I am a New Yorker junkie. I need my 46 issue a year New Yorker fix or my brain cells will die. I'm not being melodramatic. My brain cells will really shrivel up and die in the hot So Cal sun without my New Yorker fix.
Why do I like the New Yorker so much? The writing is good. When pondering this reason, I realized that I didn't need over the top superlatives to talk about the New Yorker. I didn't need to fall to my knees and shout ‘I'm not worthy!' When something is good, you don't need to be too excessive in praising it. Some things are just plain good, and the New Yorker has good writing. Other magazines and journals also have good writing, but the New Yorker is the one I keep reading.
David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, spoke at the Central Library in Downtown LA a week ago on Monday night. Remnick is on a book tour for his latest book, Reporting, a book of essays and journalism pieces from (you guessed it) The New Yorker. Through the years, he's written long in-depth pieces about leaders, writers, athletes, and newsworthy events. He wrote a great piece about Al Gore a few years ago. He also wrote a great book called King of the World about Cassius Clay defeating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship and become Muhammed Ali.
His appearance at the library was part of their Aloud series of free events and lectures usually involving authors of books. In a well-lit auditorium with nice wood paneling, Remnick spoke with David Ulin of the LA Times about both the new book and the magazine. Apparently, I am not the only Californian who reads the New Yorker. In fact, there are more New Yorker subscribers in California than in the state of New York. Yep, some of us are sorta smart out here even though subscribing to the New Yorker should not be the litmus test for brain power. That ought to be how fast you can finish a hard Sudoko puzzle. But I digress.
The average age of the attendee for the Remnick lecture was older than me, and there were many white caps in the sea of audience heads. Yep, I had definitely found the older bookish scene in LA. The younger attendees (those in their mid-thirties) were also quite bookish. The guys all had beards, khaki pants, wire rim glasses, and bags on their shoulders. The ladies had a larger range of appearance from urban hip with cotton clothes and short hair cuts to sloppy hippie chick with bright clothes, flowing skirts, and lots of bangle jewelry. Throwing myself into the scene for a moment, I wore basic urban black and had my sunglasses on my head long after the sun went down.
Remnick and Ulin began the discussion by talking about failure stories and how they relate to journalism. If someone is in power or has great success, they are awful to talk to---if you can get to them at all. Have you ever talked to a successful person and felt like you were getting a spoonful of soft served cliché? Successful people are boring when they talk about success. Even the Barbara Walters interviews are a total snoozefest unless someone cries.
However, when someone is on his way out, he tends to be more honest. He probably has more time to talk instead of just presenting a mythical view of himself. Besides, we've all failed at something. I've failed at many things. Reading about failure, I feel more human, more myself in the present. I don't think it's about losing with grace and dignity. It's about continuing on and on.
I don't view Al Gore googling himself as sad. I google myself all the time. Did you know that the spokesperson for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner is named Jen Sunshine?
As a reader, stories of triumph give me hope and allow me to dream. Someday, I'll have success like that person. Someday, I'll wear Vera Wang and be a spectacular version of myself. Someday. . .someday. . . Stories of triumph show me what my future could be. Stories of failure help me live in my present. It's reassuring that I'm not the only one with bad timing and missed opportunities. Heck, Remnick talked about missing a coup in Russia by a matter of hours.
The discussion then moved over to the New Yorker magazine itself. Remnick is an editor, not an archivist. The New Yorker has to live in the contemporary world, and he has found that people do want to read at great length about a variety of subjects. The word he used to describe his goal was ‘surprising'. Maybe that's why I still read the magazine. If it was just the same old stuff, I would not keep going back to it. I like getting a new twist on things or learning about something unexpected. Nowadays, there is not a lot that shocks me, but I can still be surprised. When someone sets out to shock, they usually set out control an outcome or reaction. When someone sets out to surprise, they don't know what the reaction will be but they hope it will be a good one.
The discussion moved into questions from the audience, and I learned just how smart David Remnick is. He's very smart. If we were in grade school together, I would have hated his guts. In their questions, the bookish LA audience revealed its ambition by asking how many New Yorker writers cover LA. They revealed their discontentment with the LA Times by criticizing it at length. They revealed their love of conspiracy theory and melodramatic language---both of which were calmly and politely shot down by Remnick who answered with intelligence and most importantly, calm. So often we get caught up in clichés and tough talk instead of discussing ideas.
As the question and answer time continued, my brain slowly carved a question out of a mountain of ideas. Something about language. Something about language in 2006 United States. Has the written finally fallen to the visual? Something like that. Something about discourse and debate perhaps. How does one maintain their intellect. However, the intellect is not just lingual intelligence. I suddenly heard jack hammers, and my question became a pile of rocks with no form. Fortunately, the question and answer time ended.
Remnick hung out to the sign books and shake hands. I stayed in my seat and waited for the auditorium to clear out. The cane and walker crowd move slowly, so I give them right of way and wait patiently. Someday, that will be me.
Once I was out in the lobby, I got on line and had Remnick sign my New Yorker (the latest issue arrived in the mail that afternoon). When I pointed out that they misspell my name on the mailing label (two Ns in Sunshine but only one N in Jen), Remnick squinted at the text like an editor. This gave me the two seconds I needed to work up my courage.
"Can I ask you a question?" I asked. Yes, I was asking if I could ask a question. I was nervous.
"Yes." Remnick replied, not taking me too literally.
"Do you feel that writing is getting worser in this mass media age?"
"Well, not my writers."
"Excuse me, I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Joe Schmoe." A bearded khacki-wearing thirtysomething writer guy said standing next to me. Remnick's attention turned to him, and I walked away.
I had failed to communicate. I had failed to form my thought into a cohesive question. Yes, in that moment, I wrote my own failure story. In the future, I should write my questions down before asking them or maybe just pass the piece of paper across the table---here, this is what I want to ask you. I am so not a journalist, but that's okay. I'm moving on.