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December022010

More on Martin and Solomon and 92Y

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

Two days ago I posted an account of the inadequate 92Y event of November 29 featuring Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon. Since then, the event has astonishingly spun off into a counter-narrative in which Martin and Solomon are the good guys and 92Y and the 92Y audience the villains.

The premise of this counter-narrative is that Solomon and Martin were off having a high-minded discussion about art, but the 92Y audience, and the 92Y itself, would not be appeased until Solomon prodded Martin into spinning some anecdotes about the filming of The Jerk or It's Complicated.

This counter-narrative is absurd, incorrect, and pernicious. I was there, and in the words to follow, I intend to set the record straight.

Three things happened to bring about this counter-narrative. First, the New York Times ran an article covering the fiasco, an article that quoted Solomon liberally and tended to put 92Y in a bad light.

Second, Martin posted a tweet that was critical of 92Y. The content of that tweet is as follows: "So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience's emails. Artists beware."

Third, a blogger who works for NPR named Linda Holmes decided to dedicate 1,100 words to an extremely ill-considered rant taking 92Y and its audience to task for their philistinism. In the post Holmes states that she did not see the interview.

Folks, this is unjust. A more accurate picture of events, as I reported earlier, would be that Deborah Solomon made a fool of herself in front of several hundred people, Steve Martin and 92Y handled themselves with aplomb, and 92Y generously offered to refund any dissatisfied ticketholders ($50).

There is a passage in the Times article that goes like this:

"Frankly, you would think that an audience in New York, at the 92nd Street Y, would be interested in hearing about art and artists," Ms. Solomon added in an e-mail. "I had no idea that the Y programmers wanted me to talk to Steve instead on what it's like to host the Oscars or appear in 'It's Complicated' with Alec Baldwin. I think the Y, which is supposedly a champion of the arts, has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art."

What's happening there is that Solomon, seeking to put herself in the best light, interpreted something that actually happened—a request from 92Y to change the terms of a transparently unfruitful line of questioning—not as a reaction to her own ineptitude but rather as a demand to adhere to 92Y's rigid conception of how the event should go.

Let me provide here a detailed account of the pivotal first section of the interview, and then offer some additional observations. (I usually take notes at events like this, but on this particular day I happened not to have a notepad with me. Still, I remember the events pretty well. I am not aware of any video of the event, but I am confident that any video would largely confirm my account.)

A woman took to the podium and introduced Martin and Solomon; at some point, referring to Martin's impressive variety of accomplishments, she called him a "Renaissance man." Solomon and Martin came out, and Solomon immediately expressed her opinion that, as he lacks any accomplishments in the sciences, designating Martin a "Renaissance man" was perhaps a bit much. Martin agreed and said something to the effect that Leonardo da Vinci set the standard of a Renaissance man to a degree that has hardly been met since. Fair enough, all this is sensible and interesting.

Solomon began discussing Martin's novel An Object of Beauty, which is about the NYC art world of the 1990s or so. Solomon made an observation that they didn't really have art dealers when Rembrandt and Michelangelo were active; she said something quite specific about Rembrandt acting as his own art dealer, which fact I am prepared to believe. Martin spoke at some length about the lack of the "art dealer" role in Rembrandt's time (I'm not so sure about this claim) but then immediately undercut that claim by stating "I know nothing about this" or some such. This was a laugh line, delivered in the assured tones of an expert who does know what he's talking about; Letterman uses this sort of tone during every telecast. So, you know, funny, but not really informative in any real sense.

For the next twenty or so minutes, Solomon doggedly quizzed Martin about details in the novel, a novel that was first made available to consumers about a week earlier. At one point Martin murmured that the number of people watching who had read the book was likely to be "zero," his gentle way of suggesting that perhaps a close reading of the book would not result in highly riveting conversation. But that didn't stop Solomon.

