What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?


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Sounds like a cute ingenue. I'd ask her her favorite flavor of ice cream, if she knows what an "officious intermeddler" is (legal in many states!), and for a more 'serious question' what she thinks of the #MeToo movement. If she's hot, take photos.

Thank you for that term! I have a great distaste for certain types of officious intermeddler. Funny to read ER doctors explicitly listed in the wikipedia entry. I myself avoid all of the trappings of modern medicine, so I may be atypical. A few months ago happenstance thrust upon me a guy who was trying his amorous luck. He was an ER doctor and damn if he didn't assume I should be impressed by that. Rather, I was disgusted. Squeegee man on a higher plateau.

This reminds me of Alex's post earlier in the week about coffee. Everyone was offended by the transparency (via monetization) of a trade negotiation. If I want what you've got, I'll know it and know how to ask for it. Many 'gifts' are just crude emotional manipulations from people in one down positions. If introducing money makes that clear, getting triggered by the exchange is the giveaway. Just saying.

I'd like to thank my (now dead) mother for beautifully illustrating how to deal with people. Be fucking honest, yo! Negotiation may be the finest human art.

Do you always set out to write profiles that are revealing but not harsh or especially critical? I would think that a writer of harsh or highly critical profiles would have a short career as a writer of profiles. On the other hand, merely offering lots of flattery in profiles would also result in a short career because nobody would read them (unless published in pap magazines like People - does it even exist anymore?). Is Andy Borowitz funny? And is it true that writers at the New Yorker drop French phrases when addressing one another in the hall?

Mais non, mon sewer.

Ask her about researching and writing her profile of Derek Parfit. Without her ever explicitly saying so, her writing captures a sense of Parfit’s fundamentally different and askew way of looking at the world and of being a person in it. It’s an unbelievable piece of writing.

God that profile was so good. I was just blown away by the content and the writing.

ask her what she thinks of the New Yorker's twitter feed

Does she believe she lives in a bubble? If so, is that an issue? If so, does she do anything proactive to expand or get outside the bubble?

Would she do a piece, in equally soft focus, on a conservative political leader, say Senator Tom Cotton (Harvard, Harvard Law, practiced law, then joined the Army, Ranger, Infantry combat vet, US House, currently youngest US Senator)?

Or Ben Sasse. Rather than the recent Osita Nwanevu review of Sasse's *Them*, I would have much preferred to read a MacFarquhar profile of the Nebraska Senator.

I'd like to see Tyler do a conversation with a cultural conservative. Please Tyler, just once!

He doesn't know any.

Walter E. Williams doesn't count?

Prof. Williams has been a member of the GMU econ dept. since before Prof. Cowen was an undergraduate at GMU.

Ask her if you're the most conservative person she's ever spoken to.

Ask: if she ever succumbed to dementia or Alzheimer's, would she rather live in a world of comforting fantasy or unpleasant reality? Would her answer be the same in the case of her own parent or child?

More importantly: can a human life divorced from all reality have any future value or purpose, beyond the merely symbolic or nostalgic? If so, how?

Or: can delusional happiness ever be happiness, or is it just delusional?

1) Her views on the "democratization" of celebrity journalism over recent decades (once used to be only the rare Halberstam, the rarer Woodward and Bernstein, maybe the equally rare Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, now no one is able to count our population of superlative celebrity journalists, so analytically acute and informed have contemporary scribes become).

2) In his cultural history The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck coined the term "cosmopolitan provincialism" to characterize Parisians' local attitudes as the 19th century closed. (Some five years before finding Shattuck's work, I coined the identical term independently to label most of the inhabitants and residents of our DC-to-Boston Corridor: a decade later Musk's Boring Company provides a contemporary metaphor for the "tunnel vision" our cognitive elites, et al., capably demonstrate.)

If "cosmopolitan provincialism" is not as widespread or as deep as I might claim, what might the actual extent of this epistemic affliction be? How far does the notion go in informing the output of our corrupt and corrupting Media Establishment and all of its closed charmed circles (especially those in academia that contribute to shaping America's routinely fictional narrative journalistic standards)?

3) Her views (and/or her reflections on any practice she herself might have indulged in over her distinguished career) on the legitimacy of half-century-old "New Journalism" fictional narrative techniques.

Off topic a bit, but I think you should do a Conversation with Judge Posner.

Why Eve Peyser the most dangerous Journo in america and why bari weiss can't hold a candle to her?

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Truly bizarre generated comment, but why not actually put down Mayer's bio details?

'Jane Mayer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. The magazine’s chief Washington correspondent, she covers politics, culture, and national security. Previously, she worked at the Wall Street Journal, where she covered the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1984, she became the paper’s first female White House correspondent. She is the author of the 2016 Times best-seller “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which the Times named as one of the ten best books of the year, and which began as a 2010 New Yorker piece about the Koch brothers’ deep influence on American politics. She also wrote the 2008 Times best-seller “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” which was based on her New Yorker articles and was named one of the top ten works of journalism of the decade by N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and one of the ten best books of the year by the Times. She is the co-author, with Jill Abramson, of “Strange Justice,” and, with Doyle McManus, of “Landslide: The Unmaking of the President 1984-1988.”

