Wendy Lesser. Photo: Threepenny Review
Wendy Lesser, who founded the arts journal The Threepenny Review in Berkeley 35 years ago. Photo: Threepenny Review

Wendy Lesser started The Threepenny Review in 1980 in Berkeley with the intent of highlighting art, literature, and music, not just in the Bay Area, but around the country. Over the years, the quarterly journal has evolved into one of the most respected, and idiosyncratic, intellectual publications in the country.

Each issue contains a broad spectrum of articles, from short pieces that look at television shows like “The Wire” and the Kirov Ballet, to longer meditations on opera, concerts in unusual places like San Quentin State Prison, birdwatching, and other pursuits. There are many poems, stories, and reviews of movies and musical performances.

The Threepenny Review is really a reflection of Lesser’s intellect and interests, according to observers. (Check out her blog, The Lesser Blog to see the vast number of opera, symphony, and other types of musical events she attends.) The author of ten books, Lesser was described in the New York Times as “an intellectual of unflinching dignity and gravitas.”

Oscar Villalon, the managing editor of ZYZZYVA, a literary magazine in San Francisco that focuses on West Coast writers, said The Threepenny Review “embraces the life of the mind, of arts and letters, and isn’t beholden to trends or the superficial.”

The Threepenny Review has as much in common with the New York Review of Books and Harpers as it does with a traditional literary journal of fiction and poetry, he said.

“That’s a testament to Wendy’s genius. There are so many tremendous writers and poets who first appeared in her pages and who continue to appear there. That she and her various sub-editors have been publishing this journal for so long from Berkeley is also testament to how rich the literary culture is out here.

Erik Tarloff, who writes frequently for the Review and who is a close friend of Lesser’s, said the eclectic nature of the Review is a reflection of Lesser’s broad interest in the world.

“It’s all over the map,” said Tarloff. “You can’t catalogue the catholicism of its taste other than Wendy just finds it interesting. It usually has very intelligent people writing about provocative things.”

table talk

In honor of The Threepenny Review’s 35th anniversary, Counterpoint Press is publishing a collection of 99 “Table Talk” essays – shorter pieces commissioned by Lesser. Described as a “portable dinner party attended by your smartest friends and all of the wittiest people they know,” the book, edited by Lesser, Jennifer Zahrt and Mimi Chubb, showcases the talents of many distinguished writers. They include Lesser, the late Leonard Michaels, Tarloff, August Kleinzahler, W.S. Di Piero, Louise Glück, Thomas Laquer, Geoff Dyer, Claire Messud, Christopher Ricks, Greil Marcus, Charlie Haas, and many more.

There will be a book launch party Tuesday Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley. Lesser, Haas, Tarloff, Louis B. Jones, and Glück will read from the book.

In advance of the book’s launch, Berkeleyside did a Q&A with Lesser, who divides her time between Berkeley and New York.

Why did you choose Table Talk essays as opposed to some of your longer essays to celebrate The Threepenny Review’s 35th anniversary?

One of our writers, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, wrote a Letter to the Editor saying how great it would be to have an anthology of our Table Talks. When Jack Shoemaker (publisher of Counterpoint Press) saw the letter in our pages, he offered to publish the book.

What was the genesis of Table Talk essays? How do they broaden the conversation in The Threepenny Review?

Briefly, Leonard Michaels [an acclaimed fiction writer and UC Berkeley English professor who died in 2003 at the age of 70] invented the idea. He had been closely involved with The Threepenny Review since its inception in 1980, was always coming up with new plans for the magazine, and most of them were horribly impractical. But Table Talk, which he came up with about ten years into Threepenny’s existence, was an excellent idea, and it has lasted. I’m not sure it broadens the conversation, exactly, but it gives the magazine something lively and pithy at its start.

What were your aspirations for The Threepenny Review when it started? How did you turn a local arts and culture magazine into one of the most nationally respected literary journals in the country? Did you expect that it would endure this long?

I wanted it to be a literary magazine that was also an arts magazine; I wanted it to originate in the Bay Area but not be focused on the Bay Area; and I wanted it to fall into the space between academic and popular (a space which was small enough then but now seems almost to have disappeared). My only goals for it were to make it good and to keep it going. Those two things have probably resulted in its current reputation.

Did you grow up in a family that loved opera and classical music? If not, how did you come to love it?

Well, my mother had some classical records (mainly Segovia playing guitar, as I recall), and my father played the recorder, but I would not say we were much of a concert-going family, and we didn’t attend opera at all. I was given violin lessons, though, and my sister was given piano and cello lessons; to that extent we were musically literate. And we were given dance classes throughout our childhoods (and dance is, of course, connected to music). But I didn’t really fall in love with opera until Pamela Rosenberg took over the San Francisco Opera and I saw her production of Handel’s Alcina — that was the first thing that really made me want to write about opera. And then, a year or two later, I went to Berlin for a semester, and that is where I really fell in love with and learned about classical music of all kinds, including opera.

How much time do you spend in New York every year to attend cultural events. Are you bi-coastal?

I spend just less than half time in New York — say, five-and-a-half months total, with three months in the fall, two in the spring, and two weeks scattered here and there — and just over six months in Berkeley (all winter, all summer). I guess this qualifies as me as bi-coastal. All my European trips are made during the New York time, too, so that subtracts from that part of the bi.

What do you like best about Berkeley?

Its beauty, its comforts, the nearness of a great university, my possession of a house with a garden, and the fact that many of my oldest, dearest friends are here.

What upcoming performance are you looking forward to?

In Berkeley I am, alas, missing the upcoming Gidon Kremer concert because our Table Talk launch is that very night. In San Francisco, I look forward to the next Soundbox at SF Symphony as well as Michael Tilson Thomas’s 70th birthday concerts. In March and April, I am looking forward to a series of concerts (Mark Padmore’s St. Matthew Passion at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Simon Rattle’s Damnation of Faust at the Berlin Philharmonic, and so on) that I plan to attend in Europe. And then I will come back to New York and get to see two mixed programs by Mark Morris, my favorite choreographer, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. Lots to look forward to! But, for now, I need to settle down and work on my next book, which is about the architect Louis Kahn.

Check out Berkeleyside’s event calendar for many more events, and make sure to post your own community happenings.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...