The guest for this episode of Lit Mag Love is Wendy Lesser, an American critic, writer, and editor based in Berkeley, California. She is the founding editor of the arts journal The Threepenny Review and the author of a novel and several works of nonfiction.
In this episode, we break outside the Lit Mag Love bubble we’ve been in—both in terms of region, The Threepenny Review is an established American lit mag, but also in terms of the approach to writers—a well-lauded, establishment figure in US literary scene, she says she can always tell when a writer has her or his own voice and that’s the thing they need to bring when they submit to the review. Also in the approach to being a gatekeeper, while she has published work that came from “under the slush pile” as she put it, and is aware that perhaps she has certain tastes when it comes to the writing, TPR is not a journal with a deliberate practice of finding voices from the margins of writing.
The Threepenny Review is an American literary magazine founded in 1980 and published quarterly (March, June, September, December). They publish fiction, memoir, poetry, essays, and criticism.
Wendy Lesser: [00:00:00] I think there is too much pushing forward in a way that is not motivated by pleasure that is motivated by shaped ambition or greed or some sense that people have as to what they should want. Zooming over everything else. And to me that is not literature. That is careerism.
Rachel Thompson: [00:00:28] This is Lit Mag Love. My name is Rachel Thompson and I’m a writer and editorial Collective member at Room Magazine. Lit Mag Love is co-presented by Room, literature art and feminism since 1975. And by the Lit Mag Love course.
Rachel Thompson: [00:00:45] Each episode of Lit Mag Love takes you behind the scenes of literary journals to give you insights on what’s going on there. I talked to writers and editors about their writing practice, delving into what they like in submissions, how journals work, and current trends and topics in the literary scene. And my guest today, Wendy Lesser, is an American critic, writer, and editor based in Berkeley, California. She is the founding editor of the arts journal, The Threepenny Review, and the author of a novel and several works of nonfiction. This episode marks a break from the Lit Mag Love bubble that we’ve been in. Both in terms of the region, The Threepenny Review as I mentioned is an established American lit mag, but also in terms of the approach to writers and writing. So Wendy Lesser is a well-lauded establishment figure in the U.S. literary scene and she says she can always tell when a writer has her or his own voice. And that’s the thing they need to bring when they submit to her.
[00:01:45] It’s also a change outside of the bubble for us in the approach to being a gatekeeper. So well Wendy has published work that has come from under the slush pile, as she put it, and is aware that perhaps she has certain taste when it comes to writing, The Threepenny Review is not really a journal with a deliberate practice of finding voices from the margins of writing. Whereas some of our previous guests definitely have been doing that. Welcome to Lit Mag Love, Wendy Lesser.
Wendy Lesser: [00:02:12] Thank you for having me, Rachel.
Rachel Thompson: [00:02:14] You are not just the editor at The Threepenny Review but you’re also the founder. I’m pleased to have you here today to talk about your journal that’s based in Berkeley. And I want to start by asking you about your own writing origin stories. So I know that your mother is also a writer, and do you think that’s what led you to become a writer?
Wendy Lesser: [00:02:35] Probably unconsciously but on a conscious level I avoided it at first. Because as a child I saw her you know shutting herself up in her room and struggling to get published and all the things that writers have to do. So when I went to college I majored in first anthropology and then history and literature about planning a way to go on to be a city planner. And then I even applied to law school. And so I thought I was going to do something else. But by the time I came back to California, having been on the East Coast and then in England for two years, and entered a graduate program I was pretty convinced I wasn’t going to be an academic. So that’s when I would say I started turning toward being a writer.
Rachel Thompson: [00:03:14] And do you feel like some of her writing has had an influence on your writing?
Wendy Lesser: [00:03:18] Her name is Millicent Dillon, and I don’t think her writing directly influenced me. No. I think her mode of being in the world influenced me. You know, our entire family was highly critical and this tendency has been passed along to my son, who is not a writer but a political figure in Brooklyn. But anyway, we all address the world as if it needs to be critiqued. And so I think that came from her. And I think a sense that language matters, and you know having a lot of books in the house, all that was a direct influence. But the style of her writing and the things she chose to write about, no, I don’t think there’s a direct influence.
Rachel Thompson: [00:03:53] And you talk too about how she locked herself up for long times in the practice of being a writer, what is your practice of writing currently like?
