Story About the Story: An Interview with Wendy Lesser

J. C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman continues his series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors today with writer and editor Wendy Lesser. Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review.  Her essay “The First Novel,” included in The Story About the Story II, appears in Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering.  Her most recent book is Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets.

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Wendy Lesser: No.  A sense of obligation would ruin their experience (as critics) and ours (as readers); criticism should spring from love, or hatred, or some other impassioned source.  No one should have to do it.

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism?  That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?

WL: Is it so different from what happened to history, say, between David Hume and the present?  Or to philosophy in the same time period?  All kinds of writers have gone from general humanists to specific technical experts, and with a corresponding loss.

JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?

WL: Reading other critics who did so, like George Orwell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lionel Trilling, Randall Jarrell, William Empson, D.H. Lawrence, and all my other heroes.

JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?

WL: I wouldn’t use either of those terms—I would just call it “good criticism”—but in any case, I would say the first necessity is the sense of a person speaking to you: a particular person with particular tastes and judgments, yet someone who has a broad enough outlook not to seem merely introverted or narcissistic in her or his tastes.

JCH: Near the end of “The First Novel,” about Don Quixote, you say the following about having read the book first when you were very young, and again much later, as an adult:

“I could not love Don Quixote more than I did at eleven, but I can admire it more now.  As a child I took its virtues for granted.  Now I am amazed by the extent to which it anticipates so much, not only about its own fate as a book, but about novels and novel writing in general.”

This appears to contrast love and admiration/amazement.  Can you expand on this at all?  Is love immature appreciation?  Is appreciation of technique, virtuosity, and context less visceral, but more sophisticated?

WL: Not a contrast between love and admiration—just an admission that they are not entirely the same thing.  A Venn diagram might show a large overlap between them, but admiration is both colder and more knowledgeable, in my experience; love is hot and immediate.  I don’t think either is more “sophisticated” than the other, but they do draw on somewhat different emotional glands, at least in my case.

In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.