Solomon and Martin briefly discussed the protagonist, a woman named Lacey Yeager. The two spoke at some length about two pairs of married characters in the book, art dealers all. One couple is called the Nathansons, and the other couple are named Boggs. Solomon mentioned that in his satire he had poked a lot of fun at the Nathansons. Martin disagreed, saying that while they were at the center of a funny scene or two, he was rather kind to them; the portrayal was more true-to-life. Solomon seemed to accept this and switched gears, saying that he was much more savagely satirical towards the Boggses.

At this point Solomon said a rather shocking thing, something like "It's a good thing you were nice to the Nathansons and were harder on the Boggs couple." The implication was clear: Martin had not made fun of the Jews but rather had made fun of gentiles. I'm still trying to suss out the logic of this offensive "warning." Would the pro-Israel lobby come down harder on Martin if he dared to make Jews the object of his satire? I'm not sure why exactly Martin should feel that he had dodged a bullet here, but that was not Solomon's opinion.

After that there was some discussion of tax law in the District of Columbia and New York City as pertains to the delivery of artworks, facts that are relevant to a particular scene in which the Nathansons are made fun of.

At two points Solomon decided to read aloud a passage from the book, over Martin's mild objections. She didn't even really get anywhere in the second passage, trailing off after a line or two. Solomon's next idea was to relate the substance of a funny scene in the book (all of which takes place well after page 200 of a novel that does not reach page 300) involving the 1970 artwork Felt Suit by Joseph Beuys.

It is essential to note at this point that the audience had not yet made a peep about anything. There were no groans, no boos, no hisses, no expressions of displeasure whatsoever. And yet the interview was palpably not going well.

A woman strode onto the stage and handed Solomon a card. Solomon read it aloud. The message was, "Ask him about his interesting career," or words to that effect. The audience erupted into lusty applause. This was the first true expression of audience displeasure that I noticed.

After that there was a modicum of chitchat about Martin's various movie projects and Oscar hosting duties. Then the same woman presented Solomon with some audience questions on cards. (The "audience" here included those present in the auditorium as well as those watching live via simulcast in a large number of "synagogues.") Solomon sort of bluffed her way through those questions, and then the event was at an end.

Okay. Narrative over. Herewith, some thoughts.

1. Solomon's claim is that she wanted to discuss art. I do not think that "discussing art" is a fair representation of the conversation she and Martin had. What she really did was discuss Martin's novel. Pretty big difference there.

2. Steve Martin was visibly uncomfortable during many parts of Solomon's interview. There's no disputing that he found Solomon's line of questioning highly curious, and the best word for his reaction to most of Solomon's queries would be "bumfuzzled."

3. Nevertheless, Martin handled it well. He's a professional entertainer, and he knows instinctively when the audience isn't enjoying a performance. He made several comments/jokes making light of the fact that the audience had become hostile to Solomon. Some of these jokes were quite funny and appropriate.

4. 92Y's decision to interrupt Solomon, unusual but not inappropriate, was clearly a reaction to Solomon's clueless interviewing style and clearly not a reaction to Solomon's insistence on discussing art.

5. The claim makes little sense on its face. 92Y hosts all sorts of events about all sorts of things, religion, politics, literature, science. The idea that either 92Y or its audience was made impatient by discussion about art is patently absurd. Nothing of the sort happened.

6. The New York Times allotted space in its newspaper to allow Solomon to express her self-serving opinion that Solomon had somehow been hoodwinked and that 92Y is somehow hostile to discussions about art or the life of the mind. It is wise to remember that Solomon is an employee of the New York Times.

7. Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon are friendly, as evidenced by a couple of comments made during the session. Martin's tweet was most likely made in the name of friendship to Solomon, which is somewhat understandable. In the long term, his loyalties are to his friend Solomon and not the faceless organization known as 92Y. However, notwithstanding that, Martin's a bit of a jerk (yes, pun intended) for posting such a harsh tweet about 92Y, which didn't really do anything wrong.

