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Interview: Threepenny Review

An Interview with Threepenny Review’s Wendy Lesser

Jen Schomburg Kanke: Which term resonates more with you: generalist, interdisciplinary, or public intellectual?

Wendy Lesser
: Hm.  I wouldn’t necessarily use any of them to describe me, but I guess “generalist” comes the closest.  “Interdisciplinary” sounds too academic (it implies that things are already divided up into disciplines) and “public intellectual” went out with Partisan Review, if it ever existed.  I do like the idea that I can be interested in ALL the arts and other things besides, without having to specialize narrowly in any one of them.  But I don’t want to suggest that I have mastered all these different things.  That’s why I chose the title “The Amateur” for one of my books — and also because of its root in the Latin verb “to love,” which conveys my motivation for all this interest in the arts:  it would be no fun being a generalist if I had to work on things I didn’t love.

JSK: Are there limits to being a generalist?

WL: Yes, of course — there are limits to any position.  Lack of depth would be one of them, and lack of companionship in your field another. One doesn’t necessarily suffer from the limits, but they are there.  (But remember, I did not and do not label myself a “generalist”:  that was simply the least undesirable of the three choices you offered me.)

JSK: To me, academic disciplines imply not only differing knowledge sets, but also different paradigms and ideologies. Are you suggesting that, as a generalist you are outside of those things as opposed to someone who considers themselves working in an interdisciplinary setting who would perhaps just be combining them from different fields?

: Perhaps just ignorant of them as opposed to outside of them.  I do have a PhD in English but I try not to let it show.

JSK: Do you think it is possible to be a generalist and remain within the academy?

: I doubt it, but I really have no idea.  My only connection with the academy, at this point, is to teach one course a year to Honors College students at Hunter, a course called New York and Arts in which we just gad about and look at a lot of different things. This does not qualify me to comment on academia; I am allowed to be a generalist in my one course, but that is probably not typical.  (But then, I imagine it does help, in my annual rehiring, that I have a PhD in English.  So disciplines do rear their ugly heads eventually.)

JSK: So, having a background in English you’ll hopefully understand if I ask a freakish close-reading question now. I’m curious about the phrasing in the introductory note to your blog. In the note you say that one of the reasons you started it is because “people felt that there should be a part of the Threepenny website that was available only online.” Did you need a lot of convincing about this or I’m I just reading too much into that?

WL: Probably that was just me convincing myself that it was not self-indulgent of me to have a Lesser Blog.

JSK: In my opinion, your periodic posts about various art forms is a nice supplement to the magazine because it allows you to comment on events happening in the art world or current books without the time lag that happens with the full magazine (not that there’s a huge “time lag,” although sometimes I feel with the internet if we don’t have a comment on it the instant it happens then there’s a “time lag”). It’s not like you’re blogging every day about drinking your coffee while reading submissions and petting the cat, so I’d say you have no worries about being anywhere near self-indulgent with this project. With The Lesser Bog and the submission manager both now on-line, has there ever been any thought to moving to an on-line format for the entire journal?

WL: No, I am wedded to print, so the print version will always be the primary one. We do put about 5 to 8 things from each issue up on our website, just to draw in new readers, but we have no plans to put everything up on the site: to put the whole thing online for free would subtract from our paying print customers (as the NY Times has recently discovered).  We do have a complete digital version that is available for purchase through zinio.com — that is, anyone who wants to read the whole magazine on a computer or an iPad can get an exact replica of each Threepenny issue in that form from Zinio — but it is essentially a separate business operation; we just take a cut of the Zinio sales, so digital subscribers and print subscribers are two separate categories.

JSK: The Zinio option seems like one that might appeal to a lot of readers embracing e-reader technology so it sounds like a great way to keep the magazine current and lively. Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee have both used the word “fresh” in reference to Threepenny Review. After nearly thirty-two years, how do you and Threepenny keep from falling into editorial ruts like so many other fine literary journals are often accused of doing?

