It was like an awkward meeting between two strangers in an arranged marriage. The conversation sputters and uncomfortable silences push them further apart. Hopes are high they’ll fall in love, but the first introduction isn’t promising.
That was how it felt at ‘An Evening with The New Yorker’ at the Melbourne Town Hall on Friday night. It was billed as one of the highlights on the Melbourne Writers Festival program — the idea of bringing Manhattan to Melbourne — with the magazine’s intelligentsia sharing their insights on what shapes one of the world’s most celebrated publications. The panel would include Editorial Director Henry Finder, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, staff writer David Grann, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones and cartoonist Roz Chast.
To start the evening, Henry Finder, with mellifluous voice and laid-back charm, explained how ninety per cent of New Yorkers read the cartoons before the articles, so ‘Why don’t we do what the New Yorkers do and look at twenty of the magazines most popular cartoons first?’ Seemed like a good idea.
All five of The New Yorker crew and the audience turned eyes upwards to the large screens dominating the wall behind the stage.
One after another, a new cartoon appeared and the rumblings from the audience grew louder and Finder began scratching his head. Hadn’t anyone thought about how tiny the words on a cartoon caption appear in a large hall and that no matter what size the cartoon, that from a distance, it’s impossible for an audience to read them?
From my seat, this is how it looked.
Voices started calling out ‘We can’t read them!’ so cartoonist Roz Chast tried to help but even from her position on-stage, couldn’t. Adopting a baby voice, she bleated, ‘I can’t read it either. It’s too tiny.’ A smattering of laughter then much applause when the cartoon run finally came to an end.
Quickly moving on, Finder then, appropriately, introduced Chast as the magazine’s distinctive resident genius and asked her how she arrived at The New Yorker. Her delivery was entertaining, like her cartoons. While she graduated in painting, the small apartment she lived in meant it was easier to draw so she began focusing on illustrations. When she dropped off a portfolio of about 60 cartoons to The New Yorker, she was surprised when she returned to pick it up the following week, to find not only did they want to buy one, but they also asked her to return the following week. The rest is history.
Next Finder introduced staff writer David Grann, who critics refer to as one of the most accomplished narrative reporters of our time. He told of how he worked from the bottom up, first as a copy editor and writing obituaries for various publications, and how that early training was essential in the process of becoming a writer. His stories were colourful and engaging – as you would expect from a specialist in his craft.
Then we heard from award-winning art critic Peter Schjeldahl, whose many accolades include being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1995. Regardless, the man is 70 and his forte is not public speaking. He was a poet who dropped out of college in the early 60s, worked as a newspaper reporter and then became an art critic by accident. His first anecdote was fine, but as the evening wore on, his conversation and thought processes slowed, so that there were more ‘ah…um…anyway.,.ahs’ than actual words. One sentence seemed to take an entire minute to articulate. It became so frustrating, people began leaving. Someone told me they saw him nod off on stage. I’m not actually sure, because I think at some point, I did too. Not quite the riveting night I was expecting.
We also heard from music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who started at the Village Voice. He too fell into his profession by accident; an aspiring musician who wrote a few pieces for a local paper as a favour to a friend, then became a writer. Surprisingly, for someone whose passion is music, his voice drones in monotone. I’m not sure if that’s just his style, or if he was zonked by jet lag or uncomfortable with pubic speaking. Or he’s got that uber cool, ‘I’m too hip to be here’ thing going on.
The entire evening’s presentation felt slow and disjointed. As if very little thought had been put in to what each participant was going to say and how the structure of the night would work. Perhaps the venue didn’t help. The Melbourne Town Hall is a vast, echoing space with a wood-paneled 1950s feel and a mere two potted plants on stage for decor. It feels dusty and old-fashioned – not exactly the right fit for our most forward thinking minds from New York.
I met with a group of friends afterwards to get some feedback. Was I being overly critical? Their response was similar. Joanne agreed that the Town Hall was an inappropriate choice of venue. ‘It was embarrassing. I mean, they’re our guests. It felt like a country bumpkin hall with the ghosts of debutantes past.’
Lisa was also disappointed with the structure of the evening. ‘It was a hotchpotch. It was as if they decided what to do on the night while in the Qantas club lounge or while they were on the plane,’ she said. ‘And the art critic was excruciating. I mean, he had some good stories to tell but he was all over the place. At the same time, I loved David Grann and his story about the giant squid.’
Jaqui, an avid New Yorker fan, had a far more positive view. She said her family subscribes to the magazine so they can leave it hanging around their coffee table to impress visitors. ‘It’s so we can look really pretentious at home,’ she said, laughing. ‘And I fully read all the cartoons first, like they said. They have such in-depth stuff on so many fascinating things. Mad professors that are doing work at UCLA, authors that were writing in Dickens time. It’s great stuff. So tonight it was good to hear how they put it together behind the scenes. Roz was very Manhattan. And Sasha was pretty cool. The way he swaggered in. It’s that whole New York thing. And I could have listened to David Grann all night.’ A satisfied customer.
Yesterday a happy accident occurred to alter my point of view. I was planning to listen to former Premier Steve Bracks discuss his book and didn’t realize there had been a change of venue. So when I walked into the BMW Edge auditorium, there was the team from The New Yorker – AGAIN. This time, ‘What’s the Story’ was topic of discussion. I stayed to see how they fared compared with Friday night.
Maybe they’d all had a good night’s sleep. Maybe it was the modernity and impressive architecture of the BMW Edge that lifted their spirits. Whatever the reason, it was a far more vibrant and entertaining session. Frere-Jones, in particular, was more animated, his voice conveying a lively timbre, his hands gesturing to emphasise a particular point. He even expressed with humility, a certain astonishment that he had come to work for such a prestigious publication. ‘You get sucked up into this spaceship and you wonder how it all happened,’ he said. ‘Even now, I wonder when I talk, do I sound like I work for The New Yorker?’
Finder was impressive as moderator, asking more pertinent questions and summing up the talents of his staff, like Frere-Jones, with eloquence. ‘Sasha has an effortless authority without being chesty about it,’ he said. Lovely.
David Grann was again the standout as a storyteller with intriguing tales of his most challenging journalistic assignments.
The applause at the end of the session was thunderous, the crowd enamoured. Perhaps this arranged marriage will work out after all. Melbourne and The New Yorker do see to get along quite nicely. How much is a subscription, anyway?