Wendy Lesser: [00:04:02] Well because I have The Threepenny Review I don’t write full time, of course, I have to manage the magazine as well. So normally I have between two and three days a week that I set aside for writing, depending on whether it’s a crunch period on the magazine or a crunch period on the book I’m working on. Some weeks, for instance, this week, because it’s layout week when I have to figure out where everything goes on the page, I won’t do any of my own writing at all. But when I’m hard at work on a book I will maybe set aside Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays or something to work on the book and the rest of the time I’m working on Threepenny. It’s pretty much a seven day a week life. I mean I do take time off. I go on long walks with my husband, I go out in the evenings, I’m not deprived in any way. But there is rarely a day that passes where I don’t do something on the magazine.
Rachel Thompson: [00:04:51] Yeah that seems very true to the literary magazine editor life especially when you’re the one that’s solely responsible for it to you.
Wendy Lesser: [00:04:58] Well I had a half-time Deputy Editor and he’s very responsible, but he only comes you know three days a week and he doesn’t have to work on weekends.
Wendy Lesser: [00:05:07] Yeah it’s like we can be our own worst bosses. So this podcast is mostly. Talking to emerging writers or writers who are looking to get some of their first publications in journals or they’re in the early stages of their writing lives. And I’m wondering if you can think back to again, maybe getting a bit into your origins around writing, what is the best advice that you received when you were an emerging writer?
Wendy Lesser: [00:05:32] Have a day job. You know do something else to earn your living. There have been a few years in my life when I have coasted by entirely on what I earned from my writing and what I earned from Threepenny, but mostly, neither of those things nor both together was enough to support me. So everybody should have some kind of skill, whether it’s teaching or being a locksmith or I don’t know gardening whatever they can get paid for, and then have their writing.
Rachel Thompson: [00:06:01] Yeah I think it’s good to demystify the idea that even really successful writers are often still working on something else. I also wanted to ask what is the worst advice you received as an emerging writer.
Wendy Lesser: [00:06:14] You know I’m not the person that receives a lot of advice. People take a look at me and they don’t give advice so I don’t recall getting any really bad advice. A woman who came to my party that my mother gave me for my Ph.D. dissertation looked at the acknowledgements in the dissertation and it said and thank you to Christopher Ricks for talking me out of going to law school. And she said that man was responsible for the loss of millions of dollars in income to you. But I don’t think it was bad advice. I think it was good advice but she thought it was bad advice.
Rachel Thompson: [00:06:45] I guess I asked this line of questioning because I want to get at mentoring as well and part of it is because the magazine I’m coming from is Room Magazine and we do a lot of mentoring within. We have a whole collective of people so we’re a large group of people very few of whom are getting paid for the work. So I’ll make sure that, that mythology is not there that is a big staff. But there are a lot of people involved in the project and we’re mentoring each other but then we’re also working on mentoring emerging writers too. I’m just wondering, what kind of mentoring you’ve had happen in your writing life and then within your writing community today.
Wendy Lesser: [00:07:19] Oh well people have helped me tremendously. I mean Christopher Ricks, as I said, steered me toward being a critic I would say. And then Thom Gunn, who was a poet in San Francisco and who I really loved and was friends with, basically gave me an example of the writing life, the disinterested not controlled by anybody else, writing life. So that has been an important model.
Wendy Lesser: [00:07:42] Yeah, the writers I’ve met have had an influence on me. I don’t take my job at Threepenny as being one of mentoring. There are writers who I’ve published for 10 or 20 or 30 years who would say that the magazine at least and I suppose have been a mentor in a certain way. I’ve encouraged them along I’ve nominated them for prizes, I’ve told them when they need to cut the last sentence. Things like that. But I pretty much want writers who already know what they want to say and already have an interesting and unusual way of saying it. I’m not trying to shape people into some idea I have in my mind as to what the Threepenny writer should be. They should come to Threepenny already if not fully-formed, because we published plenty of people in their 20s you know who are probably going to change and develop as writers, but they should come with their own sense of who they are. And present that material to us and we’ll take it or leave it basically.
Wendy Lesser: [00:08:37] I think that’s the best kind of editor experience where they’re trying to help you achieve the vision that you have for your own writing.
Wendy Lesser: [00:08:42] Right. And we do very little tinkering with the work we accept. I mean every once in a while with writers I know well, Elizabeth Tallent for instance, who I’ve been publishing since the 1980s and who gives me some of her very best stories and very best essays. With her I’ve had sort of lengthy correspondences about you know on page 20, do you really think this character would do that? Everything you’ve said about them suggests otherwise. But there are very few writers who I would have that detailed a conversation about things that are central to the story. For the most part, I need to get to know somebody really well before I would dare to enter into that degree. Mostly I would say to somebody, this story isn’t quite right for us or this is a great story, can I correct the grammar problem in paragraphs 1 and 17. You know like that.
