Yale Review kicks off Spring Festival with roundtable discussion on “Reading in an Age of Crisis”
The discussion — which featured panelists Garth Greenwell, Emily Bernard and Kathryn Lofton — explored public and private engagement with literature.
Yale Daily News
This week, the Yale Review launched their first in-person Spring Literary Festival since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The festival — a three-day event consisting of panels, book talks and readings — began on Wednesday afternoon, with a roundtable discussion titled “Reading in an Age of Crisis.” Meghan O’Rourke, editor of the Yale Review, moderated the discussion between Garth Greenwell, Emily Bernard and Kathryn Lofton, acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The panelists discussed their recent works as well as their experiences of art in both public and private spaces.
“Each of our three panelists have written essays that really speak to one another,” O’Rourke told the News. “They’re all really interested in the idea of loving art, being heartbroken by art’s limitations, or by limitations within ourselves as teachers, writers and thinkers. And it’s just so exciting to put them in conversation with one another.”
O’Rourke emphasized the panelists’ formidable essay-writing skills and invited them to discuss some of their recent publications.
Bernard — professor of English at the University of Vermont and frequent contributor to the Yale Review — spoke about her recent book “Black is the Body,” and her celebrated essay “Teaching the N-Word”.
Both Greenwell, a fiction writer and essayist, and Lofton, a scholar of religion and American history, discussed their essays published in the most recent edition of the Yale Review. Greenwell’s essay is titled “A Moral Education,” and Lofton’s is called “Cancel Culture and Other Myths.”
O’Rourke kicked off the roundtable by directing the question of privacy versus publicity to the panelists, asking them to comment on their experiences both as private readers and as public teachers and critics of literature.
“On one hand there is the private experience of reading and privately falling in love with a given piece of literature,” O’Rourke said. “But at the same time, that private experience is juxtaposed against a larger world of public ideas. In a sense, a magazine is quite like a classroom; it is a space where private reading meets public exchange and conversation.”
Greenwell was the first to chime in on Wednesda’s talk to discuss what he believes to be a dissolution of the boundary between the private and the public in recent years. Greenwell also reflected on his experiences engaging with problematic literature and literature that produces negative feelings.
“As a culture, we have become very intolerant of bad feelings,” Greenwell said. “When we feel them, we want to just push them away or weaponize them, rather than dwelling with them and thinking slowly, and I worry that social media is not conducive to dwelling with your feelings. That is something, I think, that has to happen in private.”
Bernard spoke about her experience engaging with her audience as a teacher and published writer. She recalled a time she discussed her essay “Teaching the N-word” with a reader who interpreted it in a way different than she had intended.
“He was my perfect reader, the one I didn’t see coming,” Bernard said. “He showed me something about how my words can belong to him. Those are always the [experiences] I find the most compelling and I learn the most from, when I realize that my story is only one of many stories.”
The event wrapped up with a discussion of how publicly teaching and writing affects and changes the private experience of reading.
The panelists reflected on the lifelong process of reading and commented on the way advanced age and career status has led them to rely on private reading as a space for pleasure.
“The more I have become a steward of other people’s voices in the work of teaching and administering, I find I just look for a space where I don’t have to worry about any surveillance,” Lofton said.
As such, Lofton joked, her favorite genres for private reading are “cheesy” celebrity biographies and romance fiction.
In addition to Wednesday’s roundtable, the Spring Festival also features a reading with Greenwell and Maggie Millner on Thursday and a craft talk with Millner on Friday.
This year’s festival, O’Rourke explained, serves as a sort of pilot, since the only other edition of the festival was held in 2019, directly before the start of the pandemic. In the future, the Yale Review hopes to build up literary programming, host more speakers, and conduct interactive workshops with students, O’Rourke said.
“At the Review, our tagline is, ‘Join a conversation that’s 200 years in the making,’” O’Rourke said. “We all experience books as thinkers and readers, and this panel and this festival epitomizes the kind of work that we’re trying to do.”
The Yale Review is the country’s oldest literary magazine, founded in 1819.