The Last Literary Lion

Human Relations and Other Difficulties BY Mary-Kay Wilmers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 PAGES. $27.

The cover of Human Relations and Other Difficulties

The concept of “literary lions” seems antiquated in a world that doesn’t want writers as public intellectuals. We don’t turn on the TV to learn anything, certainly not from a writer on national news. Even less plausible is an ecosystem that allows a magazine editor to “reign” at a publication, entwining her identity with its output to the extent that the brands are interchangeable. Upon the deaths of George Plimpton, Barbara Epstein, and Bob Silvers, the identities of the Paris Review and the New York Review of Books were naturally diluted somewhat, like a glass of whiskey served only after the ice has melted. Literary glamour, at least, is harder to conjure these days.

The cofounder of the London Review of Books forty years ago, and its sole editor since 1992, the American Mary-Kay Wilmers, now eighty-one, is quite the last of the species. Recently, a journalist called people who know her for comment. They described her as “funny; impossible; kind; sees through people; is prickly; has impeccable taste; doesn’t do piety; is the best copy editor in the world; is formidable.” She famously wrote the headline for Oliver Sacks’s LRB essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” which would eventually be expanded into a book of the same name. Like Janet Malcolm, eighty-five, and Renata Adler, eighty-two, Wilmers is Jewish—though not claimed as a Jewish intellectual—and the product of immigrant parents, and writes in a bracing and clean style.

Unlike her editor peers, she’s still helming her paper, and not just clocking in, but moving the dial in media (not least by being unabashedly pro-Palestine). The marquee story of the fortieth-anniversary issue of the “paper” featured rowdy American poetess Patricia Lockwood on John Updike, the deadest of the dead white men. The title? “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.” Lockwood begins: “I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. . . . But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.” She continues apace for just under seven thousand words. Lockwood’s writing is in no way indicative of the London Review of Books, except to say no intellectual magazine of equivalent caliber thought to hire her as a critic, rightly afraid of the adjectival compound “brilliantly bonkers.” (Perry Anderson noted in the LRB anthology that the tell of the LRB is its “[relish] of the unpredictable,” aided by a general commissioning policy that might be described as aesthetic insofar as “the style of a writer tends to come before the importance of a subject, or the affinity of a position.”)

Human Relations and Other Difficulties, a robust collection of Wilmers’s book reviews and essays, would seem to signal a desire to rewrite her legacy as one of the paper’s star writers, not just its editor. The skills, in her case, are one and the same. I learn rather quickly that she would chide me for so many needless comparisons to her so-called peers. In a review of David Plante’s Difficult Women—the tactless pseudo-biography of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer—she scoffs: “No one has yet written a book about three moderately famous men who happened to have known each other and called it ‘Difficult Men.’ (Or even ‘Nice Men: A Memoir of Three.’)”

Mary-Kay Wilmers, 2019. Jon Tonks
Mary-Kay Wilmers, 2019. Jon Tonks

One joy of reading the book is getting a concrete sense of her editorial idiosyncrasies and prowess. Tracing the evolution of obituaries in London, she concludes, “If one compares current obituaries with those that were published 20 years ago what one notices first is that the notion of a state of grace—civis Britannicus fuit—has yielded to the more stringent doctrine of justification by works.” In an essay on “The Language of Novel Reviewing,” she notes, “One doesn’t often come across the simple phrase ‘a marvellous novel’ nowadays: the fashion is for triads of adjectives (‘exact, piquant and comical,’ ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’).” The inclusion of a critique of obituaries and book reviews—in a book that includes both—is a clever nod to her agility. These pieces display a preference for dissection rather than heavy didacticism. Her lucidity on the page is notable given her desire to flirt with and even court paradox by showing all sides.

There is a danger—the threat of boredom—to publishing an essay collection of book reviews, since they are by nature directed at an insular audience and framed by topical concerns. This is mitigated somewhat by the decision to include, by and large, stories that are preoccupied with women and their concerns. Collected in Human Relations are incisive essays on Jean Rhys (“Reluctant to make any move unassisted by fate, she simply waited for men to arrive and then to depart”); Patricia Hearst, before she was unceremoniously kidnapped (“She may have been rich but she wasn’t laid back. . . . She trusted her parents and they trusted her”); Henry James’s sister, Alice, who fell ill in lieu of finding something better to do (being in a sick body “had done for her what her mind had been unable to do: it made her ‘interesting’”); the writer Sybille Bedford (“One of Bedford’s (ambiguous) gifts is to make you feel that you missed a lot by not being her: by not knowing the people she knew or living the life that she led”); and the poet Marianne Moore, who was trapped in a regressive fantasyland with her mother.

Wilmers likes twisted stories, the result of lives lived by those with ambiguous and unambiguous gifts. Of interest to her are the limits of perception. “Men endow women with the capacity to bewitch as a way of talking about themselves,” she writes in a review of an anthology of seduction literature. When a man explains that he’d rather his mistress didn’t have a career, she writes: “The striking thing here isn’t his claim to know what’s best for her but his insistence that she should only want what money can supply.” Too much imagination is as annoying to her as too little.

Women writing about women’s issues with men is currently in vogue, but Wilmers’s is perhaps not the ideal example. Her retrograde feminism is a rather open secret. She starts a review of Germaine Greer’s book on menopause with a trigger warning of sorts:

I have complained a lot about men in my time. In fact, I do it more and more. But I have never been part of what used to be called the women’s movement and those who have or who are, or who have never wanted to be, would probably consider me some sort of moron. I didn’t do consciousness-raising with my sisters in the late 1960s. I was married at the time and it seemed to me that if my consciousness were raised another millimetre I would go out of my mind.

Her cool distance from feminism—or more accurately feminists themselves, who like Didion she dismisses and parodies as rather insipid and incapable of nuance—is perhaps the only digression of her thinking that dates her as a product of her time. (This is her rolling her eyes: “Women, as feminists often tell us, are the victims of their own wish to please.”) There is a trend in book reviewing to call outmoded or reductive ideas about feminism “refreshing,” but in this case it’s true. Take her essay on the David Plante book, where she muses: “Perhaps there is something unfailingly attractive about pretty women whose self-absorption makes them unable to cope with anything.” The perhaps is key to her skill as a stylist and thinker. She is adept at floating scenarios, allowing for the existence of opinions she doesn’t share. It’s impossible to imagine her subscribing to the idea of an “unfailingly” attractive woman. She is too tuned in to fallibility for that.

“I don’t find the standard notion of the good wife very compelling,” she writes in an essay on having children, a topic she barely if ever mentions again. “But the pressure to be ‘a good mother’ according to the prevailing definitions is practically irresistible.” This is a notable admission from Wilmers, who often resists quite a lot: exaggeration, flattery, an excess of feeling. As longtime LRB writer John Lanchester writes in the introduction: “She is never more translucent than when she is ambivalent. It’s an unusual talent.” Her control—a refusal to sink to the hagiography of “high praise”—makes whatever compliments she manages to choke out a delight. I found one tucked away that might well apply to herself. “Unlike the majority of women who write about women, she doesn’t appear to do so out of a sense of personal discontent,” she writes. “She isn’t her sisters’ keeper. Heaven forbid.” Heaven forbid, indeed.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer from Montana. She currently lives in Manhattan.