(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This is a remarkable book in many ways, not the least of which is its clever construction. Wendy Lesser has married the autobiographical narrative to the personal essay with intriguing results: a collection of twenty-four short essays that provide a clear, unobtrusive chronology of her life while focusing on a range of topics that go far beyond the merely autobiographical. As in the best writing of this kind, there is a finely judged balance between individual revelation and general reflection, as if we have been invited to witness the writer’s experience yet encouraged to think even more about the broader implications for our own. So many contemporary memoirists never quite command this ability to reveal their personalities engagingly while talking intelligently about an external topic, such as a flamenco-dancing Spanish teacher, the dangers of philanthropy, a noseless cat, or the seductions of e- mail. Lesser does this with such ease, such genuine flair, that we have no trouble seeing her precisely the way she sees herself, as “an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley.”

Such a “man” of letters would have been highly attuned to his cultural context and eager to write about whatever caught his attention accordingly. Lesser comes armed with just these qualities as well as the sense of instantaneously registering the connection between the things she perceives in the world and her evaluations of them. Indeed, this fearless offering of judgments of herself, as much as anything and anyone else, is what gives these essays their characteristically snappy, candid appeal. This is bracingly direct, concrete writing that carefully eschews evasion and euphemism. Not surprisingly, the reader discovers that the model for her prose style is author George Orwell, and particularly the Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In this book about a non-miner’s experiences in a mine, Lesser sees a connection to what she is most interested in doing, describing what it feels like when a lively amateur ventures into a number of professional worlds. She attends a West End theater rehearsal, watches a new Mark Morris dance, and interviews an eccentric would-be filmmaker for a government grant. Her reports on these encounters are fresh, provocative and full of a personality that is at once playful, practical, stubborn, enthusiastic, and funny.

Lesser claims that her character—solidly in place since her youth and stamped all over these essays from her adulthood—has made her unable to perform any of the jobs available to most people of her age and education. Her career, therefore, has been almost entirely freelance. Educated at Harvard and Cambridge Universities and with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, she would have seemed a likely candidate for academia. However, she understood early on that she had no taste for institutional politics, was too authoritarian to be much good as a teacher, and simply hated grading papers. So, after several years as a self-employed public policy consultant—which provided astoundingly rich material for an amusing essay on the vaporous language of the consulting game—she found herself inventing the work she needed to do. Having done some occasional reviewing for the San Francisco Review of Books, she asked to edit an issue. She loved the work, from corralling the reviewers and choosing headline fonts to proofreading columns of type and laying out pages. Though exhausting, she found the work so exciting that she knew she wanted to edit her own literary review. Within months, early in 1980, that is precisely what she did.

The Threepenny Review is now a well-known, much-admired literary journal, but for years it struggled to survive. Even after the review’s literary merits had been clearly established, it was a decade into publication before Lesser could pay herself a nominal salary and twelve years before she could hire a part-time assistant. Still, the rewards are obvious, namely the sense of producing something tangible from one’s labor. Beyond that, there is the chance of discovering a new poetic voice, the tactile pleasure of pasting up a page,...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)