With audience members packing the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium and a C-SPAN television crew filming the event, five acclaimed authors and book critics spoke at a panel Friday.
Co-sponsored by the Yale Review of Books and the Whitney Humanities Center, the event took a question and answer format and was moderated by Daniel Barrett ’04, an editor at the Yale Review of Books. The panelists included English professor David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77, Editor of the New York Times Book Review Charles McGrath ’68, Princeton classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn, author Francine Prose, and New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz.
The discussion raised several pressing issues in the literary community, including anxiety about the growing dominance of film, the moral obligation of a book reviewer to the book’s author, and the fear of being misrepresented in a blurb. The panelists also talked about the activities they pursued in college and gave advice to aspiring writers.
Mendelsohn, who won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, offered a simple piece of advice to young writers.
“Read a lot,” he said. “You learn better style from other people’s styles. You have to be really into it. It’s not just the parties you go to or the hands you shake.”
“I thought [the discussion] was excellent and very well-balanced,” English Department chairwoman Ruth Yeazell said. “The questions were well-shaped and produced interesting responses. No one or two people dominated the discussion.”
Joshua Foer ’03, editor-in-chief of the Yale Review of Books, said he had not originally anticipated such a large-scale event. In the fall, editors of the Yale Review of Books — the oldest undergraduate book review publication in the nation — had thought it would be nice to bring in a professional book reviewer to speak with undergraduate writers. But within a short period of time, the idea had transformed into plans for a high-profile event.
“The whole thing just sort of exploded,” Foer said.
Once Foer and Barrett began cooperating with the Whitney Humanities Center, Barrett said their resources were unlimited. Foer and Barrett subsequently e-mailed possible speakers, and responses came quickly.
“I was blown away by their willingness to come,” Barrett said. “Everything just sort of fell into place.”
Panelists were equally enthusiastic.
“I came because I have a great loyalty to Yale,” McGrath said. “I went here, my son went here, and my nephew was one of the founders of the Yale Review of Books. I probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to anything Yale asked me to do.”
Connie Doebele, executive producer of C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” said the network decided to film the event because of the high-profile guests that would be appearing.
“The people who are on this panel are very involved in the book field,” Doebele said. “It is a very high quality panel. The content is something viewers nationwide will enjoy watching. If you enjoy books, you’ll enjoy this.”
With so many noteworthy speakers and coverage from a major cable network, the discussion attracted a combination of students, faculty and New Haven residents.
One New Haven resident, who declined to give her name, said she came because she had already read some of the panelists’ criticisms and wanted to hear them in person.
“I always like to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that Yale offers to the public,” she said. “I was amazed at the nature of the panel, and I was delighted to hear that it was going to be on C-SPAN.”