8. It's unwise for a blogger to spend more than 1,000 words berating an organization like 92Y for events he or she did not witness and has only scant misinformation about. Holmes owes 92Y an apology and a retraction of some sort.

9. 92Y did, after all, refund the money. That decision may reflect an impatience on the part of the audience members (it would never have occurred to me to complain, but then my ticket was free). Faced with somewhat justified annoyance on the part of ticketholders, they offered to supply vouchers with alacrity. For this move they are being criticized for being intolerant and rigid.

And that's the end of my report. Solomon was incompetent on the stage of 92Y and mendacious in the press afterward. I'm not fond of Martin, and while I thought he handled the event itself quite well, the nasty tweet about 92Y confirms my distaste for him. And meanwhile any 92Y catalog you could care to peruse confirms 92Y's commitment to a certain kind of expansive and (yes) upper-middlebrow discourse about politics, the arts, the sciences, and the life of the mind.

A counter-narrative has arisen that is in complete conflict with this picture of events, a narrative that serves Solomon and Martin's agenda. It would be a disgrace to let that counter-narrative become the final word on this fiasco. Do not believe it.

Comments

This is very illuminating, thanks. It seems Ms. Solomon would be better cast as a PR flak than as an interviewer.

I would take issue with just one thing, but I feel strongly about it: you say of Mr. Martin, ‘[h]e’s a professional entertainer, and he knows instinctively when the audience isn’t enjoying a performance.’ To suggest that Mr. Martin’s awareness of his audience’s mood is a creature of ‘instinct’ does him, and other competent entertainers, an injustice. It is a part of his craft, like comic timing, or stage presence, developed, with much practice, attention, and hard work, over years of live performance.

The distinction is germaine here, as it is exactly what Ms. Solomon apparently lacks: not ‘instinct,’ but craftsmanship.

Martin: Thanks very much for offering this invaluable counterpoint to the established narrative. It does help us understand what transpired that evening. But full understanding will only happen if the 92nd Street Y releases the ENTIRETY of the conversation. I am unsure what’s holding them up in doing so — as having the primary source for our examination would take the heat off the situation. Unless Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon have, in some way, prevented the taped conversation that was broadcast on closed circuit televisions from being distributed to the public. (It is interesting to note that their previous Times Talk is not available in the podcast archive, leaving one to consider that keeping a snafu from the public is hardly new for both Solomon and Martin.)

It is exceptionally irresponsible for “reporters” like Ms. Holmes to smear an individual or an institution when they weren’t there and they didn’t have the source material.

Edward ChampionDecember 03, 2010

A nice, clear account of the events, and thoughtful commentary at the end. Interesting to note Times’ struggle to maintain profitability in the era of new media. They’re forced to reevaluate their worth based on how many people are willing to pay for content. I can see the Times feeling resentful of a plugged-in audience who suddenly makes demands where once they were passive consumers.

So two rich assholes put on a crappy interview for their wealthy audience and someone’s monocle popped out.

Who give a shit?

This just in: a bunch of self-obsessed New Yorkers are arguing with each other. Also, the sky is blue and puppies are cute.

I wholeheartedly second the above commenter’s post. Only people who are convinced that Manhattan island is the center of the universe give a tinker’s dam about this.

I am in total agreement with Will’s comment above.

I attended the event as well, and wholeheartedly concur with your analysis of what went down. It seems you’re the only one out there to get it right. I’ve seen scores of interviews on the stage at the Y over the years and this one was noticeably awkward from the start, owing primarily to Solomon’s cringe-inducing interview style. Compare this one to the Charlie Rose/Steve Martin interview in ‘08 on the same stage and the difference is obvious.

One thing to note, which you somehow got completely wrong: it was a male representative of the Y who introduced Martin and Solomon on stage, not a woman.

