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In Conversation: Robert Silvers View other pieces in "New York "
By Mark Danner April 10, 2013
Tags: Robert Silvers | New York Magazine | New York Book Review | Interviews | Journalism | Reporting Print
Audio Recordings of these interviews can be found here:

I should begin simply by wishing you a happy birthday.
Fifty years—50 years of the New York Review.

From John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis and King’s “I have a dream” to tweets and drones and Barack Obama.
You could say the inspiration for the Review went back even further, to 1959 and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing” in Harper’s. That essay is crucial.

It was an attack you published on what she took to be the lazy criticism found elsewhere—particularly in the New York Times.
She wrote, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity—the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself—have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal.”

Lizzie made it clear something different was needed—something new! About that, she wrote, “Nothing matters more than the kind of thing the editor would like, if he could have his wish. Editorial wishes always partly become true.”

The newspaper strike came about three years later—114 days without a newspaper printed. Lizzie and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, were having dinner with my friends Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Jason, then a senior editor at Random House, said there was no choice: The time had come to start a new book review.

This was one time you could start a book review essentially without money.
Jason saw that with no other place to advertise, the publishers in New York would cover the costs. He called and asked me if I could leave Harper’s and start a new book review. I went to see Jack Fischer, the editor of Harper’s. He said, good, it’ll be a great experience. You’ll be back in a month.

You didn’t have any notion this would become an institution in this way?
No. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it was very possible that I would come back, and it was very kind of Jack to say my job would be held open. I asked Barbara Epstein that morning if she would join me as co-editor. She said yes. We met the next night with Lizzie in the darkened Harper’s offices. We looked through the books that had come in for review, and we thought of various people who might write on them.

The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W.?H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred Dupee—Lizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.

What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, “I’d rather do another book.” They all just assumed a new book review was needed.

Did you feel at the time that you were creating a particular kind of ideological community?
No, if anything it was an intellectual community. It was people we knew and admired: a community of writers we knew but who hadn’t come together in that way before, except for some of the critics who wrote for the Partisan Review. It was determined by friendships, by a shared belief in uncompromising quality in writing and by a sense that much conventional criticism was superficial and lazy, accepting the mediocre.

You describe those early days as a community of friendship, but soon you were publishing very harsh criticism by some of those writers of the work of others in that same “community of writers.” One famous example is Norman Mailer’s attack on Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group.
Her book came out just as we started regular publication—a very long novel, a best seller, about women who had been at Vassar and became entangled in each other’s lives, with much about sex and birth control.

It was considered quite risqué at the time.
Lizzie, notwithstanding her old friendship with Mary, disapproved of it and wrote a parody of it entitled “The Gang,” signed “Xavier Prynne.” But who would review it? When I called Norman, he said, “I don’t want to take on Mary.” I told him that no one else was willing to write on the book. And he said, “Well, Bob, that’s a rather deadly challenge.” And he did it. He said our Mary, alas, has fallen short of what we hoped for.

The New York Review of Books' office.  

In the early days, and especially notable for the time, there were a number of quite strong and distinguished women—not just Barbara Epstein but Susan Sontag and, of course, Elizabeth Hardwick.
Aside from Barbara, Lizzie was the major influence. I would send her reviews and she would say, “Oh, yes, this piece is very good. It just needs a little work.” And then she would send it back half as long, with paragraph after paragraph cut or compressed. She had no patience at all for what you would call tired language. One day she called up and said, “Area? Practically everything’s an area now.” And I said, “Well, Lizzie. I’m looking out the window, and there’s Broadway.” And she said, “Oh yes, that’s an area, but the word is used for everything else. It’s simply a vague way of saying nothing.”

I know from sometimes-painful experience how particular you are about certain tired words. Massive, for example, is strictly forbidden. Or framework.
Framework could rightly refer to the supporting structure of a house, or a wooden construction for holding roses or hollyhocks in a garden, but now the word is used to refer to any system of thought, or any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid context. Context has an original, useful meaning, now generally lost: the actual language surrounding a particular text—con, meaning “with,” and text—and now it’s used for every set of surrounding circumstances or state of things, and it gets worse with contextualize, sometimes used to mean some sort of justification.

