The New Yorker's allotment this year of a one-word theme for each of its writers' panels seemed a little arbitrary Saturday night. Lorrie Moore and Jeffrey Eugenides sat down for a “freewheeling discussion on Conformity.” “Saunders and Foer on the Incredible — all right,” said Moore, sharped-tongued author of Birds of America. “A.M. Homes and Miranda July on Deviance — absolutely.” But conformity? “Why couldn't we get Deviance? Because our freaks try hard to fit in and their freaks didn't try at all?” After deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon, the moderator, rattled off definitions of the word of the day, Moore gave definitions of “freewheeling,” including “not going over 6.18 miles an hour and not proceeding along a track.” Obviously, a tone of light mockery prevailed. “I'm making you squirm, aren't I?” she later asked Leyshon (who squirmed).
More squirm-inducing still was an audience member's question — “speaking of conformity” — about whether the stories in The New Yorker were perhaps a bit … samey. Eugenides had already credited the editorial “we” of old "Talk of the Town"s as inspiration for the collective male voice in The Virgin Suicides. Moore halfway apologized for picking so many New Yorker stories when she edited a Best American Short Stories edition, which led everyone to lament Stephen King's essay — an intro to this year's Best American edition — about how boring so many stories are in general. Eugenides: “They didn't grab him by the testicles like he wanted them to.” At one point, Leyshon asked the authors if they'd ever written (nonconformist) experimental fiction. They'd both flirted with it early on. “We grew up backwards in that way,” said Moore. “It's interesting how conservative an art literary narrative is.” —Boris Kachka