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Truth Enters In
A conversation with Wendy Lesser, whose new book, The Amateur, examines intellectual curiosities through the lens of autobiography -- and vice versa

March 17, 1999

lesserbk picture When, in her late twenties, Wendy Lesser decided she wanted to found a literary magazine, she came up with a list of possible titles and wrote them on an index card. Her fondness for both Henry James and George Orwell inspired two options -- Washington Square and Wigan Pier, respectively -- but she decided on a third, The Threepenny Review, for its "obvious Brechtian overtones." Now, almost twenty years since its inception, The Threepenny Review boasts a readership of ten thousand and prints fiction, poetry, and criticism by the likes of Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Pinsky, and Susan Sontag. According to the former poet laureate Robert Hass, a frequent contributor, "The Threepenny Review continues to be one of the brightest, liveliest, most intelligent and culturally alert journals in the country. It's one of the very few magazines that give one the feeling that there really is a conversation going on in this country about the arts and about ideas."
Previously in Books & Authors:

Russia's Other World (March 1999)
Jeffrey Tayler talks about his new book, Siberian Dawn, which tells the story of his 8,000-mile odyssey through lands rarely visited.

Islam Rising (February 1999)
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver, the seasoned foreign correspondent whose new book, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, shows that there is much more to Islamic activism than guns and bombs.

Portrait of the Artist as a Social Satirist (February 1999)
Bret Easton Ellis -- whose latest book, Glamorama, has predictably stirred up critics -- talks with Harvey Blume about the line between life and art.

Will We Survive? (January 1999)
Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey, traveled around the world in search of answers.

The Animal Point of View (December 1998)
Stephen Budiansky, the author of If a Lion Could Talk, says that in order to truly understand animal intelligence, we need to move beyond our sentimental fascination with elephants that "weep" and gorillas that "save children."

See the complete Books & Authors index.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

But The Threepenny Review has only partly defined Wendy Lesser's career. On track for a life in academia (she attended Harvard, then Cambridge, then Berkeley's Ph. D. program in English literature), Lesser realized early on that her varied intellectual enthusiasms wouldn't allow her to focus on one academic specialty, so she set out to hone her skills as a "self-employed, self-designated arbiter of cultural taste." Such independence is not especially suited to a full-time office job, which Lesser, now in her late forties, is proud to say she has never held down.

Lesser traces the evolution of her career in her new book, The Amateur. Billed as an autobiography, The Amateur bears no resemblance to the tell-all memoirs of our day, favoring instead the sly, reserved tones of the eighteenth-century English-gentlemen-of-letters she admires. As the titles of her books make clear, Lesser's interests range widely -- in addition to The Amateur, she is also the author of A Director Calls: Stephen Daldry and the Theater (1997); Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder (1994); His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art (1991); and The Life Below the Ground; A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History (1987). Her essays and reviews of literature, theater, dance, and film have appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Lesser lives in Berkeley with her husband and son. She spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

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Wendy Lesser   

Although you read and edit a lot of fiction, you write only nonfiction. Was there a point when you decided you'd rather critique fiction than write it?

I would rather write fiction than anything else in the world. Your question presumes that what one wants to do one can do. The question is, Did I ever stop wanting to write fiction? I love the world of novels, and I love being immersed in them. I've written two, but they haven't left my shelf. I also have a set of three novellas that my agent is just starting to circulate. So we'll see.

I have the appearance of being able to be a fiction writer. The friends that I have lunch with, for example, think I'm a great "lunch" novelist. I do little character analyses and descriptions of situations and things like that, and everybody thinks they're incredibly novelistic. But, of course, that's not at all the same as writing fiction.

I understand how to do a nonfiction voice -- I've thought about it a lot, I've practiced it a lot, it comes naturally to me -- but the novelistic voice is much more out of my control. Too much truth enters in. Fiction doesn't work unless a huge amount of truth enters in. In order for the fiction to work you have to be willing to put out more truth than you would normally want to. I almost can't tell when I'm doing it right and when I'm not.

You manage in The Amateur, billed as an "intellectual autobiography," to reveal the course of your life's work while remaining partially invisible -- personal developments like marriage and motherhood, for example, are only hinted at. Elsewhere you have written that it is imperative that the essay writer "be the ringmaster of his self-display" -- adept at both concealing and revealing. What brought you to this approach?

Other than novels, autobiographies are my favorite form of reading, and I've read a lot of autobiographies in my time. I was reading them long before the memoir craze -- which I enjoy, actually, because I like reading people's takes on themselves.

It quickly became apparent to me that a writer like Emma Goldman just could not control the way in which she was revealing herself, and so she came off as a total oaf. Anais Nin is another writer who created the exact opposite impression of what she should have. Of course, she was writing in her diary, so that's a little different than an autobiography, but still, it made me want to kick her. I realized that what I call the English style of autobiography was the more successful one: very carefully self-concealing and self-revealing, with the creation of the appearance of modesty. This is not false modesty, because the note of falseness doesn't enter in. Writers such as George Orwell, Leonard Woolf, J. R. Ackerley, managed this best.