Even more insidious and common is in terms of, a fine phrase if you are talking about mathematical equations or economic functions in which specific “terms” are defined, but it is just loose and woolly when you say things like “in terms of culture,” for which there are simply no clear terms.

Then there is the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, or political feud—on or off “the table.” The question of an independent Palestinian state is on the table! Or is it off the table? It’s become a way of avoiding a more precise account of just what’s happening.

You also avoid left and right as descriptions of political positions. Do you no longer see a coherent left?
There are people who are more interested in liberties than others; there are people who are more interested in a fair distribution of goods and wealth, especially for the poor, and especially the black and Hispanic poor; there are people interested in protection of human rights internationally; there are people interested in control of pollution and climate domestically. You could list dozens of other causes. But lumping all these people into “the left” seems to me incoherent and lazy.

Of course, the early years of the Review saw the rise of a so-called new left in opposition to the Vietnam War, and in 1967, you sent Mary McCarthy to report from Saigon and Hanoi. When did you get the idea, as editor of a book review, of sending writers into war zones?
We felt we could do anything we wanted—we always thought we had control. The first issue came out of a very small group, to whom it was absolutely unthinkable that anyone would tell any of us what to do. We could do anything we wanted as long as we could pay the printer. From the first we had articles and political commentaries either on the Kennedy administration, say, or on totalitarianism in Cuba.

One night at the Lowells’ we tried to think of who would be the best person to write on the American presence in Saigon. Mary had certainly resented Norman’s review, but when I sent her a telegram, she said she would go next week.

She was intensely critical of the American presence in Vietnam. What gave you the confidence to do such pieces? Did it have to do with the way you had structured the control of the Review?
Jason Epstein brilliantly set it up. There would be two groups of shareholders. The “A” shareholders had control of the appointment of the editor and of editorial matters, and the “B” shareholders would benefit only financially. The A shareholders were the Epsteins, the Lowells, myself, and Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher with the second issue. When Rea Hederman took over as publisher in the mid-eighties he guaranteed we’d have the same editorial freedom we always had, and we have.

So six people in control of editorial—but how much in control? Was there ever a question from that group of six?
They never tried to exercise any control. Oh, sometimes, after the fact, Lizzie would say, “Honey, you’ve simply got to do better than that.”

And the B shareholders had no say at all.
Brooke Astor was one of the leading B shareholders. A friend had shown her the paper. She said, would we come around to her flat? Whitney and I went. She was there reading the paper. She said, “Boys, I like this, and I’ll put some of my own money into it.”

Has the Review always been profitable?
No. We had a second round of fund-raising after two or three years. That was around ’65. As of ’66 we were in the black.

And you’ve been in the black ever since. This is nearly unheard of. Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, National Review, even Commentary—none of those has been consistently profitable.
I’ve never figured out just why. We used cheap newsprint and had very low costs, including low salaries, and no staff writers. And perhaps most important, once people subscribed, they resubscribed year after year at a very high rate. And publishers, including a good many university presses, decided it was a place to advertise, and they stayed with us. And when he became publisher, Rea improved everything to do with publishing the paper, and he set up New York Review Books, which flourishes.

I’m holding here the first issue, which declares, in a statement on the second page: “This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.” This is the only editorial statement that you’ve ever made.
That’s it! And that’s still what we try to do. We shouldn’t pretend to be comprehensive. There’s no point in reviewing a book if you can’t find someone whose mind you particularly respect. And even so, we have to turn down every month or so a piece we’d asked for. But I left one thing out of that editorial statement: the freedom of those people to reply at length, to make their case.

Many of them have.
Of course.

How did the famous debate between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson come about?
What happened was this: Nabokov, after many years, published his translation of Eugene Onegin—that masterpiece of Russian literature that had long resisted translation. He decided that it was impossible to versify in any form that would be faithful to the Russian, so he would do an unrhymed translation with a huge apparatus of explanation—the famous notes, which took up an entire volume.

