All in a New Yorker minute

Magazine's festival has authors, musicians, thrilled-by-both readers

September 26, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Reporter

NEW YORK — NEW YORK--"That's Molly Ringwald in the red dress."

Where?

"There! Right next to the table."

Indeed, the red-headed star of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles was standing outside an auditorium in midtown Manhattan, waiting to get into one of the premier events of the New Yorker Festival.

Wow, some in line no doubt were thinking: Molly Ringwald -- seminal '80s teen star -- loved the New Yorker magazine as much as they did.

Some 17,000 people -- not all of them famous -- attended the magazine's weekend-long arts festival. It was a chance not only to hear from luminaries such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and John Updike but also celebrate a magazine that inspires a near religious devotion.

In recent years, The New Yorker has begun celebrating itself as well: It started the festival six years ago, and tickets sell out quickly. Its paraphernalia -- T-shirts, original cartoons, even shower curtains -- are increasingly ubiquitous. And this year, the magazine's circulation reached an all-time high of 1 million.

"The New Yorker wants to be the kind of magazine that people love so much that they're obsessed with it," said Emily Gordon, author of the New Yorker fan blog, emdashes.com. Gordon was running between festival events all weekend, blogging the readings and performances on her iBook.

She said Steve Martin's interview and performance with banjo great Earl Scruggs and others moved her to tears. And the discussion with Ricky Gervais, creator of the hit BBC series The Office and the new HBO series Extras, was as funny as his work.

Gordon, like many New Yorker readers, seemed to have a bit of a crush on the magazine's writers. "I dig Nancy Franklin," she wrote about the magazine's TV critic, "even more now that I've seen her in person."

When author Jonathan Franzen revealed in a question-and-answer session Friday night that he lived on the corner of 81st and Lexington, whispers and scattered applause rippled through the crowd as some audience members realized, with giddiness, that he was their neighbor.

Franzen did a reading with author Zadie Smith, and afterward they playfully parried with the audience. They touched on poetry ("Sometimes we worry that the novel will become like poetry in the coming years," Franzen said, adding, "that we will become to seem like work") and the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Zadie Smith: "I was depressed and really angry, and I don't need to feel that way in front of any artwork."

Franzen: "I had the same reaction."

When Smith said she was cold, Franzen stood up, took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. "Oh, that's very gentlemanly!" Smith said in her lilting British accent.

In an e-mail interview later, Franzen acknowledged that the New Yorker forms a kind of community for its writers and readers, but he did not want to call it a cult. "It has been, and continues to be," he wrote, "the magazine for that one-half percent of American adults who believe that a national literary culture is an exciting thing to be a part of."

The festival brought together some of today's most accomplished writers, including Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, Annie Proulx, Edward P. Jones and Stephen King. All are New Yorker contributors, and charmingly, seemed rather thrilled to be with their fans.

In a Q&A, King was asked what genre he is most comfortable in. "I sort of like the horror genre," he said.

Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner, admitted that writing never gets easier. "A very common mistake is I forget to use dialogue," he said. "I forget to write scenes. I'll wonder why something is so leaden and I'll look back and 45 pages have gone by without anyone talking."

While the festival can traffic in high-minded discussions of topics such as the Iraq war or the role of religion in politics, it was born out of a more prosaic desire to promote the magazine, said editor David Remnick. The festival works, he said, because it is an extension of the magazine.

"It isn't a circus or a space launch or an ad or anything of the kind," he said. And with almost all the events sold-out, he said the response from readers is heartening. They have a relationship with the magazine that is rare in the industry, he said.

"They think they own it, and I think they're right," Remnick said. "There are actually three owners of the magazine. One is the Nast family, which owns it in the obvious sense. Another is the writers and artists and editors who conceive it and create it. And the third is the readers."

About 70 of those readers packed a Union Square diner yesterday for one of the festival's final events. They had come to see two Las Vegas short order cooks, recently profiled in the magazine, prepare breakfast. With eggs flipping and bacon frying in the background, the diners recounted their weekends.

"I got John Updike," one man said, showing off photos on his digital camera. "And that's Stephen King."

At a nearby table, Ronald and Lois Barliant of Chicago ate omelets with their two grown daughters. One of them, Anne Barliant, 27, admitted she had let her subscription to the New Yorker lapse a few months ago. But after attending so many festival events, she had a dream Saturday night that the magazine had begun sending her free copies.

"They kept coming," she said, "and I was really happy."

Asked if she would resubscribe in real life, she said, "I think I will."

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