Number ten in our ongoing series of bookish back & forths with Wes Del Val brings us gratefully to Penny Martin, the charming & brilliant editor of the equally charming & brilliant magazine The Gentlewoman.
OGR No 10: Penny Martin
For years I've been a proponent of men regularly reading women's magazines—not merely looking at the pictures, but actually reading them. Doing so is largely affordable and accessible, and most importantly it's a consciousness-expanding effort which I truly believe would improve the world. Always positive: men reading + men not reading about themselves! Amazingly there are still loads of magazines published today but many can be skipped because there is so little of substance to read in them. Don't forget, pictures aren't enough, generating well-crafted, engaging text is time-consuming, and that's what makes The Gentlewoman so remarkable.
Twice a year for over a decade The Gentlewoman has been delivering distinct profiles of smart, successful international women from a wide variety of occupations, along with whimsical columns about unexpected subjects which their writers always make charming. Every issue introduces names new to me and that’s also why I value it so highly. Add to the mix beautiful images, new stories from the finest fashion photographers working today, an instantly-timeless layout, all housed in a package begging to be held, and it is hands down the women's title I'd most readily recommend to all different kinds of men. If each issue consisted of only the words it would still be my number one choice.
The editor at the helm of all this from the start? Penny Martin. She's obviously not alone in bringing each issue to readers, but it's her name at the top of the masthead and she's one I was eager to interview once we started this series. Without further ado, here’s Penny, a Fantastic Woman.
WDV: What’s a neat, little-known fact about one of your favorite authors that you’re always eager to share?
PM: Gosh, now you’re asking! I recently learned that Hilary Mantel (who we’ve profiled in the current issue) follows the famous “morning pages” ritual every day. I’m not sure that she is an advocate of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but she was photographed for us by Alasdair McLellan with the notebooks that she fills first thing upon waking with whatever’s in her mind. We had to be careful that her notes weren’t too legible on our pages.
And a reading ritual of yours you do every day? Whether it be Twitter or a newspaper, editing a manuscript, picking up whatever’s on your bedside table, what do you unfailingly find time to read daily?
Not daily, but when I write a diary entry—perhaps five or so times per month—I always look back to see what I was doing on that date one, five, 10, even 20 years ago. And it’s often extraordinary. Sometimes I barely recognise the person that wrote it.
What one subject have you read the most about and what is the finest book written about said subject?
I read a lot about grief at one point but found none of it useful, not even the much-recommended Didion. Otherwise, probably about magazines and the British press. Or Kodak cameras—detailed knowledge of their workings was a prerequisite for a job I once had answering museum enquiries at The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television.
I adore books about magazines as well. Which ones have you most enjoyed?
The big one must have been Women’s Magazines by Cynthia White, which was researched in The Fawcett Library, where I once worked. But I find myself paraphrasing bits of No Time to Die by Liz Tilberis a lot. Biographies like that used to be fun—Joan Juliet Buck’s is obviously a blast, but sometimes they can feel a bit close to the bone. I read Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries one time when we were producing an issue and I had to put it down, the bits where she’d lose a cover or an advertiser would drop out at a crucial moment started giving me anxiety attacks.
If you were to do a one-off issue called The Gentleman who is a male writer you’d like to profile? Disregard that Fantastic Man exists, I’m simply curious who you as editor would like to feature.
Oh, Fantastic Man never features any of my recommendations—it’s a standing joke. It is said that you should never work with someone simply because you want to meet them, but if profiling David Sedaris, John Waters or Dick Hebdidge meant that I could ask them that question I’ve always wanted to, then I guess I’m in.
Let’s indulge. Would love to know a question you’ve always wanted to ask David, John, and Dick.
Oh, nothing profound. The usual stuff: do you sleep well at night? Do you regret not having children? There are a couple of brilliant questions in the core list for conducting oral history interviews that always elicit interesting answers: Who first told you about sex? and When did you first hear about death?
Who are editor heroes of yours?
When I worked in the library, I built up a rather romantic picture of the editors of those second-wave feminist magazines like Spare Rib—or Working Woman, whose editor, Audrey Slaughter, I would have loved to have met. But I really admire Nick Logan and Terry Jones, whom I have met. They had good, politicised motives. And I guess Gert and Jop were heroes of mine when I joined the company. [Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom created Fantastic Man, the men’s magazine precursor to The Gentlewoman. —WDV] Diana Athill is the editor I’m most proud we featured in the magazine. I love her books about learning to deal with difficult things – sex, monogamy, disappointment, death – from the perspective of someone who has lived such a long, sensible life. She had a lot of the answers, it seems to me.