In 2009, Mayer was chosen as Princeton University’s Ferris Professor of Journalism. Her numerous honors include the George Polk Prize, the John Chancellor Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Goldsmith Book Prize; the Edward Weintal Prize, the Ridenhour Prize, two Helen Bernstein Book Awards for Excellence in Journalism, the J. Anthony Lukas Prize, the Sidney Hillman Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the James Aronson Award for social justice journalism, the Toner Prize for political reporting, the I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, and, most recently, the Frances Perkins Prize for Courage.'

1 - Is there someone who she really wants to profile in the near future?
2 - Other than alcohol, how does she make her interviewee feel comfortable enough to reveal themselves in a non-transactional way?


+1 on "Who do you really want to profile in the near future?"


3. Of those you've profiled in the past, who do you think you managed to *best* capture; and

4. of whom do you think your profile *least*-well captured (and what might you tell us now, to correct or augment the record)?

How are her editors to work with? Do they give her some latitude? Is she at all perturbed by the post 2016 attempts to turn the New Yorker into The Nation but with better comics?

I loved her profile of Hilary Mantel and would very much like to hear the inside story of the stylistic and structural choices she (MacFarquhar) made (one in particular, you'll know if you read the profile through). That is what I would ask in the conversation I want to have with Larissa MacFarquhar.

Who would be the winner of a boxing match between her and Susan Orlean?

Tyler - when are you going to interview Noam Chomsky?

Is Ashberry a good poet? If so, why? I find him unintelligible as do many of my highly educated friends.

What does she consider the best argument against effective altruism? (The idea, the movement or both)

I remember reading her Parfit piece in the New Yorker. It was entertaining in the way that New Yorker profiles often are - a catalog of quirky details - but better than that - elegant, certainly, but also unsettling somehow. I hadn't heard of him before and his ideas didn't come through very clearly: I could have used a companion piece, somewhere with simple expository writing, like Commentary or First Things, to understand the ideas for which his idiosyncrasies will be remembered.

Ask her to check out the digital version of the article on the New Yorker website (I just re-read the first few paragraphs). It appears to me they've got the indentation wrong, and put some uncharitable words into Parfit's mouth. Not that they mayn't precisely describe his feelings toward his family -- as I recall, further on, the piece documents that, despite his famous sensitivity (that silent weeping), he rather blithely omitted to trouble himself when it came to caregiving for those nearest him by blood -- but still ...

You often write for a wide audience about the ideas of people — university professors, for example — who are often themselves writing for a narrower audience. Is this the right distribution of labor? Should humanities professors care more about teaching and dissemination of ideas, or is it best for them to think deeply and narrowly and lead the disseminating to others?

As someone whose name involves a "P. Long," I feel qualified to submit the following question:

How often does she encounter Shrek-themed jokes, like people calling her "Lady MacFarquhar" or "Larissa Farquaad," or etc.? I would guess that this happens a lot, and that everyone thinks they're the first to have thought of it -- hyulk, hyulk, hyulk -- but is that true?

Does she think it's possible that everyone has the capability to be as much of a moral exemplar as those profiled in Strangers Drowning, or should we regard those people as olympic athletes or meditators who clock 12 hrs/day; i.e., just not a reasonable expectation for the average person to aspire to.

Where does morality fit into today's politics?

Posner is a conservative? Anything since 2001 that might change your thought on that? Rereading your piece on Krugman, wouldn't you think that it is the substance of what is written that matters rather than whether or not the author won the Nobel? Does your answer increase or decrease the value of your kind of writing?

The Aaron Swartz story is fascinating, and tragic, and I feel like crying when I think of what happened to him.

A liberal kid, a few months or years out of high school, basically, and the liberal Dukakisian prosecutors of the Boston area wanted to send him to jail for the rest of his life for

Disagreeing with MIT on the scope of library card privileges.

If you did not follow that story it was worse than you could imagine.

Also, he thought he was a super-taster, and maybe he was. That is kind of funny, and would be very funny if he had not killed himself, which tends to take the humor out of things (but one still prays for him, hoping that he repented at the last moment)

Liberals often try to destroy conservatives in places like MIT and harvard and in that poor sad little place that we call the Boston prosecutors headquarters, I understand that, because liberals do not like conservatives, that is just the tedium of that sort of life

(yes I know what all those prosecutors looked like, dewy-eyed and eager and hopeful, those first few weeks in law school)

but this was an amazing story of liberal prosecutors seeking to destroy a liberal kid, not much out of high school ... not a conservative kid, a liberal kid

because he disagreed with MIT on the scope of privileges you get when you apply for and receive a library card

so wow, this kid was driven to suicide because he disagreed with MIT on the extent of library privileges

by liberal prosecutors

they more or less threatened him with life in jail for disagreeing about how many books you could take out each week with a library card


Any further insight would be welcome

Was that the boy who just wanted to liberate the old inaccessible botany journals and whatnot? I didn't know she wrote that one, but I remember being all spun up about it. I agree - I was left with the impression he was driven to despair because the authorities lacked any judgment or sense or perspective.

Yes, that is who I am talking about.

"Inaccessible botany journals" - that sums it up beautifully.

The future interviewee probably - not necessarily, but probably - knows more about this than most of us.

And the poor kid was so excited to think that he, too, was a "super-taster". It is the little details like that which make you so sad at this world and its lack, towards people like that, of simple basic decent charity.

Can you please do a conversation with Posner, Heckman or Cochrane?

I'm always interested in the "what would you do you if you weren't X (in this case, a journalist" type of questions. I think they tell a lot about the person you are interviewing. Also, I know that Larissa used to be interested in literature, how did she become a journalist and how did she get in touch with the AE movement?

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