I've been an avid reader of the New Yorker for years and finally made it to an event at this past weekend's New Yorker Festival. The Writer's Writer featured three authors whose works I have read and enjoyed: Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex), Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth).
The eye opener from the evening was Jhumpi's comments on an author's first piece. “Everybody writes their first book with a certain innocence, a purity of vision.” There are no guidelines when writing a first book, no pressures to write a certain way or to answer to your publisher, editor or PR person. She believes a writer's writer keeps that purity of vision throughout his/her career.
Her comments would ring very true for lots of recording artists, especially now, as musicians can make records for and by themselves. I've heard some musicians say "I only had one record in me." A song writing paralysis sets in when more is demanded of them. There is a sense of innocence that is lost. Does that mean that writers (and musicians) who can hang on to that innocence and purity end up in obscurity? Not necessarily, but the writers did seem to think that more times than not, the writer's writer is not selling a lot of books. I think of a musician's musician as one who can play anything with anyone. More times than not, that person is usually a side musician, not the one selling millions of records. They are making a really good living, but not in the limelight. Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker and the moderator of the panel relayed a description she once heard of a writer's write as "someone who lives at or below the poverty line." This elicited a chuckle from the audience.
An audience member asked how does an author deal with having either a screenwriter or a director take his/her work and morph it into something else. Jeffrey said you have to realize that they are going to make it their own. He said a director was true to his writing (Virgin Suicides) and another used the first 20 minutes of the movie as the basis of his story and then went from there. He said that was necessary as he wrote a short story (Baster) and they continued it.
With the exception of Jeffrey, the night was low on energy. It could be the late start time of 9:30pm. If it were a concert, the time would have made sense, but for writers discussing writers, it's late. Deborah Treisman could have moved the evening along a little faster, but she was courteous in letting the authors complete their thoughts. I also think the topic did not lend itself to elaborating. Once an authors stated their definition of a writer's writer and listed their favorite authors (each panelist read from their favorite author) , there wasn't much to play off of.
I've seen plenty of authors speak about their own works and it's been very engaging. Maybe when authors speak of others works, it doesn't resonate the same way.
Of Note: Jeffrey's new book, The Marriage Plot which comes out on the 11th, has a publisher who decided a Times Square Billboard was necessary.