Pleased to Meet Me

Self-satisfied, insider-y, predictable—a case against the New Yorker Festival

So sue them, right? It's their festival, they should be allowed to make an office party of it, no? Well, yes, but when a magazine made great for being literary, worldly, and esoteric spawns a festival just the opposite—self-satisfied and predictable—more analysis is due. In fact, the festival underscores pitfalls to which the magazine is sometimes susceptible. Take August's themed "food" issue. It included a few interesting features and an excellent editorial by Remnick, but also showcased a relentless piece by Calvin Trillin about his—surprise, surprise—love of street food and six cringe-inducing personal essays by New Yorker regulars on the subject of "family dinners." When even Anthony Lane is driven to lame, voiceover prose, you know something's wrong with the format.

The theme issues bring in the advertisers, and the festival draws a large audience, but this disguises a fundamental problem: An editorial vision—or event-planning vision—that is self-satisfied, that fails to seek out new voices and new ideas, does its fans and its subjects a disservice.

The shame of this is highlighted by the strengths of another literary festival: the three-year-old PEN World Voices festival, which displays just the intellectual curiosity theNew Yorker Festival lacks. One of PEN's fiction roundtables this year, for example, included Arthur Japin, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner. Who? Well, writers you might like to get to know. That compares with a New Yorker fiction lineup next month that pairs Jonathan Franzen and Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore and Jeffrey Eugenides. It's not that these are artists you wouldn't like to see live; it's just that you already can do so-—for free-—at the city's various Barnes & Nobles.

illustration by Paul Corio

It's time for the New Yorker Festival to embrace outsiders and runners-up (runners-up for the fiction section, in particular). Bring on the writers that we almost heard of, but didn't. The pages of the magazine, at its best, surprise us; it's time for the festival to do so too.

Rose Jacobs is an editor for the Financial Times.

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