I recall in particular a long note about the history of foot fetishes in literature.
They’re marvelous to read.

Unrhymed or not, his translation is rather beautiful. I love it.
Most of the Russians hated it. And Edmund Wilson sent us a long essay attacking it and contrasting “the Nabokov we know” with the one who “bores and fatigues.”

They had been friends.
Wilson thought “Volodya” was obviously a man of some Russian genius, and published his reviews in The New Republic when he was literary editor there. But his Review article was a big attack on Nabokov’s very idiosyncratic language, such as “rememorating” or “sapajous” (for monkeys). The next big article was by Vladimir, defending it, in the Review. And then came Edmund’s reply.

How had you met Wilson?
I went to visit Barbara and Jason in their house in Wellfleet in 1959. The plane arrived, and we were about to go to the car and I said, “Oh, I have to get my suitcase.” And Jason said, “No, I saw a New Statesman sticking out of it, so I knew it would be you.” He had it already in the back of the car. At Wellfleet, the high point was when we went around to Wilson’s house.

The most distinguished literary critic of the time.
Well, he was a great friend of Jason and Barbara, and I saw him only rarely. But in the second issue of the Review, he did something marvelous. Interviews were appearing in every magazine at the time, and he decided to conduct an interview with himself. And he gave his many views on what was happening, some of them deeply unfashionable. For example, he had no use for the Abstract Expressionists, who at that moment were seen as kings of New York.

He hated them.
He was a man who wanted to see a clear delineation of reality, however various.

Some might say that’s a fair description of the Review’s cultural stance, which they see as conservative.
I would say “critical.” Examining things closely.

Is conservative not a fair word to use to describe the approach to, say, deconstruction in literary theory?
That’s a very interesting question. There were writers called “postmodern,” some of them very interesting and original—in the novel, for example, William Gass and other writers of fiction. We were certainly not hostile to such fiction. We published criticism of some of these tendencies and we also published articles making a case for them, for example by Michael Wood. But the Berkeley philosopher John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of Jacques Derrida’s very influential theories he called “The Word Turned Upside Down,” exposing what he called their “obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses.” Neither Derrida nor anyone else convincingly replied to that criticism so far as I can see.

You published many critiques of Freud and psychoanalysis.
Particularly Fred Crews’s very intensive analysis of Freud’s changing concepts, and their obscure, sometimes hidden origins. Of course, at the time we started the Review, it seemed everyone was being analyzed. That has changed.

It seems to me that one secret of the Review is that, even as a rarefied journal of ideas, it is actually meant for a general audience.
I always feel I want to learn from the articles we publish. And I have to assume that there’s an audience that wants to learn in the same way.

You are the audience, in other words.
Yes, that’s it. And often I hope the book under review can be brought closer to some reality that’s heretofore often been presented in a rather masked, misleading way.

For instance, in a recent issue we had a long article on General Petraeus. It’s not a big attack on him. It tries to show how his mind evolved since his days at West Point—in his Ph.D. essay at Princeton on the failures of American policy in the Vietnam War and in his work on the uses of special forces against insurgency in Iraq and in Afghanistan, especially in the Iraq War, which the Review opposed from the first. It took Tom Powers months to finish his review, drawing on more than twenty books. In all that, he has one half of one paragraph on the recent scandal.

And yet, of course, the interest of readers will be drawn there because of it.
No doubt. But the Petraeus of the scandal, the Petraus involved with Mrs. Broadwell and Tampa social life—all that depends on the record and the ideas of Petraeus the warrior, the subject of Tom’s article. That’s the only reason we even know about these small matters of domestic life.

Speaking of the relationship of the Review to the news, here is a recent issue where the lead piece is by David Cole, “Drones and the CIA: 13 Questions for the New Chief.” Now, this article appeared exactly—
On the day of the confirmation hearings for John Brennan.

So the Review comes out right on time.
Or we come out a year later and we say, Here are eighteen questions not asked at the hearing!

