The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History, 1987
His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art, 1991
Pictures at an Execution, 1993
A Director Calls, 1997
The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters, 1999
Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, 2002
Hiding in Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, 1993
Wendy Lesser was born and brought up in suburban California, a setting she describes as having no “imaginative echo surrounding real places,” as places with more history do. Her father, Murray Lesser, an engineer and writer, was employed by IBM (International Business Machines). When Lesser was six, her parents were divorced. She, her sister, and her mother, also a writer, stayed on in the family’s Palo Alto home. In school, Lesser was taught by a series of unconventional and innovative teachers who brought avant-garde ideas like role playing and the Beat poets’ work into the classroom. From Lesser’s teenage years on, she was fascinated by cities and the urban lifestyle.
She attended Harvard University, from which she received a B.A. degree in 1973. Among the highlights of her college years were being a relative moderate within political action committees and a friendship with Benazir Bhutto, the future president of Pakistan. Unenthusiastic about the prospect of American graduate school, she took a professor’s advice to apply to Cambridge University. Once accepted, she loved the Oxbridge approach to scholarship, but a disastrous romance ended in a bout of near-depression for Lesser. The California with which she had tried not to identify now struck her as a good place to be; she returned to enter a Ph.D. program in English at the University of California at Berkeley.
While working on her degree, she concluded that she was not suited for a career in academia, yet she wanted a vocation in which her interests in word usage and in literary matters could have sway. With a fellow graduate student, she founded a consulting firm, Lesser & Ogden Associates. The two scoured the Peninsula (the highly built-up area south of San Francisco), selling their writing and analytical services to municipalities and other nonprofit entities. Lesser later admitted that they had no special qualifications to do this but figured their prestigious degrees, thinking ability, and skill with words would be sufficient. They did eventually get clients and worked as consultants from 1977 until early 1981. This gave Lesser some credentials with which she was hired as an “arts and environment” consultant by the San Francisco Foundation.
In 1980 she started a literary magazine, The Threepenny Review. She knew many people with substantial publication credits: her novelist mother, Millicent Dillon; the poet Thom Gunn; theater critic Irene Oppenheim; and soon, future novelist Vikram Seth, all of whom she asked to write for it. These writers’ participation led to interest on the part of even more famous literary figures, and soon the contributors included novelists Mary Gordon and Diane Johnson, writer and social critic Gore Vidal, and psychologist Robert Coles, among others. The Threepenny Review also benefited from its location in the Bay Area, with its cosmopolitan milieu and many universities. By the end of the first year it was receiving some small grants. It continued to grow, slowly but respectably for an independent literary journal, and eventually reached a subscription base of nine thousand.
However, it was clear to Lesser that she could not rely on the review to support her, at least for many years. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1982, she continued to work as a consultant during the 1980’s and beyond. She taught occasional courses and also began to write and publish book-length works. Her first book, The Life Below the Ground, is subtitled A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. It starts by considering real underground phenomena like sewers, tunnels, and subways, then moves on to discuss belowground places as both actual hideaways and metaphors. It then discusses “underground” as a category of literature. Much of the book is about the subterranean in literature ranging from Dante’s Hell in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks’s theories on levodopa (L-dopa) and Parkinson’s disease also receive much attention. Overall, the book introduces Lesser’s distinctive approach to criticism, which blends cultural observations with literary analysis; the conclusions can be insightful and sometimes unique.
Pictures at an Execution treats murder and murderers in a similar manner. His Other Half examines the ways male artists have presented women, using a theory that the gender differences that fascinate them are somehow related to the Greek myth of the divided self. The book’s feminism is arguable, but Lesser does include many different arts in her scope, analyzing film director Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and several famous writers’ works as well as those of visual artists.
A Director Calls is based on Lesser’s close observation of British theater director Stephen Daldry as he rehearses J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (1946) and talks about his concept of theater. Lesser especially likes the idea of a performed play being an example of literary interpretation in motion. The Amateur mixes reflections on literary matters with stories of events in her own life. It is perhaps the most self-revelatory of her books. Nothing Remains the Same examines her reactions to some classic works upon rereading them many years after her initial reading; these are highly subjective essays about much-examined books and plays.
The Threepenny Review continued into the twenty-first century as a reputable and relatively successful journal of literature and culture. Lesser’s success with it led to reviewing books for such publications as The New York Times Book Review and reviewing films for The American Prospect and other magazines. Wendy Lesser married Richard Rizzo, a professor, in 1985. They had one son, Nicholas.