WL: Well, I’m glad to hear you don’t think we’ve fallen into a rut.  One never knows from the inside, and certainly the magazine LOOKS very much the way it did 31 years ago.  I think one way is to constantly have younger people involved with the magazine.  Since 1992, I’ve always had a halftime deputy or associate editor to help me with the work, and she or he has generally been under 30, at least when hired.  Another way is to collect new writers all the time, which we do. Sometimes I read their work in other publications and ask them to write for us, sometimes I find them in a class I’m teaching or a conference I’m attending, but mostly they just float in, unsolicited.  And now that we have an online submissions system (it operates six months of the year, from January through June, and then we close it for the second half of the year), we get even more young people and other kinds of unexpected writers to choose from.

JSK: What changed in 1992 that made you add an associate editor?

WL: We converted to what was then quaintly called “desktop publishing”– that is, we stopped using an outside typesetter and started doing our own typesetting in Quark Xpress. (We have since moved to Adobe InDesign, but we still do all the type, photo, and layout work inhouse.)  I realized I would not be able to handle all that extra work along with everything else I had been doing, and that’s when I first hired a halftime associate editor, who eventually turned into what we called a “senior” or “deputy” editor after a few years.  That first one was Lisa Mann (now Lisa Michaels, a published writer), and she was a real wonder, a great addition to the magazine — as most of my associate editors since have been.

JSK: Would you ever think of handing the magazine over to another editor?

WL: Not unless forced to by death or ill health.  Perhaps that “not unless” should read “not until,” strictly speaking, since it is, after all, an inevitability, but I prefer not to plan on it yet.

JSK: Speaking of making plans, other than the standard and quite necessary “read the journal before,” do you have any tips for writers who may be making plans to submit to Threepenny Review?

WL: The best way to get into the magazine is through the Table Talk section — short nonfiction pieces of 1000 words or less.  I recommend people try more of those.  Longer nonfiction is also in short supply, especially critical essays and sociopolitical essays — we tend to be get plenty of memoir and “creative nonfiction,” whatever that is.  As for poetry and fiction, I don’t think they should be listening to any advice from me; they should just be writing what they are meant to write and sending it to me.  But only in the January through June period, please!  (The enormous success of our online submissions system has meant that we only have to read for half of each year to fill the issue for a full year.)

JSK: Let’s face it, Threepenny Review is a pretty awesome journal and it’s nearly a one woman show. Were there every times you doubted your own awesomeness or the awesomeness of the journal?

WL: I have to say that doubt is not a big part of my personality.  There probably ought to be more of it, and perhaps I should begin cultivating it, but it’s probably too late for that.  As a writer and editor, and as a person in general, I have all the benefits and all the shortcomings of someone who habitually jumps into the deep end and assumes she will be able to swim.  And the magazine, I guess, has all those benefits and shortcomings too.  But since nothing life-threatening is at stake (this isn’t brain surgery, after all), it doesn’t matter that I am an overly confident risk-taker; that is, I don’t think it hurts the magazine to have all sorts of different things tried out in it. And I am very cautious fiscally — a good bookkeeper, a good hoarder, and a pretty good fundraiser — which is why Threepenny has been able to survive all these years.

As for the magazine being “awesome” — well, again, it’s hard to see that kind of thing from the inside, but I’m glad you feel that way.

JSK: Thanks for being willing to take time out of your busy schedule to talk about the magazine with me. I’ve really appreciated this chance to get to talk with you about the journal.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Crampton

Wendy Lesser
, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of seven previous nonfiction books and one novel. Winner of awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and numerous other organizations, she has written book, theater, film, dance, and music criticism for a variety of print and online publications.


Jen Schomburg Kanke is a doctoral student in the Creative Writing program at Florida State University. Previously, she served as an editor of Quarter After Eight, a journal of experimental writing, and is currently the Assistant Poetry Editor of the Southeast Review. Her work has most recently appeared in Rattle, the Laurel Review, Review Americana, and Earth’s Daughters. She holds an M.A. in English, an M.Ed in Higher Education, and a B.S.Ed in Secondary Education all from Ohio University.

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