Monday, October 09, 2006

New Yorker Festival 2006

It's the greatest event in the New York City calendar! The New Yorker Festival 2006: three days of authors, thinkers, and insufferable snots. A few highlights:

FRIDAY: We went to see a reading by Jonathan Safran Foer and Edward P. Jones. Foer is a young Jewish writer, Brooklyn all the way, who is quite talented and read a short story involving Power Point slides and gimmicky typography. An entertaining story, pretty compelling and with more of an emotional punch than I had expected, but kind of weird with the slides and the Wingdings characters interposed in the middle. Edward P. Jones is a newly-discovered literary giant, a black Washingtonian with a major novel and some amazing short stories under his belt. His narrative voice is omniscient as in God-like, and his technique is just remarkable. The contrast between the two writers was jarring and unavoidable -- Foer seemed a little young and punky, while Jones was quiet and reserved and a little miffed. I was thinking of the book I've been reading lately (Jane Smiley's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel"), and how it describes the life/work trajectory of novelists. Tonight we saw two writers at different points in their careers. I look forward to the day when Foer has the experience and the confidence of Jones, eschewing silly computer graphics for a self-assured and relatable voice.

I actually got up and asked a question of Jones, and I was terrified: knees knocking, heart pounding. As I spoke my voice rose higher and higher, so my question actually trailed off and ended in some inaudible realm of panic and sweaty palms. But Jones answered it (no, he doesn't see his work in the context of other writers) and he didn't seem to think I was a moron....

...Unlike the person who introduced the two writers. This guy was the picture of Manhattan liberal snotty elite. He had ridiculous adverbs ("harrowingly audacious"), he mistitled the writers' works ("The Lost World," rather than "The Known World"), he sort of insulted Jones in the introduction ("I found his first book, 14 years ago, on the bargain table outside a bookstore in Cambridge") and he made up a word that does not or should not exist ("heartful").

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SATURDAY: We went to a panel discussion on the midterm elections, moderated by political stud Hendrik Hertzberg, with Congressmen Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Dana Rorhrbacher (R-Calif.). Unfortunately it turned into an actual debate of the issues, rather than a discussion of political predictions, trends, etc - the less acrimonious stuff. Sadly, Dana R. was intellectually outmatched by Barney, so it wasn't even sporting. The audience would groan and laugh when Dana said something particularly galling ("I have a petition signed by 12,000 scientists saying man is not responsible for the increased temperature of the earth") and I was sad to see our collective liberal smugness emerge yet again. Hendrik didn't moderate the thing too well, either. I left the event with raised blood pressure and anxiety.

The comical part came from the two stuffy gay dudes who sat in the aisle next to us. As we stood up to let them walk past us to their seats, one of them looked at me with this utterly disgusted grimace and eyed me from head to toe. Then he did the same to L as he walked by, remarking, "Is the seating general admission?" I turned to L and asked her if I had snot smeared across my face, because we just had received the dirtiest looks ever. She was laughing about it too. When the dude got up later to ask a prickly and logically incoherent question about gay marriage, I took my sweet time standing up to let him pass. Oddly enough, I saw him again later in the day by Union Square, 5 long blocks east and 20 blocks south.

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SUNDAY: We saw Zadie Smith give an extremely boring and dry and abstract lecture about.... something. I was definitely falling asleep during it, and was only surprised that I was able to fight Lecture Fatigue for as long as I did. She had powerpoint slides, too, and was using them to (unsuccessfully) counteract the academic talk she was giving about novels, the nature of writing, success and failure, etc. I enjoyed being in the same room as her -- she is smart, physically striking, and has a surprisingly rough and rich voice. Things perked up during the Q&A session, which I left early to go to the gym. Michael Cunningham was there, and he asked a good and somewhat bitchy question about the evolving nature of literary criticism. There was a small ripple in the crowd when we realized another esteemed novelist was in the room.

The lecture did get me thinking, though, about the nature of writing. Zadie talked about how hard the writing process can be, and it made me wonder if writers are only able to convey on paper a fraction of their intelligence and wit and brio. I'm always surprised at how easy to read Zadie's books are, and perhaps they are some compromised shadow of the perfect novel banging around in her head. Consequently, perhaps I would be able to write some crappy detective story or something, whereas Zadie writes these socially astute comic novels, and gods like Updike and Roth and Faulkner are just so far beyond the pale that they can even tap into that ideal novel in the sky.

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In sum, the festival was as awesome as ever. I have been reading a lot about novels and the nature of writing, so I have a lot of ideas right now floating around, and a strong intellectual desire to write (this desire it not matched by an actual desire to write, however, strong enough to get my ass off the couch). I love seeing writers and other readers, and sharing a common familiarity with the book scene. For one weekend, reading and reveling in books is a distinctly social phenomenon, and you have to take that wherever you can find it. When I die, I want somebody to chuck the new issue of the New Yorker in my casket with me (in a respectful, reverent way -- although how funny would it be if like a subscription card fluttered out of the casket as they closed the lid).

Other fantastic things about the weekend: an uproarious Friday night with John and Anna, a great afternoon on Saturday with the affable and globe-trotting Russell, a sweet time at the gym on Sunday, and ... this is the kicker: I happened to walk past the Virginia Sil'hooettes singing in Union Square. They were awesome and still completely cute, even if they were disturbingly young. I hadn't hung out with Russell while listening to a capella in way too long, and I'm glad we could take a break in the quick tides of Manhattan for a little beat-boxing and semi-circled harmony. So heartful. So, so heartful.

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