I learned a lot from all that reading -- and stole a lot, really. And then I had to process it in such a way that it would not look stolen. I had to take these sort of Etonian-English-gentleman-type tones and turn them into something that was more appropriate to a California woman. I had a lot of help from Dan Frank, my editor at Pantheon, who pushed me to make this book more autobiographical, and who in general has a wonderful ear and a wonderful kind of reflective quality, a way of getting his writers to do their best. He wanted even more autobiography than was there. I said "No, no! I've revealed enough! I can't do anymore!"

Are you a big biography reader as well?

I'm not. Biographies always seem to me to be filled with approximations and falsehoods and things I think could not possibly have been true. However much the autobiographical subject is lying, you can get something out of that falsehood. It's like hearing a witness on the witness stand who's lying. You can get a truth out of that. But if the biographer has it wrong, you really can't get anything -- and I often feel biography has it wrong.

You've produced a diverse body of work. Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

I have always imagined myself as writing to some sort of general, nonacademic audience. Someone like me. Not that I have a picture in my mind of this crowd of people waiting for my books to come out -- luckily, since they're not -- but I do have a sense that there are people out there who are not unlike myself. The Threepenny Review was founded, and is edited, on the same basis: if I find something interesting, other people probably will too. And that has turned out to be true.

In this world of specialists, do you ever worry if you have the "authority" to pursue a particular enthusiasm? Are there subjects you were tempted to pursue, but didn't?

The embarrassing answer is no. But I'm only tempted to write about the things that I already know a little bit about. In other words, I know nothing about music per se -- I can't read music, and I don't have a good memory for a musical phrase -- so I rarely write about a musical performance that is not dramatic, like opera or dance. When reviewing an opera I might mention the music as something that's going on, but I rarely focus on the purely musical angle. I tend to focus on the things that I'm stronger in, like gesture, or language, or dramatic structure. I have written about musical performances, though, when I thought that they touched me in a way that didn't require me to be an expert. For instance, the singer Dawn Upshaw gave a wonderful performance here on the Berkeley campus -- very intimate, informative, and fun. And so I wrote about it in a way that apparently Dawn Upshaw and her producers liked, because I began to get all these Dawn Upshaw CDs in the mail. There are people out there performing -- even in fields I don't know very much about -- who are interested in having a generalist respond to them.

You have written in depth about the intersections between theater, film, novels, and real life, exploring particularly the dynamics of performing, viewing, and bearing witness. How does this all come together?

I am very interested in the response of the audience member to a work of art. Not purely in terms of visual perceiving, but in terms of hearing and feeling as well, and whatever other senses are activated when you're in the audience. It's like the question you asked earlier. I'm able to imagine my general readership by multiplying me. It's the same with the notion of an audience responding to a work of art: I presume that if a work of art succeeds in its effect on me then I can write about that effect and say something interesting about the work of art. It's a fine line, though, because if you go too many steps in that direction you just have narcissism and irrelevance. But I certainly think that kind of personal response is preferable to pretending that there are external, abstract, regular, predictable things going on in works of art that all people are meant to respond to in the same way. That way lies the absence of art and criticism. I'm focused on the audience member, because I am an audience member.

As for the connection art has to the real world, I agree with T. S. Eliot, who said that one function of criticism is "to exhibit the relations of literature -- not to 'life,' as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life." For me, works of art are a part of life. They're a very important part of what has made me who I am. That goes for most of the people I care about, too.

The more I go on in life, the more I feel the importance of finding other people who read the things I care about, and who like the same movies I do, for similar reasons, or hate the movies I like but can explain them to me in interesting ways. The whole process of triangulating between a few people and a work of art has become very important to me. It explains a lot about the way I live and what matters to me. It doesn't solve world problems like hunger or poverty or lying politicians, of course. I don't think you can make an easy transfer between the effect of a work of art and the morality of a society as a whole. There are too many slips in that process. But in terms of personal relations -- the tiny units that make up this society -- I do think it matters a great deal.

In Pictures at an Execution you allude to novelist Henry Fielding's observation that for executions to inspire terror in the public, they should be hidden, not publicized. In this way, he suggests, politicians should learn the art of suggestion from poets. Have you come across other such situations in which life could benefit from art?

I'm not interested in giving advice to politicians. I don't really understand how large units of government work. My morality is not the morality of the public sphere. I'm not just talking about the Clinton and Lewinsky stuff -- I'm talking about the whole way politics run in general. To me it's all pretty scary, and disgusting, and not related to how things should operate. So in that sense I don't see how politicians could learn from poets. I don't see how they could learn anything. Their thought process seems to me to be divorced from learning, except in a kind of strategic, how-do-we-get-through-this-day-and-into-the-next-session way.

