WRITE ABOUT NOW

1. Sky Room dig it. 2. Chris Lehmann goes there and brings up WikiLeaks. Ted Conover takes the bait.

This was my second swim in the fishbowl at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). Last time, I was there to listen to François Beaune and Joshua Ferris talk about outsider characters; this time, Florence Aubenas and Ted Conover talked about insider journalists. These two events make up the first season of FIAF’s new Write About Now series. Wondering which one you should have schlepped all the way to the northern border of Midtown East for? Behold Beaunis and Aubenover, tête-à-tête:

The topic: Beaunis’s discussion of characters as outsiders blew up and became not about the characters of their respective books, but of characters in general, from Pynchon’s Opedia Mas to Madame Butterfly. As it progressed, Aubenover’s conversation became deeper, not wider, and the speakers followed every tangent with a poignant and endearing story. For reduced surface area, point: Aubenover.

The translator: Aubenas and her English translator were uncannily in synch for the entire night, and Aubenas apologized at the start of the program, saying she lost her “good English” through years of reporting exclusively in French and difficulty getting international stories after being held hostage in Iraq for five months (as if we could have held it against her). The translator at the Beaunis event was not part of the panel: she was in the audience, seated backwards, turning the whole thing into gorgeous sign language for one of the attendees. For visual effects: point Beaunis.

1. The whole panel. (Alternate Caption: Write About Now funk soul brotha.) 2. Ted Conover chats with adoring fans after the event.

The book covers: Florence Aubenas’s Lequai de Ouistreham has all the red-text, white-jacket elegance of a classic French book cover, but François Beaune’s Un homme louche cover has the same white cloak plus an image of a book in a microwave. Point Beaunis.

The venue
: Sky Room still blue. No points.

The good stuff
: if I were Florence Aubenas or Ted Conover, I would craft an alternative to the phrase ‘participatory journalism.’ ‘Participatory’ is nice, but it sounds like a few days or weeks’ worth of activity, not the upheaval of your entire life. It doesn’t sound like six months of living as a supposedly uneducated lower class French maid, as Aubenas did (chronicled in Le quai de Ouistrreham). Or like a year as a prison officer among New York’s most intimidating residents in the maximum security Sing Sing Correctional Facility, relayed in Conover’s book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. It turns out neither gives a damn about the adequacy of ‘participatory’; both are so unpretentious and so unwaveringly committed to their work that it’s easy to forget that work is pretty fucking crazy. My French is appalling, but even I understood Aubenas when someone in the audience asked if she ever thought to walk away from her undercover identity. “Never,” she said. Ted Conover, too. “To not stick with it,” he said, “leaves you with nothing or with superficiality, which this is designed to get beyond.”

The conversation, moderated by Bookforum co-editor Chris Lehmann — Dish will be hanging with Lehmann too, so don’t change the channel, people — rolled through the biggest questions participatory journalists face: What can this work do? (“The news is meant to deal with extraordinary events, but this is journalism that is meant to illuminate an everyday life,” said Aubenas.) How does it change you? (Conover described himself as a stretch rubber band that never gets back to original shape. Ted Conover, may your stocking be full of Silly Bandz this year.) How are we actually supposed to feel about WikiLeaks after the shakedown? (No verdict yet.)

Throughout, Aubenas and Conover were engaged and engaging. The audience followed by example with smart questions, and the speakers obliged with smart answers. After the official end, the book vendor in the back made a killing as people clamored to add the night’s journalists to their library.
In this season’s FIAF battle, it’s Aubenover, for the win.

–Kai Twanmoh lives in New York City and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.

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