Rachel Thompson: [00:09:32] Can you tell us a bit more about why you started The Threepenny Review. What was driving the need for a new journal at the time that you’d saw?
[00:09:41] So I was in graduate school at Berkeley. I was living in Berkeley and there was something called the San Francisco Review of Books that I was writing for. Because I had a lot of free time as a graduate student and I would write book reviews that came out almost monthly. And then there was something that friends of mine started in the academy. You know professors started University Publishing, and I wrote for them and did some editing for them. And neither of those magazines seemed to me to be what I thought a literary magazine should be. And there also seemed to be a big gap between the intelligentsia, if you want to call it that, the intellectual readership of the Bay Area and any publication that appeared there. So I thought the Bay Area needed a publication that was worthy of its readers and writers. And being 26 or 27 years old I thought I was capable of doing that. You know you don’t have limits at that age. And then I called it The Threepenny Review I had some other possible names. Washington Square was one, after the Henry James novel and also after the places in New York and San Francisco. And Wigan Pier was another, after Orwell.
Wendy Lesser: [00:10:44] But I didn’t take either of those I took The Threepenny Review because of certain principles that had been outlined by Bertolt Brecht not in the Threepenny Opera but in other things he’d written. But because Threepenny seemed to me that nicest name of anything he’d written, I adopted it for The Threepenny Review. And all three of those titles, the intention was to have something that didn’t say Bay Area, San Francisco, California. I didn’t want to limit the magazine to its geographical location. I had no plans to move it, but I wanted it to represent national and even international writers and to represent a world of letters that I thought was international not local.
Rachel Thompson: [00:11:24] I want to follow up on the thread of not limiting the magazine to its geographical location and representing national and international writers. And part of the point here, I guess, and part of the mission press too is uncovering and opening space for diversity and writing diverse voices. And what role do you think The Threepenny Review has played in that?
Wendy Lesser: [00:11:45] I think it played a reasonably good role. I mean everybody else is now on that bandwagon too so it’s not as if nobody is looking around for new, good diverse voices. But we over the years have just done our best to get interesting people into the magazine from elsewhere. So, for instance, a recent issue sometime in the last year had two different Nigeriens in it. One who came to us through his agency, The Wylie Agency, already an established writer a great short story that we published. And the other a relatively unknown young poet who came to us from our online submissions system. I mean if by diversity you mean many countries we have people, Javier Marías, who’s from Spain, writes for almost every issue. I have Margaret Jull Costa kind of on retainer and she translates a lot of things that he’s written and gives them to us for almost every issue. And then a Dutch doctor named Bert Kaiser is somebody who’s been writing for the magazine for over 20 years. I found his work in a Paris bookstore when I was there and I was so impressed by this book he wrote about death and dying and dealing with old people, which was his profession as a doctor, that I wrote to him through his publishers and he’s been writing for us ever since. If you mean by the diversity ethnic and racial diversity we have tons of Asian-American and Hispanic American writers that pop up in our pages all the time.
Wendy Lesser: [00:13:10] But actually in my I mean I could sit down and categorize them that way if you made me. And grant proposals make you do that. But in fact I don’t think of it that way. I think that oh this person is really good at writing essays and that person is a great poet. Or I hope I get another story from this one soon. So that tends to be the way I think about those writers. Also African-American writers. I mean one of my closest friends in Berkeley who is a doctor writes for Threepenny about once a year. She really great piece about the opioid epidemic a couple issues ago. But I don’t know her because she’s African-American I know because we went to college together. Or another of my writers, Cliff Thompson, who appears probably twice a year, is African-American. But again it’s the quality of his voice as an essayist that first attracted me to his writing when he first mailed something in unsolicited probably 15 at least maybe 20 years ago.
Rachel Thompson: [00:14:03] What’s been the most rewarding part of editing for you? Like how has editing informed her own writing as well?
Wendy Lesser: [00:14:09] Yeah that’s a good question and it’s been very useful. What I find is that the hardest part of writing is the first draft for me. And I’ve talked to other writers and they feel the same way. Especially with the book. Not so much with an essay because you know ok I can manage ten pages I can manage 15. But when you have a book project in front of you you never know for sure if it’s going to get finished. Are you going to be able to climb that huge mountain and come down the other side. And so that’s the hard part. So there’s a certain level of anxiety even that is interfering with the writing process as you’re trying to get that first draft down. For me, once I have the first draft down it’s all golden after that. I love rewriting. It’s just easy for me because I’m an editor. And if I just set something aside for, even a day makes a difference, but if I set it aside for a week or two and then come back to it I can read it almost as if I’m an outside person. As if I’m an editor reading another writer’s work for the first time and I can see where the awkward sentences are and I can figure out how to solve those knotty problems of transitions. It all becomes incredibly much clearer when I’ve had a week or two away from the writing. Even better a month away. So in that sense, editing has informed my writing process and my own belief is that for me 90 percent of the work is in that first draft. But 90 percent of what makes the book good is in that rewriting phase. That is people would look at my first draft and they would say who would ever publish her. But when I finish the rewriting it’s all a million times better. And that process of making it better is the fun part.