I’m glad you’re testifying! I wasn’t there, but I too am baffled that anyone would side with Solomon/Martin and against the audience based on the account in the NYT. The quote you cited above from Solomon is nasty and defensive, which to me is pretty strong evidence that she was the problem all along. Even stronger evidence: her notoriously self-centered (and shamelessly manipulated) interviews in the NYT Magazine.

oh my, thank you!
Again, the NT Times! Oy.
Who is this Solomon person??? How does such a thing happen?
What, no purloined recording of the interview? Can we not hear for ourselves?

Martin’s autobiography makes him to seem more than “a bit of a jerk”. It’s good to hear that he behaved well during the interview, but not surprising that he’d slam 92Y in his attempt to rehabilitate Solomon.

Just Some GuyDecember 03, 2010

I am a fan of Deborah Solomon’s interviews in the paper where she attempts to take the high and mighty down a peg.

Clearly that skill failed her when interviewing her good friend Steve Martin.

The fact that the audience wasn’t interested in Ms. Solomon and Steve Martin’s discussion of the art world does say anything about the interest of the audience in the art world itself. One can enjoy the art immensely and still not be interested in hearing about the experiences of art connoiseurs.

i too watched the event and agree with your account. i even expressed the following sentiment to Linda Wells after reading her NPR blog:

“I actually watched the event (not at the Y), but on a simulcast live that evening. I do know at the beginning of the evening they asked us to submit questions that would be e-mailed to the 92Y to ask Mr. Martin. However those questions weren’t going to be asked until after Solomon’s initial interview. I have to tell you though Solomon was a terrible moderator/interviewer. Her questions were often ridiculous and she often steered the conversation to whatever she desired or wanted to point out. She talked over Martin, who was merely trying to reply a few times. And at one point she began to read from his book to us OUTLOUD, even after Martin suggested against it. There was no clear direction in her style of interviewing. I wish a body language expert was watching and could comment. I’m sure that expert would tell you that even Steve Martin looked uncomfortable talking with Solomon. If he chooses to have her interview him – great, but she was absolute train wreck. Steve Martin finally took control of the last 10 minutes of the interview and closed the evening out leaving Solomon looking like a deer caught in headlights. Now do people deserve a refund? The refund debate might be a bit over reaction on the part of 92Y, but who knows.”

i’ll admit i was irritated by the harsh responses to people who didn’t see the event at all. i too saw the event for free as it was simulcast live to location i was at down south. and now since it was free to all in attendance, i really with the 92Y would just release the video. that way everyone can see the train wreck and make an accurate depiction of what transpired for themselves…

“Unless Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon have, in some way, prevented the taped conversation that was broadcast on closed circuit televisions from being distributed to the public.”

It’s quite possible that they don’t have a right to unlimited distribution. But I’m surprised that there aren’t pirated copies.

Well done! I watched the interview via satellite and agree with everything you said (minus the fact that Martin & Solomon were introduced by a man, not a woman). Solomon was unbelievably rude & awkward, and poor Martin had to suffer through it! His hands were visibly shaking at one point, and everyone could tell he was uncomfortable. The event was supposed to last much longer —- he basically pulled the plug once it became apparent that they couldn’t salvage the evening…I feel really badly for Martin and hope he doesn’t blame the audience for our annoyance with Solomon. Also, a final correction, Solomon kept joking about the 30 or so synagogues that were watching the event via TV. I was at a theater, not a synagogue, and wondered how many other sites were mischaracterized. Regardless, her jokes about the Jewish collectors in Martin’s book and the Holocaust were not appreciated at my secular screening.

This is the first time I’ve read this blog, and my interest in the 92Y events is minimal, at best….

I would, however, like to offer that this blog entry and comments represent the internet at its best. A personal, first-hand account of an event, accompanied by thoughtful analysis, followed by thoughtful responses — not all agreeing, but none (in my opinion) unconstructive. (Some may disagree with me here, but let’s just say that Will’s comment above is too spot-on to dismiss as merely crass or hostile.)

