The New Yorker Festival

In May of 2000, The New Yorker magazine held a festival in New York to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Many of its well-known authors read from their work, some lectured, and others participated in panel discussions or gave interviews. The first New Yorker Festival was such a success that it has become an annual event. A few years ago, I was finally able to attend.

Think of it: the writers of a weekly magazine holding forth about their work during three full days of readings, lectures, and discussions. Outside academic society meetings, I can think of nothing else like it in this country, surely not by any other magazine or periodical. While the audience, which at times numbered in the hundreds, was largely from New York City, many individuals came from other places throughout the nation. I had traveled across the country from Oregon; one woman I met had come all the way from Honolulu.

What led me to travel so far, at some expense, to attend this Festival? More than anything, I think we came to make contact with a few of its talented contributors and to connect in some vague fashion with the community of readers and writers who recognize the unique and special value of the magazine. Many of its most notable contributors were present the year I attended. On Fiction Night, which opened the Festival, I had to choose between Anne Beattie and Richard Ford, or Michael Cunningham and Deborah Eisenberg, or Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith, or Lorrie Moore and Julian Barnes, and other pairs no less notable. The choice was impossible.

The following day was a concentrated display of brilliance. In one session John Lahr, the theatre critic of the magazine, spoke on Tennessee Williams and began by introducing Elizabeth Ashley, who has acted brilliantly many of Williams’s plays. Ashley read a passage from one with great gusto and animation. Then Lahr delivered an enthusiastic lecture for the better part of an hour on Williams' life and writing. He focused on Williams' fragmented and elusive self, the storms of depressions that dominated his life, and the sense of overwhelming loss present in all his work. Williams, he said, captured the modern spirit better than anyone else.

I moved on to one of the Festival’s highlights, a session on Literary Lawyers with Jeffrey Toobin, Louis Begley, Richard Posner, and Scott Turow. Toobin moderated the session brilliantly with wonderfully thoughtful questions. Turow responded with youthful intelligence, speaking about writing and his ongoing legal work. Posner, the scholarly judge and author who has written widely about topics ranging from literature to legal proceedings, commented with insight. Begley concluded quietly and wisely by drawing the audience back to historical novels where law plays a role--Dickens, Zola, Balzac, and even Plato. The participants agreed that these days, reality is often times more implausible than legal fiction.

David Remnick’s interview of Woody Allen was far and away the most popular event of the Festival. A huge room in the New York Public Library was used for the session. Woody ambled in and the crowd roared. He admitted he was not a scholar, saying he is just Woody. Everyone loves his modest, unassuming, and fun-loving self-deprecation. He is a natural at it and good at poking fun at much of modern life without annoying anyone. He loves to write, hates leaving his apartment, and doesn't care what people say about his work; he just needs to do it. Otherwise, he would collapse. Woody offered an interesting view of greatness: you do what you do, you do what you do best, and if others like it or think it's great, then that's fine. And if they don't, that's fine too. But you always have to do what you like to do and what you do naturally. Talent is a gift, not something you can try to attain. You can work at perfecting it, but first it has to be there.

The following day was no less impressive. At one session, Adam Gopnik interviewed Steve Martin. Once again, the session was mobbed. While Woody and Martin are wildly popular, they are funny in entirely different ways. Martin seems less personal, less instinctive. He tells more planned jokes than Woody, who just mumbles around most of the time. Martin spent some time talking about his painting collection, his progression from standup comedy routines to films, and now to writing. Along the way, there were good laughs and much good banter between him and Gopnik who is a wonderful writer in his own right. Martin noted that the most important thing in writing is clarity, as in comedy, where timing is also critical.

This year’s Festival has just concluded. Some of its highlights were:

Jhumpa Lahiri’s talk about the meaning of writing in her life.

In a discussion with Hilton Als, Tilda Swinton spoke about how difficult she finds acting.

Procrastination was the topic of James Surowiecki’s presentation.

The ever-present Malcolm Gladwell ended up talking about, yes, everything.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s lecture dealt with the critical importance of the checklist in medical practice.