Rachel Thompson: [00:15:44] And yet you’re saying everything was there too in that first draft. So it’s like everything’s there in the first draft but then in the revision.
Wendy Lesser: [00:15:51] No it’s the everything’s not there in the first draft. Sometimes I read through and I read a whole paragraph and it seems to be written in cliches. OK so that one goes out. Then something has to come in instead. Or I understand that I got to a certain difficult point in the argument and I quit. You know what’s there is ok but there’s this big, empty place where I need to be thinking harder. But that level of thinking is not as difficult as getting down the first draft. It’s more fun you just say to yourself ok well where does this argument go, if I let it go somewhere. And then you can make five more sentences that completely improve the whole chapter.
Rachel Thompson: [00:16:27] Yeah I love how you say I got there and then I quit because I think a lot of times when we see emerging writers submit, they haven’t done that next stage of pushing back against the work and saying ok what am I really trying to say here and how can I get deeper into the writing.
Wendy Lesser: [00:16:42] I think that’s true but I also think, at least among the writers I’ve accepted, the real writers have a voice and the voice is there from the first sentence or the first line of the poem if they’re poets. But it’s there from the first sentence of the story or the first sentence of the essay. And you can’t mistake it. I mean sometimes I don’t take pieces that have that voice because they go wrong later on. Badly wrong or severely wrong in a way that I can’t with a couple of line edits fix. But I can always tell when a writer has her or his own voice and that’s the thing that they need to bring to the project even before the thinking starts.
Rachel Thompson: [00:17:20] The Lit Mag Love podcast is co-presented by Room Magazine, literature art and feminism since 1975 and Room has published fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, art interviews, and book reviews for 40 years. Can be found at www.roommagazine.com. Where the latest call for submissions is on the theme of magic.
Rachel Thompson: [00:17:39] The other presenter for the podcast is myself and my project We Write, We Light. I offer online courses including the course also called Lit Mag Love, which is now open for registration. It’s a five week online course to help you publish in journals and I invite writers to get smart, fearless, And published with lots of help from me. You can find out more at www.litmaglove.com.
Rachel Thompson: [00:18:01] I want to ask you over the years that you’ve been publishing The Threepenny Review, is there a piece that strikes you as the most important piece you’ve published since you began?
Wendy Lesser: [00:18:09] No, no not any one piece. Not at all. First of all, I think the issues are accumulations of a bunch of different voices and they matter in that way. Even regular readers tell me this but also writers who are in the magazine. They love appearing between this poem and that story or between this essay and that photograph or something. They have a sense of being part of a community of voices that are all saying slightly different things but are tending, not even fully in the same direction, but that are part of the same world; part of the same general sense of how things should be in the world. So that, I would say, matters more than any single article I’ve published.
Wendy Lesser: [00:18:53] I would say high points that I remember from you know the history of the magazine are. The time we found a homeless writer, Lars Eighner. He’s not known anymore but he couldn’t even submit the work himself. A friend of his sent me 60 pages of the stuff. And I called up the friend, who I didn’t know but he’d left a phone number, and I said don’t send this anywhere else I’m going to take something and I edited that down to about 20 pages and we published what became a piece of Travels with Lizbeth that was Lars Eighner’s book. And he just went viral in the days before viral. Where there was no computer in those days or there was a computer but there was no internet. But his work really went wild and people loved it. And I remember the feeling of achievement at finding him not even in the slush pile underneath the slush pile and just the tremendous feeling of accomplishment there was to publishing him. He had a wonderful voice.
Wendy Lesser: [00:19:46] And then another great feeling of accomplishment was reading a few novels of Javier Marías and writing to him in Spain and saying, is there anything you could send us in The Threepenny Review. And getting back I believe the first thing we published of his was a short story. Since then, we’ve published articles. But just being able to publish this writer whose work I had so admired in book form having him send work to Threepenny that was a thrill too. But I’ve had many such thrills sometimes you know just Wendell Berry who sends us work now. Sometimes I read a story Wendell Berry has sent to me and I can’t be satisfied with sending him a little note in the mail. He doesn’t have email. I have to get on the phone and call him up in Kentucky and say, I can’t tell you how moved I was to read this story. I’m so proud to have it in Threepenny. So that’s why I can’t single out any one thing. I mean I, I get this feeling at least once a year or I wouldn’t keep doing it.