Too often we complain about what we don’t like, what offends us, what is wrong. I’d just like to point out what is good, and what works, while it is working.

Sorry, buddy, this doesn’t in any way make the “counter-narrative” less believable. In fact, sounds like it was right on and you just don’t like being called out on being a philistine.

Will’s comment was totally worth the 20 minutes I spent investigating this series of events. I laughed way too hard at that. Thank you, sir, and moving on…

I absolutely detest Deborah Solomon and have often wondered how on Earth she stays in the exalted position she holds in the New York Times Magazine. What a relentless narcissist. Blerg.

it is no real surprise that this event went the way you suggested, after all she did received a fair amount of flack for the way she handled her interviews in her day job. On more than one occasion she inserted questions post-interview that skewed the answers greatly.

Will Wikileaks have the video?

I did not attend the event and do not doubt the accuracy of your description. However, I think the reactions of Martin and Solomon deserve to be put in the context of what happened the next day. Martin’s comments in the NYT atricle you to linked to make it clear that the 92Y gave him no notice before its radical action. It is unlikely the Times gave advance notice to Solomon if it gave none to Martin (the star).

The 92Y did not offer a refund to disappointed audience members the day after the event. It sent an email to every ticket holder (whether they had complained or not). The email offered all 900 ticket holders a credit (not a refund). It also described the Martin/Solomon interview as beneath the 92Y’s standard of excellence and a disappointment to the 92Y.

It is rare for a venue to provide either a refund or a credit to an entire audience unless the performer does not show up or is too ill to complete more than a small portion of the performance. What the 92Y did was a terrible insult to both Martin and Solomon. The interview may not have gone well but was it so much worse than every other event you have seen at the 92Y that the participants deserved to be treated as though they were no-shows?

Even if the 92Y felt it was necessary to send out the email, it was inexcusably rude of them not to give Martin and Solomon the courtesy of advance notice. Neither of them should have had to learn from a third party that the 92Y had decided their work the night before was utterly worthless and had told the entire audience about that opinion.

The New York Times has turned from a quality newspaper into a peddler of conventional wisdom and a pillar of nothing but establishment butt-kissing. I’m surprised they let Solomon do this at the Y instead of the Times’ own auditorium, so it could have made (and surely not returned) the money. Her narcissism is naught but a reflection of that of the institution she works for, which always held itself in high esteem. Its self-regard, while still defining, is no longer justified.

gnossos papadapoulisDecember 04, 2010

Fucking philistine.

I find Martin (Schneider, not Steve)’s version of events plausible and his analysis reasonable. And unlike so many who have opined on this fiasco, he was actually there.

I’ve attended several New Yorker Festival events with Martin and found his summary writeups on this blog to be accurate, thorough depictions of events. He takes excellent notes, his recall is superior and his editorial hand is fair-minded and assured. Add it all up and and his summaries are nearly photographic accounts.

It doesn’t seem fair to me to read the above and conclude that M.S.’s reaction is one of resentment at being outed as a philistine. Had I (and most people, philistines or otherwise) attended this event, we would have had a similar reaction.

Shame on Deborah Solomon. I actually enjoy her interviews in the NYT magazine because she gets good stuff from her interviewees, but agree that her work is far too self-centered. This interview was clearly affected by that problem. Meanwhile, the scandal a few years ago in which a subject complained that she manipulated the content of her interviews (and resulted in the NYT magazine adding a tagline explaining that these interviews are “conducted, condensed,” etc. by Ms. Solomon) calls into question her journalistic credibility.

By contrast, I saw Steve Martin interviewed by Susan Morrison at the 2007 New Yorker Festival. Although Ms. Morrison is surely not lacking in self-regard either, she did a fine job of showcasing the star and conducting a creditable interview (as she had with Conan O’Brien a year or two earlier).