The book-review category is a strange one. It doesn’t constrain you from sending Mary McCarthy to Vietnam, and it also makes possible a new form, in which writers give close readings of public documents that tend otherwise to be mostly ignored—for example, congressional reports.
It does give an enormous possibility. In the case of a congressional report or transcript, it’s a text that is there to be consulted, by the entire world, and checked. There’s a big difference between that and the ephemeral, anonymous quote from the cloakroom of the Senate.

So far as I know, the man who made the most of analyzing such reports was I.?F. Stone. He had physical troubles that made it difficult for him to attend public hearings, and he was wary of press conferences. But he took home public documents and subjected them to a kind of Talmudic study.

I’ve done some of it myself, for you—in particular reviewing the reports on Abu Ghraib and torture. What was interesting to me about those was that the fact of the investigations was taken as proof that the truth had come out but in fact the reports together combined to hide the truth.
These reports are often part of a presentation aimed at reassuring the public—closing up the subject and “classifying” it.

The politics of the Review fascinate a lot of people. For example, one sees pieces that are rather praising of Obama, and other quite critical ones.
Any first-rate group of writers will have very different views of Obama. You wrote for us your essay “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie” about his first campaign and the youth and the sexiness and rapport he seemed to evoke. David Bromwich wrote a very caustic and critical piece about his foreign policy. You then wrote critically about his use of “the politics of fear.” Michael Tomasky has argued that he’s brought about a transformation in American life in which a series of different groups have been drawn into politics and that he has in fact succeeded in making some fundamental changes, for example in health care. There must be room for very different, conflicting perspectives, different judgments about Obama and public policy generally.

But is it not hard to claim that the Review has no political identity at all?
We’ve had to have several political identities. As editors, it was as if we were being confronted by successive waves of historical development and challenges—waves like the Vietnam War, like the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, like Star Wars and the economics of the Reagan administration. And these different historical and political forces also loomed in the form of books. We tried to react by asking the people whom we respected as perceptive and as knowledgeable to deal with them, and we sent writers we admired to report on them—Joan Didion, for example, who reported on the war in El Salvador, and the Cubans in Miami. What becomes more and more clear is that victims and persecutors can change parts.

Your early skepticism about Cuba marked you off from most of the left.
In the first regular issue, there was an article by Daniel Friedenberg. He said, there’s a distinct resemblance between the new system in Cuba and the old system in the Soviet Union; they are both totalitarian. In some of the liberal press at the time, there was a general feeling of sympathy for Cuba, Castro, and the glamour of a new kind of society. When I went there in 1969, the poet Heberto Padilla insisted we could only talk while walking in the park, and there he slipped me a sheaf of poems that we published when I got back.

You’ve said that during the Cold War you wanted to find a place on the left from which you could defend the rights of those under Soviet rule while still opposing the excesses of militarized Cold War policy.
Underlying what we did was concern about the effect of powerful, torturing, bullying regimes on human rights. Barbara and I were both very aware that here we were in America with rights and freedoms. At the same time, we’re very aware that poets in Iran or a writer in the Soviet Union or East Germany—that these editors, writers, and people who wanted to express themselves were being suppressed, and we felt from the beginning that we should try to give them a voice. At the same time we published strong criticism of such Cold War follies as Star Wars.

Does the state of human rights abroad look better to you now?
Where there’s the most at stake is clearly in China.

There’s a long record of avoidance of reality. When we began the Review, there was wide support for the Chinese Revolution among intellectual and academic specialists. Little was said about the human costs of the Communist revolution, the crushing of the so-called peasant ownership class, the death of millions. Many people felt that in China was being created something like an egalitarian society, of which they could approve. And this included many American liberals, including many professors who studied China. Some didn’t realize the extent to which the attempts by Mao to encourage local industry in the form of backyard steelmaking were irrational and doomed. The country was about to plunge into one of the greatest famines in human history, with more than 40 million people starving to death, and very few pro-Chinese Americans were aware of it when it happened, or of the brutality and killing of millions during the Cultural Revolution.

