At The New Yorker Festival, strange bedfellows learn to coexist in exchange for 48 hours of wit, culture, cross-disciplinary insight, and more than a little pretense. The seats before each stage are filled by a mixture of hipster dandy types, graying men in wide-wale corduroys, folks notable only for looking as if they stepped out of this month’s style guide, and too-eager people of all stripes who fail to see neighbors roll their eyes when they clamber to ask questions that make them think, “Ha! In this crowd of smarties, I too am smart.”
On-stage dynamics range from warm to conciliatory to venomous. There’s the writer whose partner in dialogue has been a close friend for years. On the other extreme, there are the panelists who shoot each other withering looks and, after the first question, refuse to acknowledge the moderator’s existence.
Despite these underlying tensions, the weekend unfurls without major incident. And it’s clear that the no-apologies nature of both the program and the crowd make the entire event more provocative. Middle-grounders they are not, making the experience of being there more memorable. It turns into a series of bold conversations about what might be next and what’s starting to bubble up, not about ideas that have been done and that feel tired. Risk-taking is in the air, and the non-threatening has no place.
It was fitting, then, that all of the talks I attended last Friday through Sunday pointed to the question of how to maintain a certain level of intensity without losing oneself or one’s message in the process. The issue wasn’t about balance or compromise; it was about how to exist on a knife’s edge without falling off one side or the other. Whether directly or through my own interpretation, each conversation I heard demonstrated that it’s there on the precipice where the most exciting stuff happens—but that it takes focus and periodic reassessment to stay there.
As the weekend pulsed on, the same types of questions cropped up no matter what the topic at hand. Still, what struck me as key takeaways fell into three main buckets: (1) broader societal and cultural trends; (2) how messages are transmitted and received; and (3) the ways of work that appear most effective for some of the people we most admire.
Society & Culture:
For Malcolm Gladwell, a central concern in his talk was how to create societal mechanisms that help stop people from getting screwed without going so far as to constrain the healthy running of society. If we want to make it less likely for the Bernie Madoffs to get away with fraud, but we also don’t want to foster a culture of suspicion or authoritarianism, what’s the narrow path forward?
A panel about income inequality considered the argument that the so-called elites of American society used to be bound by a code of “seemliness” that kept excess in check, and that the loss of the common narrative emerging out of World War II has eroded that code, making the upper echelons ever more disengaged from the rest of us. With that problem posed, it’s worth asking: In an era where the American cultural experience is so fragmented, where could another powerful, lasting, and positive common narrative come from?
Storytelling & Messages:
After a panel discussion among writers whose work revolved around the quirks of Florida lore, I was left with one question: What makes a story or a place weird enough to fascinate us, but not so weird that it’s simply off-putting? In other words, where is the line where weird stops capturing our imagination and becomes a joke?
During a retrospective on the work of cult classic filmmaker Roger Corman, a lesson emerged around how messages get packaged. Namely, Corman had learned to consider: How can I convey what I want to in this movie without sounding preachy? How can I put this story forward in a way that still packs a punch yet makes viewers feel like they’re in on the joke?
Jeremy Denk suggested in his talk that what makes good comedy (and classical music, for that matter) tick involves having recognizable “types” that allow an audience to follow a plot however those basic elements interact with each other. Using examples from Seinfeld, Portlandia, and various pieces for the piano, he raised the question: How can you incorporate powerfully resonant building blocks into your storytelling in a way that leverages shared experience without being too obvious or formulaic?
In a panel about cannabis legalization, yea- and naysayers carried on a spirited conversation. At the same time that their distinct points of view made them passionate speakers, they struggled to find common ground and spent most of the 90-minute session talking past each other. For the audience, the issue became: What lets you become skilled at making an ardent case for something while also being open to constructive debate?
A late-night screening for the new film Listen Up Philip let the audience in on a story whose apparent protagonist was a thoroughly caustic, narcissistic character. In my observation of the film, there was nothing that made me want to root for this guy—nothing that evoked empathy as he tumbled toward self-induced misery. The possibility of schadenfreude also passed me by as I was too distracted by this dude’s foulness to revel in his pain. I don’t doubt that others connected to this film more than I did, but I’m left with the following question all the same: If polarizing characters can inspire more passion and evoke more interest among audience members, when do unlikeable personalties cross a barrier where they just become a reason to stop watching?
Ways of Work:
Before Bill Hader took a turn into comedy and, as Bill Murray recently put it, “did the best work anyone ever did” on Saturday Night Live, he was intent on being a director of "serious" films. Recounting how he made the switch, Hader recalled the decision he faced: Should I keep on doing something that isn’t quite working out, or should I put all of my energy into this thing that people tell me I’m good at? Instead of sliding back into a comfort zone, he saw an opportunity that scared him and went after it.
Roger Angell, a living legend at the magazine, spoke of the determination that allowed him to become the celebrated baseball writer that he is today. In the 1990s, the professional focus that he had acquired was stretched when then-editor Tina Brown challenged him to write something about his personal life—something he hadn't done previously. This anecdote points to the question: How can you be single-minded enough to achieve your goals and yet stay vulnerable and keep learning?
So, in the end, the most interesting people in the room probably didn’t reach that pinnacle by seeking balance in their lives. But neither did they go at it so hard that they fell off the deep end. Their willingness to take risks was bolstered by hard work and kept in check by the sorts of questions above—the ones that can help all of us alternately stoke and check whatever it is that keeps us going.