Plato, P-rn and Wilde: Notes from the Melbourne Writers Festival — part two
The second day of the festival brought the New Yorker event I had been waiting for, The New Yorker: What’s the Story? This time set at BMW Edge, with a smaller cast from the magazine – editorial director Henry Finder, staff writer David Grann and music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Though the Keynote may have been stilted, this morning they were in top form – SFJ in particular was more relaxed and jovial than in any of the events I’d seen him in the previous day.
What was fascinating here was their discussion of the goings-on at the magazine – how they pitch stories, determine word length, the edits each essay goes under – all the ‘insider’ elements of writing for the magazine.
Grann described the process of working with his editors at the New Yorker as ‘a conspiracy of the same goal – to make you look better.’ Editorial director Henry Finder spoke about the editorial process for each New Yorker piece, which involves several edits and proof readings, a copy edit, second copy edit, foundry edit, as well as fact checking, and legal. Finder claimed that the amount of attention a New Yorker piece undergoes is more than many published books.
Grann spoke of the ‘Platonic ideal of the story,’ noting that he never knows when he begins a piece how long it will be, but that all his essays have an ideal form that he tries to approximate. ‘A piece finds its natural length,’ Finder said, ‘an editor might have a different sense to when that is than the writer [laughs]. Sometimes you cut a piece and it reads longer. You’ve robbed it of its vitality and texture.’ The solution to a piece that’s too long, Finder noted, ‘can sometimes be to make it longer.’ Such comments, rare in a print format where space and word count are sacred, say much about the quality and understanding of the editors at the New Yorker.
SFJ compared writing criticism to music, with a pace and rhythm, where ‘you feel as though you’re being gently, pleasantly moved through ideas.’ He also opened up about how he came to work at the New Yorker. Though he had mentioned this story at the Keynote the previous night, this morning he revealed something else that says much about editor David Remnick. Five years earlier, SFJ had written a letter to Remnick about the New Yorker’s current music critic, claiming ‘this guy clearly hates pop music’ and that popular music criticism didn’t have to be that way. SFJ only found out after he had been working for the magazine for many years that it was that letter which had influenced Remnick to hire him.
Next was Censorship, the Body and Porn, with David Marr, Jeff Sparrow and Karen Pickering. Marr, speaking about censorship in relation to the Bill Henson case, described the furore as being motivated by what he calls ‘a perverse decency’ in the Australian community. ‘A misplaced ambition to deny fresh material and pleasure to paedophiles.’ Marr argued that such an aim is impossible and, as it turned out, damaging to art. Yet at the time, when both the Prime Minister and shock jocks were stirring public indignation, the community attitude was that the price doesn’t matter.
Sparrow, whose new book Money Shot examines pornography and censorship in Australia, spoke of going to Sexpo and ‘Planetshakers,’ a Pentecostal megachurch event, and that both were about the commodification of sex – Sexpo was about buying the paraphernalia around sex and Planetshakers about trading commitment (marriage) for sex. Sparrow asked, ‘do we want sexuality driven by the market?’
Discussions turned to pornography sites, and the types of racial categories listed, based on historical taboos. Marr described such websites as displaying ‘the horribleness of human desire. It’s a strange and ugly portrait of humanity. If you want to know what we are really like, look at those sites. They cater to a demand. They are there because they serve desire.’
The danger, Pickering suggested, was that these sites become not simply a release for sexuality, but actually come to determine sexuality – teenagers are now coming to sex having watched these videos, ‘they’re not fumbling in the dark discovering sexuality anymore and connecting with another person.’
Pickering spoke about SlutWalk, which she described as a movement away from the commodification and market driven view of sex, it’s about a community of men and women who are against slut shaming and victim blaming.
In the afternoon I went to The New Yorker: The Critic as Artist with art critic Peter Schjeldahl. He delivered a speech that intertwined his own thoughts on criticism as art as well as Oscar Wilde’s famous essay on the subject, but his words melded with Wilde’s until I wasn’t sure whose was whose. I tried to write notes, but I just wanted to be lost in his beautiful words. Here are some scribbled quotes in my journal from Schjeldahl / Wilde:
No idea is true, it becomes true by illuminating an experience
It is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is right to criticise it
Criticism is a performing art
As critics, wrongness worries us less than tedium
The very idea of ‘correctness’ is elusive whether you are persuaded or not, maybe you enjoy the trip
Memory is a fiction machine.