I was excited for the Franzen/Sullivan talk, held on the ’62 Center’s big stage last Tuesday, October 21. The two names wield a lot of literary and intellectual star power. For those unfamiliar, Jonathan Franzen is a well-known novelist and sometimes journalist, standing somewhere between literary fiction and mass-market paperbacks. Andrew Sullivan is a political author and blogger who covers a wide range of current events and is noted for his idiosyncratic political views, which are informed by, among other things, conservatism, gay rights advocacy, and the practice of Roman Catholicism.
An interesting match, most people thought. As far as I can tell, they’ve never spoken together before, nor do they converge thematically or ideologically beyond both being concerned with globally controversial issues. But they’re very smart guys with interesting writing behind their names and strong opinions behind their writing, so I was hopeful the talk would be, if not life-changing, at least thought-provoking. The topics they were to address certainly had room for debate: the environment, income inequality, the family, with the value of a liberal arts education tacked on at the last minute. So, basically, almost everything important to almost everyone.
At this point you might guess that the organizers were setting up some unrealistic expectations, and you’d be right. The talk was, predominately, disappointing. I won’t say boring – although I did notice at least one person in the audience nodding off – because I think most people had a sense the entire time that things were about to get real, or had the potential to. But they never did. Franzen and Sullivan, nominally coming from different ends of the political spectrum, basically converged on a vague moderatism in their answers, and you can’t really blame them. Here’s a sampling of what they were asked (slightly paraphrased):
- How can we summon the political will to address environmental problems?
- Should money in politics be defended as free speech?
- Based on thoughts about the environment and inequality, what should the role of the family be?
Important questions — no one would argue otherwise. But also basically unanswerable, especially when viewed abstractly, from the top down, with answers expected within five to ten seconds on a stage. So the kind of answers we got were unsurprising:
- There’s no political will to do that and/or it’s impossible. We shouldn’t give up hope, though.
- Yes, but we’re not happy about it.
- Family is important, and the classical idea of the family as a political unit mediating between the individual and the state is more relevant than ever.
These are simplified, but not by very much. The most interesting parts of the night were the specific concessions each made to the other, and these were only interesting in contrast to the even less provocative conceptual backdrop. So, it was kind of interesting to have Sullivan come out against factory farm conditions spurred by the ferocious and unsustainable demand for meat, and kind of interesting to have Franzen acknowledge that Reagan wasn’t really as bad as the liberal establishment makes him out have been, even if Republican fetishizing is unwarranted. But not really that interesting. And, anyway, word on the street is that both ordered steak at the subsequent Mezze dinner.
I sympathize with the event planner’s quandary. You need to marshal star power to attract an audience, but that has to be balanced with preserving (artistic) quality and (intellectual) integrity. The most predictable outcome is always the most eye-catching and at once the most mediocre: the Macklemore, the Mike Posner.
I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess that if Franzen and Sullivan were made into separate events and paired with more incisive moderators/interviewers, or even if they were kept together but given a bit more time and more feasible material to debate, the night would have been a little more thought-provoking and a little less disappointing.