Which magazines publishing today are you confident will still be doing so in ten years?
I’m not sure that longevity is necessarily the best metric of success: there are plenty of magazines that will still be going which should have called it a day years ago. In contrast, periodicals like Nova, Sniffin’ Glue or After Dark—even David Bailey’s mysterious fashion publication—are feted precisely because they burnt bright and fast, rather than faded away.
True. So let me ask which do you hope will still be publishing in ten years time?
Apart from the ones our company makes, I guess the ones I read most often: The New Yorker; Paris Review; I really like Apartamento. But genuinely, I look forward to seeing new things. That’s what’s great about teaching. I love fanzines best of all.
Wait, you teach as well?
I did a lot more when I worked in academia—history of photography at Manchester Metropolitan University in the 1990s, and then as a chair of fashion imagery at London College of Fashion, I taught a bit on the fashion journalism MA. Over the last decade, it’s tended to be public lectures and a bit of one-off teaching at universities. I do like it—being made to put certain ideas and motivations into words forces you to reconsider whether you still believe in them. It’s a good discipline.
What’s your favorite recurring section in another magazine?
The FT Lunch is pretty great as an interview strategy, isn’t it? And you can’t beat the i-D “straight-up” as a photographic device. The Stars & Styles section of Self Service is endlessly fascinating, and I don’t just say that because I’ve been in it (I was young...).
What are some of the best-edited books you’ve read? Ones where you know a lot went into shaping the finished product.
It’s important to say that I had no idea, before I started at The Gentlewoman, how much went into making a print publication. Even now, the only way to know how much work went into a book that one didn’t edit would be to have an idea of how clean the writer’s copy was likely to have been when they turned in the first draft. And that’s information an editor should never pass on! Let’s just say that line editors earn their fee and much, much more.
Point taken! So let me reframe the question, and regardless of knowing if clean copy was handed in or if it was editorial might, what are some books of which you think you’d have enjoyed being part of the editorial process?
I think I’d quite like to ghost write a book—I spend enough time line-editing people’s spoken word. So, maybe a rock autobiography? At one point I read a lot of those. And I love John Lahr’s sensational anthology of Kenneth Tynan’s diaries—that would have been fun.
Which UK author writes the cleverest novels?
I probably would have said I was most dazzled by JG Ballard but you ask “writes,” in the present tense... I don’t really have the patience for anything explicitly scholarly anymore—I can’t stand those books that read like an undergraduate textual studies lecture. I really enjoyed reading Girl, Woman, Other last year but was even more struck by Bernardine Evaristo in person. That’s the thing—I’m not really an impartial reader when it comes to living female authors. One half of me is following the plot, the other half is thinking: “Should we do her in the magazine?”
I’m particularly fascinated by the last sentence. Is reading male writers akin to “beach reading” because you never have to wear your editor’s cap while doing so since the magazine only features women?
Yes, that’s probably true. I can’t really suspend disbelief and lose myself in a living woman’s novel. Isn’t that tragic?
Any fabulous charity bookshop finds?
An excellent dictionary of synonyms. I think it’s by Collins and was published in the 1970s, but me and my personal library are still separated by Covid quarantine at present, so I can’t be certain.
What’s an excerpt of a book you’d give to your friends that would make you confident 80% of them would want to read the whole thing?
I’ve been reading my friends the first line of the new Ferrante (The Lying Life of Adults), which is a bit of a “Drop the mic” moment. But it’s embargoed until this autumn in the UK, so I can’t share it here. Just you wait! I’m also really enjoying, and learning a lot from Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass.
What’s an unmissable stop for literary tourists in London to make?
The London Library, The National Art Library in the V&A. Daunt Books, Hatchards. Follow the Blue Plaque trail. The exhibitions at the British Library are pretty good.
And finally, how many copies of the first issue of The Gentlewoman do you have?
Only two. I must do something about that.
Get ready to shell out, for I’ve only ever seen copies going for hundreds of dollars online... I think it is inarguably in the top five debuts of any magazine in the past 20 years and I treasure my copy. Thanks Penny!
Penny Martin by Thomas Lohr