I’ve long known that Martin Amis is considered one of the unreconstructed hedonists of British letters, but it wasn’t until I shared a train car with him on a journey from deepest Wales to London that I believed it. Every three or four stops, which on a train like that means every 10 or 15 minutes, Amis—half-grizzled, half-impish—stood and walked to the sliding doors, then alighted onto various near-empty platforms to drag hastily at cigarettes. When, after 30 seconds, the train threatened to start off again, he hopped back on, flicking the barely consumed cigarette to the pavement—a fresh smoke for each stop. How was this man going to survive the smoking ban that was coming to England in a mere two months? Moreover, how did I happen to be sitting close enough that I could observe his behavior?
Odds were good, in fact, that I’d be seated near Amis that evening, as we were both traveling back from the Hay Festival, at once Britain’s biggest literary festival and fiendishly difficult to get to. You can drive the 3.5 hours from London to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, of course. But without a car, you’ve got to rely on trains that stop running at 9:30 at night and taxi drivers who look—as most Welsh men do, I’ve found—like they might later that evening break into your hotel room and murder you.
It’s not just location that divorces Hay from London. The festival crowd is made up as much by book-lovers—old, lumpy, enthusiastic—as the sleek inhabitants of the media and publishing industries. The attendees sleep on bunk beds in empty old manors and the spare rooms of Hay-on-Wye’s residents, and sit through readings by authors they’ve never heard of, in temporary tents that get soggy in the rain and sweltering in the sun. The content of the festival takes a cue from its setting, and while the likes of Amis, Richard Dawkins, and Miranda July abound, they speak alongside relative unknowns, and seemingly more freely in Wales than they might back in southeast England. This year, Doris Lessing opined about infant girls’ “beautiful little cunts,” Derek Walcott stared down a fatuous interviewer, and Sebastian Faulks described a dream in which a sweaty Elton John arrived at his hotel room and offered him champagne.
Now, if Hay is, as Bill Clinton called it, “the Woodstock of the mind,” then the New Yorker Festival is the Live Earth of the mind—minus the whole giving-the-proceeds-to-worthy-causes bit. Like Live Earth, the brand infuses the event; the festival features exactly the headliners you’d expect; and the whole production tends toward the endlessly self-congratulatory. Live Earth tickets are more dear, granted, but with New Yorker events running from $16 for a fiction reading to $100 for food tours through lower Manhattan, the competition is stiff (Hay tickets run from $10 to $20, with the exception of one $70 concert). Finally—and also reminiscent of Live Earth—many of the New Yorker Festival events sell out within minutes of going on sale. (This year, the festival runs from October 5 to 7; tickets are available starting September 15.) The longest line I’ve ever witnessed in Manhattan was a string of men curled around a city block in Gramercy back in 2003, when the city’s unemployment rate had soared, waiting to try out to become garbage men. The second-longest was last year, outside the New Yorker Festival’s preview screening of the Borat movie. (The New Yorker Festival is just as mainstream in its movie choices as its fiction readings; this year get ready for The Kite Runner.)
Those lines depressed me on so many levels. Or maybe I was simply in a bad mood the latter evening, having just left a $35-a-head New Yorker Festival event: a conversation between film critic David Denby and the director Milos Forman. If only Forman would have pulled a Derek Walcott: Denby seemed utterly unprepared, not to mention tone-deaf, and interrupted Forman’s funny stories of sex, love, and filmmaking in Eastern Europe with inane questions about his relationship with Hollywood. The only satisfaction of the night came in realizing that Denby is just as irritating live as in print.
Denby aside, I’m a fan of The New Yorker. And yet the festival is a constant disappointment. Even events like David Remnick’s interview with John Updike in 2005 left me dumbfounded. Remnick spent half his time onstage trying to elicit from Updike gossip about The New Yorker. This would have been acceptable for an interview with Wallace Shawn, say, or even Tina Brown, but Updike is not defined by the fact that he has worked for the magazine—he’s defined by having penned some of the best novels of the 20th century. For those of us who are not employees of The New Yorker, it would have been nice to hear a little more about that.
While the logistics of the 19-year-old Hay Festival often turn members of the literary establishment into outsiders-—including its sponsor, the Guardian newspaper—the New Yorker Festival is the ultimate insiders’ game.
New Yorker editors interview New Yorker writers; the subjects of New Yorker profiles debate the subjects of New Yorker editorials; and New Yorker readers are granted the honor of listening in on it all—an audiovisual review of what they’ve read in The New Yorker over the past year.
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.
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.