Lesser, Wendy 1952–

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LESSER, Wendy 1952–


Born March 20, 1952, in Santa Monica, CA; daughter of Murray (an engineer and writer) Lesser and Millicent (a writer) Dillon; married Richard Rizzo (a professor and writer), January 18, 1985; children: Nicholas. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1973; King's College, Cambridge, M.A., 1975; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D., 1982. Politics: "Leftleaning Democrat." Religion: "Secular Jew."


Home—Berkeley, CA, and New York, NY. Office—Threepenny Review, P.O. Box 9131, Berkeley, CA 94709-0131. E-mail[email protected].


Lesser & Ogden Associates (public policy consulting firm), Berkeley, CA, partner, 1977-81; Threepenny Review, Berkeley, founding editor, 1980—; writer. Consultant to nonprofit organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts and San Francisco Foundation.


American Academy of Arts & Sciences (fellow).


Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1983, 1991, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1988, and Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program, 2000; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, 1984; Morton Dauwen Zabel Award.


The Life below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History, Faber & Faber (Boston, MA), 1987.

His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.

(Editor) Hiding in Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1993.

Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.

A Director Calls, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1997.

The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.

Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.

(Editor and author of introduction) The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2004.

The Pagoda in the Garden: A Novel in Three Parts, Handsel Books (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to Mark Morris's l'Allegro, il pensoroso, ed il moderato: A Celebration, Marlowe & Co., 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times and American Prospect.


The founding editor of the literary quarterly Threepenny Review, Wendy Lesser is known as a champion of erudite but nonspecialist literary essays. She has published an eclectic body of others' work in her journal, and is also an author in her own right of books that reflect a wide engagement in many art forms as well as in the business of life itself. Lesser's own writings exhibit a range of interest at odds with the current academic trend toward specialization.

In The Life below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History, for example, Lesser explores the use of the subterranean as a setting and metaphor in various works of the past two hundred years, including such disparate ones as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Steven Spielberg's film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dante's Inferno, the writings of Franz Kafka and Graham Greene, and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Though some critics judged that Lesser sometimes strains to create parallels between widely different works, others praised the author's subject choices. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Brian Stonehill commented that Lesser "practices intelligent and informed cultural criticism …. [She] digs for meaning; she mines remarkable merit; and shows us, once again, the earthshaking power of ideas."

In her 1991 collection, His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art, Lesser "bases her group of essays on the idea that certain male artists are in search of their own lost or hidden female selves, and that the success of their search can be measured by the way such rescued selves are freed by the artist and given independent life in his works of art," according to New York Times Book Review contributor Anne Hollander. As in The Life below the Ground, Lesser communicates her theme by discussing a wide variety of art, including the paintings of Edgar Degas, the photographs of Cecil Beaton, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the novels of Henry James and D.H. Lawrence, and the poetry of Randall Jarrell. In her examination of male artists' portrayals of women, Lesser takes what some reviewers regard as an unorthodox feminist approach. "In defiance of feminists and women's studies, [Lesser] chooses to examine the feminine bent through the prism of male consciousness, so that even when the woman in question is actual, like [actress] Marilyn Monroe, she discusses her only as an artefact, through her 'creators,'" noted Marina Warner in the Times Literary Supplement.

Critics responded enthusiastically to His Other Half, often citing Lesser's originality, insight, and engaging style. Chicago Tribune reviewer Joseph Coates, for instance, commented that "it isn't often that a critic can recommend a work of criticism as entertainment, but Wendy Lesser's refreshingly personal approach saves her from any kind of specialized deadness." Warner judged His Other Half to be "an arresting work of criticism," adding that "Lesser writes with volatile wit, an eager, almost breezy confidence and a palpable pleasure in reading and looking and analysing—and in the suppleness of her own cleverness."

Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder is an extended meditation on the modern fixation with murder, particularly "the experience of murder through visual and verbal forms of representation," according to Eve Ogden in Afterimage. Lesser builds her narrative around a celebrated court case, KQED v. Daniel B. Vasqez, in which a public television station sued a prison warden in an attempt to televise a court-ordered execution. While focusing on the trial, Lesser also analyzes murder as depicted in classical literature, film, and television. New Statesman & Society contributor Peter Jukes called the work a "telling and effective account of fictional violence," adding that Lesser's book, "like the court case, raises more complicated and complicit questions about the spectacle of death." Ogden found Pictures at an Execution to be "significant in the way that it clarifies issues and questions raised by the controversial trial, providing us with an intriguing framework for future critical discussion about the representation of significant events."