Rachel Thompson: [00:20:40] I love hearing that enthusiasm. And actually I’m thinking of a quote I saw attributed to you on Twitter. That said, I suppose if I have to give a one word answer to the question of why I read that word would be pleasure.
Wendy Lesser: [00:20:52] That’s definitely true. That might come from a book I wrote called Why I read. I mean it’s possible that I said it in person because it sounds like me but it’s also possible someone took it out of the book.
Rachel Thompson: [00:21:01] And so it sounds to me that that’s also why you’re editing people as well.
Wendy Lesser: [00:21:05] I’m a great believer in people doing what they want to do. And my friends think I’m terribly selfish but I think that if everybody could figure out what they wanted and what gave them pleasure, I’m sort of an Adam Smith “invisible hand” person in this way, and if all the people represented themselves reasonably and fairly not taking too big a piece of the pie not trying to deprive others so that they could get more than their fair share. But if they just would be knowledgeable enough about themselves to know what gives them pleasure and let other people know that and everybody kind of negotiate it together openly. Things would be a lot better. I think there is too much pushing forward in a way that is not motivated by pleasure that is motivated by shaped ambition or greed or some sense that people have as to what they should want. Or shouldn’t want. And not what they really do want.
Rachel Thompson: [00:21:59] Would you say that that’s true in literary circles as well.
Wendy Lesser: [00:22:03] I suppose so. I mean I can’t say that so much for my friends. First of all I wouldn’t dare to. But also I think I choose friends and probably writers who are doing what they want to but I do see it in iconic literature. That is if I read a book like James Joyce’s Ulysse or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume work, what I see is ambition. Zooming over everything else and saying, I want to be a great writer. And how can I be a great writer, ok I can, you know, triumph over everybody else by doing this. And to me that is not literature. That is careerism. So I love Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even more I love Dubliners. I think Joyce was a great writer. I think Ulysses goes off the tracks into, “I’m going to be a great writer and you know stomp out every other trend around me because people are so impressed by what I’m doing.” And I don’t think Knausgaard is a great writer to begin with so he’s just doing the ambition part. But I think that people who are really great writers, are in touch with the things that they care about and they’re in touch with their own dark sides to their own destructive sides and their own cruel sides. And some of that comes out in their work as well. But they are pouring their own selves, and lives, and unconscious desires, and everything else into their work. Which is not to say it isn’t very carefully shaped. It has to be to work.
Rachel Thompson: [00:23:32] Wow. Yeah, I think you’ve really defined for me even what I like in writing; the writing that really does go deep and is revealing truths about someone and not, like you said, just saying, oh look at how wonderful I can polish this.
Wendy Lesser: [00:23:46] Right.
Rachel Thompson: [00:23:47] Speaking of literary giants, you’ve been mentioning Joyce, you have some living literary giants who appear in the journal frequently and Sharon Olds comes to mind as one of those, an American poet that I love. Can you tell me about the choice to have people appear several times historically through the journal?
Wendy Lesser: [00:24:03] Well Sharon Olds, she sends me like three poems five poems at once and I don’t think there’s ever been an occasion where I’ve turned them all down. You know and that’s true of other, Kay Ryan, who I also publish. Robert Pinsky, David Ferry, Louise Glück, for sure. I am really lucky in my poets. They speak to each other; they see each other’s work in my pages and so they send me stuff. And writers of that caliber when they send you five poems you can pretty easily find one you want in that batch. So I don’t really know Sharon Olds; I’ve been to her readings. I’m not even sure we’ve met personally, you know been introduced, but there have only been about four or five times, I guess, that she sent me work over the years I’ve taken something of it. And I’m really happy with the things we have. In the current issue, there’s this wonderful poem called Bay Area Aria that I really love. She just has wit, you know, it’s fun to read a poem like that.
Rachel Thompson: [00:24:54] I want to ask you or I want to switch gears to talk about the slush pile for the magazine and to some of the mechanics behind the scenes. What does her current acceptance rate of slush in the magazine if you know?