In late 1988, during a visit suggested by George Soros’s foundation, I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Beijing, at a time when the regime was relatively tolerant. I said that an ideal situation for intellectual journalism was to have a paper that a group could organize and own outright, and be free to say what the group wanted. It was an ideal, and by some extraordinary convergence of circumstances, this is what we had at the New York Review. I realized, I said, how entirely unreal and unattainable this ideal might seem, but at least it was a basis from which one might start. If you can’t have complete ownership, you might have some. And if you can’t have full say, you might have some. You could aim for more. The audience seemed extremely enthusiastic. That night my friend Grace Dudley and I met in a rickety apartment with the great Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who promised to write for the Review on the need for freedom in China—and later he did. Then I met alone with a very small group of young Chinese who said they had a plan for a Beijing Review of Books. It wouldn’t be published in Beijing; it would be published in a small town somewhere in the West, where they were in touch with a print shop. They intimated they had some sympathizers—no more than that—in the far reaches of the bureaucracy from people supposedly connected with the relatively open-minded Zhao Ziyang. And could we help them? They seemed extremely attractive young people, and I said they could use our archives and articles. And not long afterward came Tiananmen Square. Fang Lizhi had to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy for over a year, and the members of the Beijing Review of Books group went into hiding. Some were arrested. Some of them escaped through Hong Kong. Some paid large sums to do so—$500,000, I was told. One of the most congenial of them, one of the most intelligent, turned out to be a high-ranking security official. He had been guiding the whole thing.

For many who read it in the late sixties, the Review retains a distinctly radical flavor—there was that notorious cover with a “how-to” drawing of a Molotov cocktail.
That “how to” was misleading. The diagram could not be used to make a bomb. The Molotov-cocktail cover seemed to us no more than an emblem of what was happening at a time when there were violent protests going on, and we were carrying in the paper a long account of the riots in Newark. We were not in any way recommending it. But publishing it on the cover was a serious mistake. It gave many a false impression of the paper, and some made the most of it. And now, 45 years and two generations later, here we are still talking about it.

You published Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg …
We published Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in 1967. What was it about? He said that many intellectuals in America were in some way complicit with different aspects of the Vietnam War, whether in social and political science, economics, or the uses of science for military strategy. They had been putting forward indefensible rationalizations for it. In academe and out of it, they were contributing to the war effort, and he didn’t think they should. It was the responsibility of intellectuals to seek truth and not to contribute to that kind of government violence. Few essays we published had such an effect. Later I met Dan Ellsberg, who’d been out there in Vietnam as an intelligence expert. Then he went to work for rand. He outlined to me a very cogent critical essay on U.S. policy in Vietnam, and we published it. Not long after, he released to the Times the Pentagon Papers he’d acquired at rand.

Didn’t he leave the papers in your office?
Yes. After the New York Times had published them, he said, “Can I keep some papers at the Review?” And we took the papers, and we put them in a corner, next to a radiator, in a suitcase, and they just sat there. For months.

Eventually he retrieved them.
A man called and said, I’m from the so-and-so law firm, and I’ve been asked to pick the papers up.

On the Middle East, the Review has carved out a fairly distinctive role.
We’ve had some of the most informed and today realistic articles I know of from Rob Malley, the Middle East Director of the International Crisis Group, and Hussein Agha of St. Antony’s, Oxford, particularly in their very skeptical view of the Arab Spring. They called their essay “This Is Not a Revolution.”

It has become increasingly hard to write about issues involving Israel with any subtlety.
You have to get used to the fact that any serious criticism of Israeli policy will be seen by some as heresy, a form of betrayal, and we’ve had a lot of such denunciation. What such critics don’t say about the Review is that much of what we’ve published has come from some of the most respected and brilliant Israeli writers—the late Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman, among them. What emerges from them is a sense that occupying land and people year after year can only lead to a sad and bad result.