I do think it works the other way around, though -- that is, that politicians are great material for poets and writers. I don't like Clinton -- I mean, I voted for the guy, but I've never liked him -- but he gave an incredible repentance speech on television that was straight out of a Shakespearean play. Not the first, terrible apology he gave, but another one, a month or so later. It was a masterful, well-constructed speech that managed to use the fact that he had sinned to make us feel more interested in him, and more trustful of him. Even though I thought, once again, Oh, the guy is such a great liar, I was incredibly impressed by how he had managed to touch these little buttons. He was just like a figure out of one of Shakespeare's Roman plays or something.

From The Atlantic Monthly:

"Lost in Post-Reality," by Nicholas Lemann (January, 1999)
A review of Neal Gabler's Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.
You mention in Pictures at an Execution a convict student of yours who once said, "When you're out on the street there, it doesn't feel like real life. It's like you're in a movie all the time. That's how you think about it -- like you're a character in a movie." Could you talk about the ways in which people organize their experiences according to the art they consume? When is identification helpful, and when is it not?

People may view themselves as being in their own movie, but that doesn't mean everyone does it the same way. In other words, for some people it is an overwhelming quality, and for others it's just a little back room in their mind. I think I view myself much more as a character in a novel than I do a character in any other art form. But that has to do with a lot of things, including that I've read so many novels, but also because of what seem to be obvious qualities -- such as the fact that a novel has length. I don't think of myself as a character in a play, because a play only lasts two hours! A novel is hundreds and hundreds of pages long and seems to go on for a lifetime. Of course, at different times in your life you feel that you're in different kinds of novels. You lean toward one author or another as being the kind that's shaping your life, or you understand your life more from the point of view of this author or that.

What do you think about the idea that an author has a responsibility to imagine "honestly"?

I think the author has to imagine honestly. It just won't be good art if they don't. The novel won't mean anything to me if the author is lying in some deep way about the way people are. There are certain novels that other people love -- and I mean people with really high-class minds -- that leave me cold, because I don't believe the author is imagining things with sufficient honesty. Nabokov and James Joyce, for instance. I love the stories in Dubliners -- I think that Joyce was a great writer at that point -- and I sort of like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but it's downhill from there. Ulysses leaves me cold, as does most of Nabokov's work, for the same reason: I feel that the author is too busy making an artwork and is not in contact with something that I consider truth.

But that's a taste thing for me. I hesitate to call it responsibility. I don't think any author has any responsibility in the sense that it's normally used in conversation, such as "Authors shouldn't show violent acts, because people will go out and do violent acts." I want to have nothing to do with that kind of talk about art. It doesn't make any sense at all. I think the author should do the things that she or he is capable of doing in the most truthful possible way.

You have written that The Threepenny Review has "benefited greatly from the tragic decline of American journalism," because only periodicals as small as yours publish the "idiosyncratic, timeless, personal essays" you appreciate. Could you talk about the changes you've witnessed during your two decades in the trenches?

There used to be the sense in book publishing that commercial writing would "carry" the noncommercial writing. High-class fiction and poetry that was not expected to make money was printed because other books made up for it. The same was true in magazines. In any given issue you would have writing that not every reader wanted to read, because there were other things in the magazine that every reader did want to read, and that was enough to sell the magazine. Now the things that are not going to appeal to a wide readership are not published at all. Those are exactly the things that I try -- and can afford -- to publish. I don't have to appeal to 400,000 or 500,000 consumers -- people that are going to read the ads and go out and buy the things that are listed in the ads. I'm appealing only to the 9,000 or 10,000 readers of The Threepenny Review, so I can afford to print much quirkier, more esoteric writings.

Recently I hosted a Threepenny event in New York at which four Threepenny writers read to the public. Three of the four had been rejected by Tina Brown's New Yorker, and so had sent their work to me. If I had just had a pipeline to The New Yorker's rejection pile, I would have been able to fill three magazines. But, alas for me (as an editor, not as a reader), David Remnick is much more interested in literary material. The signs are very hopeful that The New Yorker is actually reversing itself.

What are you working on now?

My next book is about rereading. I've been rereading books that I read first about twenty, twenty-five years ago, or even longer, and I'm thinking about writing about them. Things that were absolutely opaque to me when I was in my early twenties, because I thought they had to mean something incredibly theoretical and complicated and aesthetically abstract, turn out now to be clear and straightforward and wonderful on their own terms. This is particularly true of Henry James. When I first read Portrait of a Lady I just wanted Isabel Archer to get to the end and marry the lord. It wasn't until I reread the book that I understood what Henry James was doing with Isabella. The second time around I found that I was interested in her, and I wanted to follow the course of her decision-making in a way that I had not done when I was her own age.

I'm also looking at poets I didn't like when I was young, such as Pope and Wordsworth. I don't love them now, but I do understand what they were doing more than I used to. And I think I'll look back at Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and Dostoevsky's novels, in new translations. Dostoevsky seems like an author who might appeal to somebody in their twenties; maybe he won't appeal to me so much now. And then I thought I'd look at Vertigo again, the Hitchock movie, because it's about second looks -- about going back and having the same experience over again and trying to recreate things.

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Katie Bolick is an Atlantic Unbound editor.

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