Wendy Lesser: [00:25:05] Well let’s see. I think I’ve done the calculation it comes out to be something like 0.02 percent, 0.0002 if you leave out the percentage sign, but basically here the numbers: we read manuscripts for six months of the year, January through June, that’s when our online submissions system is open. We get about 100 submissions a day. Every day on that submission. Like I know for sure because I just calculated it yesterday I cleaned them out. I had finished reading them all. It was empty at about 5:00 yesterday afternoon by this morning there were forty nine more in. And each of those submissions is one story one essay or up to five poems. In other words, it’s more than just the numbers suggest. Out of those hundred a day that we receive. We probably take two or three poems a month. We try not to take more than four stories every quarter because we only publish eight stories and we have to have room for all eight. In other words, we’re accepting over six months it has to last us for 12. You can see the numbers are very small. The percentages are slightly higher for nonfiction because we get a lot less nonfiction. So I take probably two essays a month off of the unsolicited manuscripts. And I take even more Table Talk that’s the short, really short essays that we publish. They tend to come in maybe two-thirds of them, of the ones we publish, come in through Table Talk. So nonfiction is a better route into the magazine if you can write, you know, good nonfiction. Because there’s just so much poetry and so much fiction coming in.
Wendy Lesser: [00:26:45] I don’t know if this will get out to everybody it needs to. But David my deputy editor and I have a policy of trying to get to everything right away. He reads submissions all three days of the week he’s in. I read submissions seven days a week. Or six or five if I’m working really hard on a book. So we get to everything instantly when it comes in and we normally give people a response within 48 hours. I have announced every year on our Facebook page that this is what we do. We don’t let it sit around for three weeks. We don’t pass it around in any kind of committee. If there’s anything promising we put it in maybe pile on both of us read and we get to it right away. So when people get rejections after 48 hours it is not because we have not read it. It is because we read it right away.
Wendy Lesser: [00:27:29] But I can tell you. I get some nice comments saying, thanks for reading so quickly, because we require no simultaneous submissions; you have to submit exclusively to us. But I also get some enraged people saying, I know you haven’t read this. And I feel like saying, how do you know? You’re not here looking at me. You don’t know how I run the magazine. It’s just so infuriating that people think if you do it quickly you haven’t read it.
Rachel Thompson: [00:27:51] Yeah, it’s funny because that was going to be my next question. I did read online someone saying, Threepenny Review must be the most wicked lit mag ever. You send them a story in the morning and you get a rejection email by evening [laughs].
Wendy Lesser: [00:28:02] That doesn’t happen normally. That happens if I see a name that has appeared 17 times in submissions. If I see it, I read it again right away so I can send a rejection right away to send a message. If we get back to you that quickly probably there’s been a real problem like you’ve overburdened us with bad stuff. But 48 hours is our normal response time. There’s nothing wrong with your work. If you hear from us in 48 hours. Sometimes I accept something within 24 hours and the writers are amazed at that. Sometimes because David and I have to read the things in common that might take up to a week.
Rachel Thompson: [00:28:32] I want to pick up something you said before about the pieces working together too because I’m seeing your process here. You’re getting the pieces in, you’re reading them rather quickly, and you’re saying no right away within 48 hours. But then you have a maybe pile I assume then when you read those more carefully and again we accept them only on the basis of merit. In other words we don’t accept them for thematic issues or anything like that. Somebody doesn’t get under the wire because they happen to be writing about a subject we’re interested in that day.
Wendy Lesser: [00:28:58] We do have things called symposia in the issues. In every alternating issue; in the spring in the fall. We run a symposium and that is invited writers contributing something on a prearranged topic. So recent symposia have been a symposium about neighborhoods, a symposium about shame. The next one for the fall is going to be a symposium about charm. We’ve had a symposium about Berlin, and a symposium about London, and a symposium about love, you know all different topics like that. But other than the symposia people who are invited to write on a very specific topic everybody else has chosen just on the merit of their work. Then we kind of sort the stuff vaguely into piles for different issues; we think this is going to be a spring story or a winter poem. Roughly based on what the other things around that are like. But that can be resorted at any time. And then the rest of it is coincidental. I mean always when I sit down to put together the issue I find that one thing leads neatly into the next. And if it doesn’t, I can put a poem in between that will bridge the gap or I can put a photograph there that will bridge the gap. So it might not be that these things were all chosen to go together but when somebody sits down with the magazine and reads it front to back. It will feel something like a continuous conversation. And that’s chance or serendipity or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a result of choosing things that are meant to go together.
Rachel Thompson: [00:30:22] I’m really glad you clarified that because in my experience sometimes we’re turning down good work. Because at Room we do two themed issues a year. We do four issues a year: two are preset themes and then the others emerge more like what you’re saying. But then we end up turning down some work because we already have a story that’s like this and maybe we want to hit a different note here. Like this sort of these kind of decisions that end up being made. Do you find?
