The American Museum of Natural History was occupied by writers, editors, and agents on Tuesday night, April 28, for the PEN Foundation’s annual black-tie gala.
During the pre-dinner cocktail hour in the museum’s spacious rotunda, Norton editor Bob Weil said softly that he hoped the big dinosaur skeleton mounted in the middle of the room was not a symbol for the future of the publishing industry. Later, when the dinner bell sounded and the crowd of 500 or so guests started towards the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, E.L. Doctorow pointed at a healthy-looking taxidermied tiger in the Hall of Biodiversity and said, “Maybe that can be a symbol!”
PEN’s World Voices Literary Festival had kicked off the night before and will continue until May 4th. Since a fair number of the events comprising the festival take the form of panel discussions—you can see the full schedule here–the Daily Transom thought it’d be fun to ask some of the gala guests for their thoughts on the form. What makes a good panel discussion? What can ruin one? How does an effective moderator behave?
“I think people seldom know how to condense or get to the point, and they get caught up with their own ego and defending their own reputation even though it might take them very far afield,” said the novelist and critic Edmund White. “You begin to see it as an exercise of competing egos rather than an effort to communicate or focus on the topic. Often people aren’t even clear on what the topic is!”
In England, Mr. White said, it’s all very different.
“In England, I’ve been on panels at the Institute for Fine Arts things like that, and they’re much more willing to intervene,” Mr. White said. “Here I think they’re afraid of offending their friends, and they’re sort of grateful that anybody’s even agreed to do this.”
Daniel Menaker, who used to be editor-in-chief of Random House and was fiction editor of the New Yorker before that, said the problem with literary panels is that most writers aren’t naturally inclined to interact with the public, and so end up in a “cocoon” on stage rather than actually in conversation with their audience.
“It’s hard!” he said. “It’s wrenching. It’s like root canal for them–it’s very difficult. They have to go against the grain of their own introspection.”
Q & A sessions, he added, are usually a disaster, as they tend to devolve into chaos at the hands of narcissistic hijackers.
“You always get some guy who weasels his way in and says to, for instance, an editor, with electricity coming out of his eyes, ‘Why didn’t you read the manuscript I sent you?’ Snd then the moderator, like, if it’s Harold Augenbraum at the New York Public Library, says ‘Yes sir, well, that’s alright sir.’”
New Yorker editorial director Henry Finder said it’s important to have conflict on the stage, but not so much that everyone’s talking about different things.
“If you have too much conflict, you don’t have any overlap at all,” he said, before recommending that the Daily Transom track down Rhonda Sherman, who organizes the New Yorker Festival every year.
“In general, it’s not a party unless there’s blood on the floor,” Ms. Sherman said. “There needs to be tension on a panel. You need to have some disagreement. If everyone agrees on the panel, it’s a total snooze-a-thon.”
She said it’s up to the moderator to control the proceedings and conduct the orchestra.
“The best moderators don’t feel that the panel is about them,” she said. “It’s about knowing what to ask, shutting people off, getting everyone talking, making sure everyone has an opportunity to talk, and shooting questions at the people who are disagreeing so that the energy happens. The best moderators understand that their job is to keep the action going, get as many points of view across as possible, and keep a little tension in the room.”
She said that after 10 years of the New Yorker Festival, she has a pretty good idea of who’s good at moderating and who’s terrible at it.
“David Remnick is a really great moderator,” she said. “George Packer is an excellent moderator. Adam Gopnik is a good moderator. These are great moderators. Susan Morrison is an excellent moderator. Because they understand the pace of a panel the way they understand the pace of a story. Moderators who let the panel take them over are to be avoided at all costs.”
Francine Prose, the outgoing president of the PEN American Center, said she’d recently served on a panel that lasted five and a half hours because all the participants spoke different languages.
“It wasn’t anybody’s fault–they just hadn’t found simultaneous translators,” Ms. Prose said. “And they had big talkers, which is why it lasted five and a half hours.”
Long-windedness, she said, was especially a problem when you were dealing with people who like to hear themselves talk. One time, she said, she was on a panel with such a well-known egomaniac that all the other participants got together before hand and “conspired so that he couldn’t take over the whole thing.”
“It didn’t work,” Ms. Prose said. “But, you know, some panels are really interesting! They are! I like the ones at the PEN Festival.”