Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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About that piece in the Voice that’s been getting a lot of press: good for them for creating something so timely and buzzworthy, and I’m wholly sincere; for many years, I never missed a copy of the paper. I want it to never go out of business; I want it never to have to fire anyone for financial reasons; I want it always to be great. So when I open the paper or the Voice site and I see something I like, I’m heartened and relieved.

Unfortunately, I can’t agree with Rose Jacobs here. It’s certainly true that the PEN World Voices Festival is an excellent series; I saw how fulfilling the events were (and how hard the small staff works) when I was at PEN, and it’s an inspiring program. But Jacobs’s accounts of two previous New Yorker Festival events, both of which I also attended—John Updike and David Remnick, in 2005, and Milos Forman and David Denby, in 2006—puzzle me. Her impressions of both occasions were so unlike mine. I covered a large number of festival events in 2005, for Beatrice, and even more last year for Emdashes, and I found them extraordinarily varied in subject, format, personnel, tone, audience, mood, subject, contentiousness, and, yes, chumminess.

According to Jacobs, the Festival is “an audiovisual review of what they’ve read in The New Yorker over the past year.” I imagine the cast of characters at a given New Yorker Festival is loosely affiliated with the magazine for a reason—it’s a chance for audiences to meet not just arts and culture stars but the magazine’s own team of writers and editors like Denby, Remnick, Judith Thurman, Bob Mankoff, Sasha Frere-Jones, Alex Ross, Joan Acocella, Atul Gawande, Jeffrey Toobin, Seymour Hersh, Susan Morrison, Deborah Treisman, John Lahr, Hendrik Hertzberg, Ben Greenman, Michael Specter, Burkhard Bilger, Cressida Leyshon, Daniel Zalewski, and so on—most of whom aren’t displaying themselves monthly at B&N, by the way, unless they happen to have a book out. That doesn’t make the events a “review”; nor does it make them “predictable.”

That said, of course there’s always room for the New Yorker Festival, like any major or minor gathering of speakers and celebrities, to introduce audiences to even more new and emerging ideas, music, poetry, filmmakers, food, technology, fiction, debates, and so on. I hope Jacobs will follow up her complaint with some concrete suggestions. Below, Martin has his own response to the Voice piece. —Emily Gordon

First off, it’s nonsensical to fault the New Yorker Festival for not being the Hay Festival. Obviously, the charms provided at Hay cannot easily be reproduced anywhere within 100 miles of New York City. It is therefore impossible for The New Yorker to attain Jacobs’s ideal of quirky rusticity. Heads she wins, tails The New Yorker loses.

Similarly irrelevant is the carping about the recent Food Issue. The appearance of “cringe-inducing personal essays,” as Jacobs characterizes them, self-evidently has nothing to do with the quality of the Festival. Magazines are having a terrible time of it across the board, but no, it is wrong, wrong, for The New Yorker to cater to advertisers. I’m not the biggest defender of themed issues either, but the notion that the magazine and the festival hosted by the magazine might have something in common is not exactly news.

In any case, anything can be slammed. Jacobs twits the festival for presenting such middle-of-the-road fare as The Kite Runner and Borat. Is the inclusion of Borat compelling evidence that the festival is unwilling to offend the sensibilities of NPR listeners? I don’t see how. Similarly, she reels off some of the fascinating writers who will appear at this year’s New Yorker Festival—and admits that the list is alluring—only to attack the festival for not importing enough obscure writers from the European continent. (I notice that Hay is wholly exempt from criticism that it features highly visible literary luminaries like Martin Amis and Richard Dawkins. Oh, I see, its patrons are “lumpy” and “enthusiastic”! My mistake.)

It’s foolish to characterize any festival that includes Jhumpa Lahiri, Daniel Alarcón, and Orhan Pamuk as parochial. Are the festival’s options truly so circumscribed by the year-round existence of fine readings at Barnes & Noble, not to mention McNally Robinson, 192 Books, Three Lives, and so on? Another writer might equally well point to such overlap as community-building. Again, Jacobs has arbitrarily imposed a scale of criteria by which the festival cannot possibly succeed.

One last point. Let’s say you’re inclined to agree with Jacobs’s argument that the festival is too “self-congratulatory.” Even so, it’s striking how little evidence she marshals; she quotes zero snotty or smug remarks by actual attendees or participants. There’s no proof here, aside from a single long line and a general feeling that two past events weren’t stimulating enough. Instead, she’s content to tell the story of her train trip with a nicotine-mad Martin Amis and take ad hominem potshots at David Denby. The Voice can do better than this. So often, it has done better than this. —Martin Schneider


Not that I agree with the Voice article, but since when is “self-congratulatory” bad? Congratulations where congratulations are due, I mean? I’ve always been puzzled by people who think nobody but a third party is allowed to have a good opinion of oneself. That’s some kind of self-castrating impulse, born of puritanism. Live and let live, Rose! Self-congratulate and let self-congratulate, if necessary!

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