I’ll not forget going to see Golda Meir—then prime minister—with Isaiah Berlin in 1969. Golda asked me, “What do you think of all this that you’ve seen?” And I said, “I come from a Zionist family, and I’ve seen, as I expected, remarkable accomplishments in Israel—in agriculture, in education, in technology, in helping people to start new lives. But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation. And it’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.” And she said, “We’re not an occupying power, an aggressive power. It’s like Pakistan and the break with India. People thought they had to leave and form a different society, have their own country, defend themselves.” And I said, “Is that really the way you want Israel to be seen? As a kind of Pakistan?” She thought and said, “No, I want to say that we’re a moral people, as concerned about the Palestinian people as anybody else.” And then she said, “Isaiah, what do you think?”

She put him on the spot.
He said, “Military occupation. Seldom a good thing. Seldom works out. Shouldn’t go on and on.”

The Review has not only had the sort of life span many of its early contemporaries would envy, it’s also become, for a book review, increasingly adaptable in its subject matter—regular articles about movies and television and now about the Internet and life online.
Well, Zadie Smith is a writer I much admire. She reviewed the film The Social Network along with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. She thought there had been illusions about Facebook; she did not feel that the “friendship” on which Facebook was based was truly a coherent idea of friendship at all. As she said, “If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would … What we actually want to do is the bare minimum.”

Soon the Review will be publishing a piece on video games and on the experience and allure of playing them, among them the games played by the Columbine killers. These games together have sales of $25 billion, much more than the movies.

From books to texts to video games. What comes next?
The other night, I sat next to a woman who said, well, my children now only send Instagrams.

Instagrams! I don’t even know what those are.
You keep in touch with your friends by sending them one picture after another, from your phone.

Don’t you find this development rather worrying?
Years ago my friend John Gross did many anthologies for the Oxford publishing company—the Oxford Book of Essays, the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, and so on. Now I might imagine an Oxford Book of Tweets! That is to say, witty, aphoristic, almost Oscar Wildean remarks, drawn from the millions and millions of tweets. Or from comments that follow on blogs. But I doubt it will ever be done. A great many tweets and follow-on comments are really rather lame or cheap wisecracks, in which you feel behind the tweet the compulsion, simply, to … tweet. To get in on it.

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Are you concerned that younger readers form a generation obsessed not with long form but with these very short prose forms?
I don’t know. The phrase long form has come in in the last twenty years or so. I’d never heard it before. I’d thought of reports and essays and criticism of different lengths—lengths that the subject seemed to warrant. Long form as opposed to what?

To, I suppose, reading on the screen, which is generally thought to limit the length of what can be read.
But is that necessarily true? Much of the material on the Internet can be long, very long. And should be.

Which brings us to books themselves: Are you concerned about their future?
In one way or another, if you include e-books and self-published books, more books are being published than ever. Most people don’t seem to understand that. And there is no falling off, in my view, of very serious books. A major problem for us remains, as I see it, the flood of books that do require consideration for review. That should be reviewed. We’re constantly struggling to master the flood. If you look over the lists of just the university-press publishers, you’ll find literally hundreds of books worthy of review.

Until she died in 2006, you and Barbara Epstein co-edited the Review in one of the most fruitful, and certainly the most enduring, partnerships in literary history. How did you do it?
Barbara and I had an understanding right at the beginning that we would collaborate on everything. We published nothing that each of us had not read and gone over. We shared every piece, every assignment. We had no division of labor. We both dealt with reviewers of fiction, poetry, science, history, and art. We were extremely close partners.

She had a marvelous sense of humor, and one reason I looked forward every day to going to the Review was that Barbara and I saw a lot of what we were doing and a lot of the people we were dealing with as, however admirable and serious, also absurd and funny. It was a kind of weird gamble in which we had quite astonishing freedom, and our general approach, if someone had an idea for something interesting but quite different from anything we’d ever done, was, why not?