Lesser's A Director Calls studies a director's impact on a theatrical production through a specific immersion in the craft of British director Stephen Daldry. Lesser became interested in Daldry's work after attending his production of An Inspector Calls in 1993. Through interviews with Daldry and the various actors and crew who worked with him in several plays, Lesser reveals his artistic influence on a play. In the opinion of Michael Upchurch in American Scholar, Daldry "serves mostly as an excuse for Lesser to investigate the larger matters that concern her: the role of individual talent in the collaborative arts, the barriers and links between stage world and outside world, the uses of artifice in illuminating various truths, the inevitable tension (or harmony) between playwright's voice and director's voice."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer found A Director Calls to be "an absorbing examination of an often misunderstood craft," as Lesser "lays out in lucid detail a director's enormous impact on a theatrical production." New York Times Book Review contributor Jonathan Kalb commended Lesser for "the passion and precision with which she describes Daldry's enhancements," adding that the author "brings in much of her lucid and evocative word-painting as well as the astute observations of nontheater writers like D.W. Winnicott and J.L. Austin." Upchurch concluded: "The considerable achievement of A Director Calls is the portrait it draws of a director's work, an activity perhaps more titillating than is generally acknowledged …. Lesser, gifted eavesdropper that she is … serves up keen insights on the meaning and power of performance while she's at it."

The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters is a collection of essays that can be read as Lesser's literary memoir. "For readers glutted by a decade's worth of sensationalist memoirs, The Amateur will be a welcome relief," declared James Shapiro in the New York Times Book Review. "Lesser spares us the predictable details of love, marriage, motherhood and illness ….She chooses instead to reflect upon how a sense of self, her self, was formed through the interplay of the accidents of place and time … in the course of a life hopelessly entangled with literature, dance and theater." Noting that the book "merits 'literary' as a term of approbation," a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Lesser for her "admirable agility of mind." Shapiro observed that in her essays Lesser "has succeeded admirably, producing a deeply humane, modest and beautifully constructed narration of an 'independent life of letters.'"

In Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering Lesser combines literary criticism and memoir and studies some her favorite fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She reflects on how maturity has enabled her to better interpret and understand these literary creations and how her opinions of some have changed either positively or negatively. The authors she has chosen include George Orwell, William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman noted that "she has truly fascinating and original things to say about a compelling assortment of writers."

Lesser is editor of The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, a collection of English-language essays by authors who have written in their native tongues, and others who have not, like Louis Begley, whose family moved to the United States from Poland when he was a child. Other authors include Ariel Dorfman, M.F. Fitzgerald, Ha-yun Jung, Bert Keizer, Thomas Laqueur, Leonard Michaels, Bharati Mukherjee, James T. Ngugi, Luc Sante, Joseph Skvorecky, Amy Tan, and Benjamin Whorf. Steven G. Kellman wrote in USA Today magazine that these are essays "by individuals for whom words are particularly important to their sense of self and for whom a change in language is a transformation of identity."

Lesser made her fiction debut with The Pagoda in the Garden: A Novel in Three Parts. Each part features a different American woman, but all have many things in common. They have come to Cambridge, England, from America, and all find their lives transformed by culture, romance, politics, feminism, and literature. The stories are set in different time periods. The first features Charlotte, who with her friend Roderick recalls the relationship between Edith Wharton and Henry James. Sarah, the divorced writer in the second story, which is set during the 1950s, has a flirtation with another woman's husband. The young woman in the final part deals with a sexually repressed and immature graduate student. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that the book comes to "an elegant conclusion, linking intellectual confidantes in a vision of sublime achievement set amid the prosaic spaces of Kew Gardens."

Lesser once told CA: "When I look for my books on the shelves of bookstores, I often find them in a category called 'Cultural Criticism,' and some people therefore refer to me as a culture critic (whatever that is). But I prefer to think of myself as a writer who began as a literary critic and expanded outward to include other subjects as well. For me, this signifies a respect for specificity over vague 'cultural' pronouncements and an acknowledgment that literature, as T.S. Eliot said, is related 'not to "life," as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.'"



Lesser, Wendy, The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.

Lesser, Wendy, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.


Afterimage, January-February, 1996, Eve Ogden, review of Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder, p. 24.

American Scholar, spring, 1998, Michael Upchurch, review of A Director Calls, p. 165.

Booklist, May 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, p. 1486.

Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1991, Joseph Coates, review of His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art, Section 2, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2005, review of The Pagoda in the Garden: A Novel in Three Parts, p. 703.

Library Journal, April 1, 2002, Nancy R. Ives, review of Nothing Remains the Same, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 14, 1988, Brian Stonehill, review of The Life below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History, p. 11.

New Statesman & Society, January 28, 1994, Peter Jukes, review of Pictures at an Execution, p. 37.

New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1991, Ann Hollander, review of His Other Half, p. 15; January 2, 1994, George Stade, review of Pictures at an Execution; November 16, 1997, Jonathan Kalb, review of A Director Calls, p. 15; February 28, 1999, James Shapiro, review of The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters, p. 12.

Nieman Reports, spring, 1994, Brett Alexander, review of Pictures at an Execution, p. 109.

Publishers Weekly, October 20, 1997, review of A Director Calls, p. 61; January 11, 1999, review of The Amateur, p. 61; April 1, 2002, review of Nothing Remains the Same, p. 64.

Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, Marina Warner, review of His Other Half, pp. 9-10.

USA Today, May, 2005, Steven G. Kellman, review of The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, p. 80.

World Literature Today, May-August, 2005, William Pratt, review of The Genius of Language, p. 110.