Wendy Lesser: [00:30:44] Were not particularly topical. So after the Parkland shooting we had a million poems about the school shootings. After Trump’s election we had a million screeds about that. Of course, we’re not unaware of things happening in the world and we want people to be aware in their own writing in a sort of sideways way of these real events in the world. But we don’t want thematic stuff like that. Because we’re a quarterly, for one thing, and because sometimes we accept something one year and it doesn’t come out till the next. But also I decided when I started the magazine that there were going to be no thematic issues because one of the publications I had worked on, University Publishing, had only thematic issues and they had exactly your problem. They had to turn down good things because they didn’t fit the theme. And they had another problem, which is that they couldn’t bring out the issue on time because these three people who were supposed to write on the theme hadn’t gotten their work in. And they were waiting and waiting and that the work would only be useful for that issue not for following ones so they couldn’t bump it over. So I decided no theme issues that way if someone’s late delivering. If some writer I really want doesn’t get it in in time for the summer issue, I can use her in the fall. You know, there’s no limit because there’s no preset theme. Except, as I say, for these symposia, which is a relatively recent development in the magazine and not a large amount of space in the issues that it’s in.
Rachel Thompson: [00:32:05] Can you tell me a bit about what kind of reading you’ve seen too much of and that you don’t want to see again.
Wendy Lesser: [00:32:11] It’s not that I don’t want to see it again because, as I said, in Why I Read, I was talking about editing a magazine and the kinds of things that I really don’t like. And then I said, and then here’s this Wendell Berry a story that breaks all these rules. It just does all the things that I just said I don’t like perfectly and I published it. So all these rules are meant to be broken by people who can be brilliant on the subject. But a, stories about childhood and particularly essays about childhood but also short stories in the first person that talk about grade school or what mom did when we went to the mall or any of these things. I can’t tell you how many of those we receive and how few of those are worth publishing. So beware of thinking that your childhood is interesting to other people. For the most part unless you’re Wendell Berry or a few other brilliant writers, of which there are I suppose there are many, Rebecca West is another. But it’s very, very hard to do a good story based on a child’s perspective of something that happened to her or him as a child.
Wendy Lesser: [00:33:11] Another one where people tend to go astray, they don’t do so much anymore I don’t know why, but dating and sex. And mean like I hated that cat story that was in the New Yorker. I just thought that was garbage and morally garbage too. The narrator was a total jerk but she presented herself as a high and mighty person who was experiencing the other guy being a jerk. So, for the most part I think people’s responses to actual real life dating and sex are not good literature. Again, great writers can transcend this and we have published stories and in fact just recently accepted one that’s kind of on this subject. But on the whole, there’s way too much of it and it’s not done well. As I said, extremely topical things aren’t good. We have a ban on the name Trump in the magazine. From the moment he was elected to the moment we get rid of him, which, God willing, will be soon, his name will not appear ever in The Threepenny Review. And maybe ever. Forever. In other words, this ban may last for the rest of his and our lives. But you’re not allowed to use his name in the magazine. You can allude to him as our president or the present administration or whatever and people do. I don’t want homes or stories that are on the subject of Donald Trump. It’s bad enough I have to read about him in real life.
Rachel Thompson: [00:34:27] I guess I’m wondering why and you maybe answered it. You said you’ve read enough about him outside of the journal.
Wendy Lesser: [00:34:34] Part of it is just a visceral distaste. From the minute he was elected and of course even before, because we had to experience him quite a bit before, I find him such a disgusting creature. And I don’t want to sully my magazine with his name. I’m just like everybody else. I read the newspapers three times a day to see what stupid thing he’s done now. And that’s the function of newspapers and it goes away in 24 hours and there’s a new stupid thing next. But I don’t want to have his name. That’s all I can say. My hatred of him is so visceral but I do not want to have his name in the magazine. My own article in the current issue, which is about a German theatre piece that came to BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in New York, ends with the paragraph that directly alludes to the Trump administration and to how we all feel about the Trump administration. I’m not saying that the subject matter of our hatred for this figure is banned. Not at all. It’s just his name that’s banned.
Rachel Thompson: [00:35:28] You were talking about the function of newspaper and then it got me thinking about the function of literature. What kind of thoughts I guess you have on the function of literature?