Is that how the personal ads came about?
Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher after the first issue, came to us one day with some ads that subscribers had sent in: “Beautiful Jewish writer seeks sexual partner who can dance,” and so on. And Whitney said, “Well, is this the sort of thing we want to do?” And Barbara and I said, “Why not!” Other papers of course did this later, the London Review and others, but nothing quite as, shall we say, elaborate and bold as many of these ads came to be. People competed for the most colorful description of their fantasies about themselves and their ideal partner.

The ads have attained a kind of celebrity.
And some rather famous people we knew actually met people through them. And about once a year, a couple would appear and say, “We met through the New York Review, and we’re just married.”

When I came to the Review in 1981, just out of college, one of my jobs was to retype manuscripts after you’d edited them. I’d sit at my little desk, and you’d sit at your big desk behind this towering phalanx of books, and every once in a while a piece of paper would come sailing over the parapet, a typewritten manuscript page now completely covered with your penciled changes. Many of these pages, of course, were the work of writers I’d come to greatly admire for their wonderful published prose, and I found myself shocked to discover that you did a great deal of work on it. But I was also fascinated to see that a lot of the work you did with your pencil seemed to be uniquely in the service of making these writers sound—how I should I put this?—like … themselves.
Sometimes, of course, they would get very angry and want to restore everything. And often those people who want to restore everything are not very good writers.

And yet I recall writers whose pieces had been heavily edited—rewritten, really—receiving the galley, in which all the changes had been seamlessly incorporated, and responding: Well, but you didn’t change anything at all!
The fundamental point is that if a writer has something interesting to say, you have to ask, sentence by sentence, if it is clear as it should be or could it be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point.

You are famous also for these late-night telephone calls in which you track down a writer in some exotic land to ask about changing a word. Or a comma.
When I worked for Jack Fischer at Harper’s, he would look at the final galleys. He would take his pencil and he would go through and make changes—cross things out, put things in—and it would go right off to the press. I was appalled. Writers deserve the final word about their prose.

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

Although often you will scrawl a note in the margins saying, “It might be helpful here to have a word or a line about X.”
Yes! We do often in the galley.

Even though it may be Christmas Eve, as it often was.
That has to do with the schedule of the press.

But it also amounts to a kind of sign, whether the intention is there or not, a signal to the writer that absolutely everything is being done, no matter what the time, to care for this prose.
Well, I hope it makes people feel that each word counts. It’s going to be read by a lot of people. It’s going to have an effect. It means everything.

When I began working for you, there were two shifts for editorial assistants working in your office: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then a later one.
Two-thirty to 10:30 p.m.

Which I learned often went on to midnight or later. How is it after 50 years you are able to maintain that level of meticulousness and determination?
I don’t feel that that kind of work is a matter of decision. There’s simply no alternative to reading every piece attentively and very critically. It would be unthinkable not to. I work my way through several reviews a day. If I’m at home I’ll simply try to stay up until I do it. If I’m here at the office I’ll try to stay until I finish it.

Did you always work such hours?
I was an editor at Harper’s, a monthly magazine with several editors, and we worked under a number of unstated assumptions—that the readers could take only so much; that radical writers and ideas were taboo. That what Lizzie called the “light little article” was indispensable. No doubt it has changed in many ways. But the New York Review was and is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to do what one wants on anything in the world. Now, that is given to hardly any editor, anywhere, anytime. There are no strictures, no limits. Nobody saying you can’t do something. No subject, no theme, no idea that can’t be addressed in-depth. There’s an infinity of possibilities. Whatever work is involved is minor compared to the opportunity. That is the essence. That is the nature of the magazine.

Below is an unedited copy of the transcript of Mark Danner's interview broken into three parts.


Mark Danner: Let me start by saying the politics of the Review such as they are fascinate a lot of people because on the one hand one sees pieces that are rather praising of Obama for example and then there are quite critical ones, I’ve written some of those myself.

Bob Silver: That’s true.

