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The New Yorker brought to life

Sarah Chandler · 17 October 2016

A long weekend of sanity and self-reflection in the Big Apple.

New Yorker Festival

Image: Claire Mabey

Four weeks out from the US election, at a time when half of America might seem to be losing its mind, The New Yorker Festival (7–9 October) did a pretty great job of assuring me and thousands of other Festival-goers that there’s still a good measure of sanity and self-reflection circulating in the Big Apple.

Held every October, and now in its 17th year, The New Yorker magazine’s annual Festival pairs dozens of authors, musicians, comedians, actors and thinkers with various New Yorker staff writers for a long weekend of one-on-one and panel discussions at a handful of Manhattan venues. The magazine describes its three-day event as “an opportunity to see The New Yorker magazine come to life”, which is as apt a description of it as any. Quite aside from the star power it attracts, if you’re a regular reader of The New Yorker you get to see what your favourite staff writers look like, and are like, in person.

Because the line-up isn’t announced until September (just a few weeks out from the event), if you’re planning a trip to the Festival from somewhere as remote as New Zealand you simply have to trust the programme is going to be good. Then there’s some pressure to secure tickets quickly; it’s a popular event in a great city and the big names sell out fast – Bruce Springsteen’s session with New Yorker editor David Remnick reportedly within six seconds. Tickets to comedians (plentiful this year) Sarah Silverman, David Letterman, Jonah Hill and Louis CK were soon gone, as were those to sessions with actors Daniel Craig, John Goodman and Jeremy Irons.

The US$45 entry fee to most events didn’t seem prohibitively expensive to me (in the context of spending several thousand dollars to travel to the other side of the world), but one can’t be in two places at once and choices needed to be made. Since I love books and have a very high tolerance for listening to people talk about the ethics and aesthetics of writing them, I signed up to go to mostly literary sessions (as well as the excellent session with country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell on opening night).

And so it proved that few things can make me happier than sitting in the cosy darkness at East 23rd Street’s Gramercy Theatre (a 500-seat, two-bar venue) hearing novelists Rachel Kushner (Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers), Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides, The Marriage Plot) and Louise Erdrich (The Round House) discuss their approach to research, how they create empathy for their characters, and how they go about assuming viewpoints so unlike their own. Kushner, whose third novel will be based on her experiences of California’s maximum security prisons, was unashamedly intellectual and politically astute, to the point that much of what she said was quite hard to ‘metabolize’ (a term Americans like to use), but I found bits and pieces came back to me over subsequent days, and no doubt will be thought about again.

The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the unmasking of Italian author Elena Ferrante were the topics du jour and discussed widely during the Festival weekend. Not surprisingly, in the obviously liberal environment, guests and audiences alike voiced unanimous contempt for Trump and near united support for Ferrante’s right to privacy. New Yorker copy chief and Ferrante translator Ann Goldstein, anticipating she would be asked for comment at her session, delivered a prepared statement on what she termed the “totally unnecessary” outing of Ferrante. It may be read in full here.

I was sorry to miss Nan Goldin talking to Adam Gopnik, since by chance I ended up seeing her Ballad of Sexual Dependency photographs (documenting 1980s New York City, Boston and Berlin) at MoMA the next day. Sometimes connections are made too late and I suppose, too, that missing out on some things is part of the Festival experience.

One thing that has resonated with me a week after the Festival was how good-natured everyone seemed. Panellists expressed delight at having found themselves invited to speak at the New Yorker Festival, with many commenting how humbled they felt sharing a stage with such esteemed contemporaries. Guests exchanged compliments and laughed a lot. Hosts let the guests do the lion’s share of the talking. Festival staff spent 10 minutes helping compile a $45 entry fee entirely out of small change, and cheerfully greeted me on my second visit with a “nice to see you again”.

I was 15,000 miles from home and yet for the time I was at the New Yorker Festival I felt part of a community. I left New York with a welcome mix of contentment and curiosity, keen to return, if that should be possible, next October.

Life advice heard at the 2016 New Yorker Festival

"The things that make you happy in the moment, and things that satisfy you in life, often do not align" – Daniel Kahneman

"If you don't choose what to worship you will end up worshipping beauty and fame" – Tavi Gevinson

"Failure is a badge of honour – it means you risked failure. Just do it, do it all the time" – Sarah Silverman

"A suit should look like you've lived in it, had sex in it" – Daniel Craig

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