Wendy Lesser: [00:35:37] Well you know Ezra Pound called that news that stays news. Now Ezra Pound was a maniac and a fascist, but, on the other, hand he was right about a lot of things. And I do think that’s true. That literature stays current when everything that’s just current events drops away. And I do think that literature tells you things about the world that can stick with you and shape your sense of history in a way that regular old nonfiction accounts often can’t. I mean most of what I know about 19th century England, everything I know about 19th century Portugal, and at least half of what I know about 19th century Russia, comes from novels. I have a sense of those worlds from reading the great works of literature that came out of them. I’m not saying that literature is separate from life. Literature is part of life as T.S. Eliot said at one point. But I think that some kind of transmutation has gone on having to do with the fact that it was sifted through an individual perspective; the author’s individual perspective. Even if we don’t know anything about him, like Homer or Shakespeare, you know those are like anonymous people in a way to us. But something has been sifted through their perspective and then has come out the other side in a way that is no longer personal. It transcends the personal even though it’s gone through the person.
Rachel Thompson: [00:36:56] What kind of rating are you eager to see more of?
Wendy Lesser: [00:37:00] That’s a strange question to ask somebody who has to read 100 manuscripts a day [laughs]. In a way I’m not eager to see any more of anything. You know there’s enough already; there’s a lot. Flannery O’Connor when somebody said to her, do you think MFA programs are stifling young writers? She said not enough of them. I mean there’s a way in which that notion that everybody has some to say is not a healthy one. I think people should edit themselves more and not send out everything that touches the page. But what kind of writing do I want more. I can’t say, you know. There’s a great Randall Jarrell poem where a little boy is sick in bed and he says, if I can think of it, it isn’t what I want. And that’s kind of how I feel about writing. If I’ve already thought of it in my mind, it’s not what I want. I want someone else with their mind and their take on the world to come in and show me what I’m missing.
Rachel Thompson: [00:37:50] That’s the trick and the challenge. The gauntlet laid down for writers who want to submit to editors. I guess part of how they discover that is by reading Threepenny Review.
Wendy Lesser: [00:37:59] I suppose. You know it can’t hurt to read it. And I probably do have tastes and prejudices and things that I like and things that I don’t like that I’m not aware of and that I don’t list on our submissions page. But I think, again, what I was saying about voice and originality, I think a writer who read The Threepenny Review and tried to copy a Threepenny article and send it in. I think I would spot it as inauthentic. I don’t think I would end up taking it. I think the writer has to have something to say and put that down on the page in whatever form fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and then I will respond to that thing that he or she is saying and not respond to it because it fits our mould.
Rachel Thompson: [00:38:39] Thank you so much to my guest Wendy Lesser for talking to me about submitting to The Threepenny Review. And some of the things that we can glean from our conversation is that she is looking for work that has a sense of who you are as a writer that real writers, as she puts it, have a voice.
[00:38:58] She finds that writers who have a dark side as well and expose their cruel selves even. That pour their own lives, their unconscious lives as well, into their work, are the ones that she gravitates most to. And I have to say, that’s actually a pretty resonant theme that we’re seeing from all of the editors that I’ve had on the podcast so far. So make note. Another thing to make note of, also a little bit of a theme too, is that this is another journal that does not get a lot of creative nonfiction or doesn’t get the same volume of creative nonfiction in the hundreds of submissions sent everyday. The majority is not creative nonfiction and so that would be an opportunity for you to submit writing and have a higher chance probably of being published in that case. In those 100 submissions a day, she’s saying only 0.02 percent are accepted. So it definitely is a journal to send your very, very best work to and work that has been revised and probably has had some consultations before you’ve submitted it. And also, though they only accept submissions that are not sent anywhere else, you’re going to hear back from them in 48 hours. So it’s also a great test to see what they think of the work that’s worth a shot. And finally, in terms of the content of the submissions that you would send to The Threepenny Review, bear in mind her warning that beware of thinking your childhood is interesting to her because, apparently, it’s not in most cases. And of course she said she’s ready to break some of these rules. If the writing itself stands up to it. So if you’re feeling great about the submission then go for it I would say too. And dating and sex is another theme that she’s not interested in and also the name Trump. That news is not the kind of work that they’re doing; they’re not working on thematic stuff. They’re coming out four times a year and take some time before an issue comes together. And, of course, all of the rules that she has about submissions she says can be broken by brilliant writers.
[00:40:46] Lit Mag Love is co-presented by Room Magazine, literature, art, and feminism since 1975 and by the Lit Mag Love course. Sound editing and sound advice for this episode is by Mica Lemiski. She’s also the host of The Fainting Couch Feminists podcast presented by Room. And you can find Lit Mag Love online at www.litmaglovepodcast.com or on Twitter or Instagram @LitMagLove.
Host: Rachel Thompson
Sound Editor: Mica Lemiski
Transcript Editor: Angela Wright
Produced by Room magazine and Rachel Thompson