wallpaperer, gardener extraordinaire.

And the gifts! The gifts run the gamut, from a much-sought-after copy of Sylvia Plath’s Journals (not, in itself, as precious as the writer imagined), to an array of nail polishes, to a photograph which was thought lost for many years, and those are just examples of the literal, physical variety. But I don’t want to give away too much, not more than a good taste, just enough to create a hunger for more. Not a single response here is simple or tossed-off. These are carefully considered responses from women who happen also to be very accomplished writers. Or very accomplished writers who also happen to be women. Perhaps next time around, Benedict can pose this question to a group of male writers. Yes, the direct and obvious counterpart would be a book of essays by male writers on what their fathers gave them. But I would be more curious about a group of men, reflecting on what they cherish from their relationship with the first meaningful woman in their lives.

Reading What My Mother Gave Me (as a male reader, no less) brought to mind the recent Book Riot piece which debated the writer Meg Wolitzer’s observation that men don’t read women writers. The conclusion? Many men don’t, not frequently enough, and in many cases, never. The question was largely concerned with works of fiction, though it seems likely that the same tendencies apply to works of poetry or memoir. No doubt this is a dangerous generalization, and many male readers provide a place of honor on their reading lists to women writers. No doubt it’s also true that many men do the opposite, for one reason or another. I won’t bother enumerating all the ways in which this is a shame, and all that those readers are missing out on, if they forego work by women writers. This is not to say that What My Mother Gave Me is the starting place a lot of men would choose to explore writing by women. However, we’re less than two weeks from a Mother’s Day. That’s plenty of time, gentlemen, to buy it and give it a read before handing it over on May 12. Or better yet, buy two (the magic words every writer wants to see in a review). Mark up your own copy and discuss the essays with your mother after she’s read them. That, I dare say, is a gift she’ll never forget.

– John McIntyre