Then again, how anyone could so thoroughly blow a Steve Martin interview is remarkable. He’s a very funny man with opinions on many subjects, decades of experience on talk show couches, and the self-awareness to pop the balloon of his own pomposity. Anyone reading this could have done a better job than it sounds like Deborah Solomon did.

p.s. One more note on the self-admiring Deborah Solomon. In the over three years I have been writing a blog, I have mentioned in passing the names of many well-known people, but it was hers that resulted in one of the few (and the speediest) self-Google search, as revealed by my traffic engine.

Of course, I can’t say for sure that it was she who performed the search, but there was one and only one person Googling Deborah Solomon and that person was in New York. Draw your own conclusion.

I attended a NY Times Talk interview between Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon for Martin’s book, “Born Standing Up.” Solomon is not a good interviewer. The talk was so awkward and out of sync, even Martin made several (somewhat joking) comments on it. Many of the audience members left annoyed. Of course, no mention of that interview debacle was made in the next day’s edition of the Times.

“Counter-narrative”? You mean the other side?

I’m no fan of Deborah Solomon — her Q & A’s in the Times magazine are all about her, not the subject — but I can’t believe the length of this post, which, I admit, I stopped reading after the first few grafs.

I don’t care.

Ben Bass:

Or she could just have a Google Alert set.

True, except my traffic engine shows the content of actual Google searches and this one was “deborah solomon”. More or less the same thing as a Google Alert, I grant you.

Will, hon, your comment made all the time I wasted reading about this event well worth it. You made me LOL out loud. Oy!

Well, I wish I could have attended. I heard his interview on NPR and enjoyed it. I think people attended with various expectations, and few if any that included his writing of this novel.

Just wondering — and I say this with no disrespect whatsoever — if you’re not a fan of Martin, why would you attend the talk?

Lauren: That’s an interesting question. I don’t perceive very much contradiction there, but you have a point. I requested the pass from 92Y with the expectation that Emily Gordon, fellow Emdashes scribe and authentic Steve Martin fanatic, would be the one to attend and write up the event. In the intervening weeks she moved to Chicago, so I used the pass rather than let it go to waste.

Beyond that, simple curiosity. Even if he’s not my cup of tea, Steve Martin is still pretty interesting, and perhaps he would make such a devastatingly powerful impression that I would be forced to change my view. Who knows?

Over the years I have made it my habit to attend lots of events like this, and they’re almost always pleasurable and/or interesting. And this one proved to be perhaps the most interesting one of all! So there’s more than a little method to my madness.

Martin, The New York Timesa article below stated that the audience cheered after Ms. Solomon read the note she was handed out loud. Is that true?

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/02/nyregion/02refund.html?ref=ninetysecond_street_y

Yes. That is stated above.

“So two rich assholes put on a crappy interview for their wealthy audience and someone’s monocle popped out. Who gives a shit?”

To the person that posted this comment and anyone that agrees with him or her, why are you commenting on this article or even reading this site? Based on the majority of the articles, it is a NYC centric website. If you don’t think much of Manhattan, why are you here?

Sorry about the Anon, but I work at the Y.
I was in attendance for the Steve Martin program and I have finally found an account that is accurate. Thank you.
However, idea #4 is uninformed…..the program person (or superior) should never have interrupted the program with directions on how to proceed.
The program person should have visited the green room before the show and asked about the line of questioning and suggested additions at that time. They have, with vigor, mismanaged the fallout. And the fear around here is palpable. Nobody is openly dealing with this.

It is yet another instance of an institution behaving badly. The 92nd St. Y is an awful place.
Your justification of it’s boorish behavior as a “counter-narrative” typifies the kind of patron that the stinky joint sucks up to: opinionate, long-winded, no-talent crap artists. A blog?
Shut up and listen and you might actually learn a thing or two.

” I’m not fond of Martin” …. no kidding?

Casual ObserverOctober 08, 2011

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