Mark Danner: And how would you answer the question about the actual politics of the Review, I mean--

Bob Silver: The point is that from the first we’ve been interested in the views of people respected for the brilliance of their mind and their perceptions and they obviously have a variety of different views on such a question of Obama and what kind of record and success he’s had. And it’s true that David Bromwich wrote a very caustic and critical piece about his foreign policy and it’s also true that Michael Tomasky at various times has tried to show that he has brought if one stands at a loss perspective a great transformation in American life in which a whole series of different groups have come into politics and has in fact succeeded in making some very fundamental changes in for example healthcare among other things. So the point is that our sense has been that there must be room for different perspectives, different nuances, different value judgements about not only Obama but about public policy generally. And that in some cases that there are things that are happening that we feel are urgent and even scandalous as for example our new issue we have an article by Helen Epstein on the widespread neglect of the problem of lead paint, how it affects the lives and the mentality of literally millions of children in poor, old housing and how this has not been a particular concern of government and of the Obama administration. So that is simply one pointed case of what we feel should be said because we felt that Helen had amassed research and data showing a very very serious situation. On the other hand we just published articles by Elizabeth Too and Michael Tomasky arguing that the demands that economists and policy makers, experts rather, have been making at Obama must be measured against the opposition to him that has been so intransigent and so unbudgetable in Congress. And this is in our recent piece on Republicans by Elizabeth too, it’s in a piece we published by other writers including Jacob Hacker at Yale, and that we have a series of historical and political events which have combined to sustain an intransigent opposition, and that includes for example what Nate Silver has shown to be a kind of national gerrymandering in which in many districts the major confrontation is between a conservative Republican and a much more conservative Republican.

Mark Danner: Let me jump in and just say that’s a fascinating point, and it does make me think, you know, we look across fifty years of the Review and the Review really began in an era in which liberalism was an affirmative, proud--

Bob Silver: What was?

Mark Danner: Well I was going to say that the Review began during an era of Kennedy and then of course Johnson when liberalism, particularly when it came to domestic policy was kind of a proud forward looking policy, and now in the middle of the Review’s lifetime, came Ronald Reagan, and now we get this new liberal president who essentially is fighting a kind of conservative rear guard to keep these social programs.

Bob Silver: That’s right and it harks back in my own experience to Harry Truman, I worked for Chester Bowles as his press secretary, and Truman had a great many forward looking programs about health, about unemployment, and there was a Republican resistance to them and they were never enacted, and Johnson tried to take up some of them and what we find is that there’s a congealed, shall we say, concatenation of very powerful forces trying to block this kind of government help to a variety of citizens who are in need. And I was very aware of it under the Truman administration and very aware of it the Reagan administration. As it happens Nixon was more open to some of these social programs.

Mark Danner: It’s interesting, Truman of course tried to pass national health care and Obama of course succeeded.

Bob Silver: Truman I think wanted something rather like a national health service.

Mark Danner: He did, and was not able to do it.

Bob Silver: He was not able to do it and ever since then it’s been seen as unattainable, because of the idea of a national administration, of an administration in effect being an administration, being in the health business directly, as opposed through subsidies and various kinds of payments to private doctors, that has always been seen as an impossible barrier to surmount in American life is the idea of a single payer system. I think that if you canvas many of the leading health experts, whether in Washington or in the universities, they would say there are many virtues to a single payer system particularly in control of costs, which is the specter that attends any national health arrangement, the constant rising costs. But it also seems to be a consensus that it is unattainable in the United States. And I think that is the situation and therefore you have these different ways around it such as Obamacare, etc. Which is a matter of private insurance.

Mark Danner: I was going to say to get back to this notion of the arc of fifty years under the Review, when it began in this era really of progressivism particularly under late Kennedy and of course Lyndon Johnson, do you think it played the same sort of role that it does now? In other words--

Bob Silver: Now what is the it you’re referring to?

Mark Danner: I’m talking about the Review itself.

Bob Silver: Well the Review you understand has always started from respect for and admiration for the various thinkers and various people whose mind and writing we felt should have an opportunity to reach a public. And so over the years people like bobby harboner wrote for us and quite critically for example about the Reagan administration's economic program. And let’s take another example. During the Reagan administration there was one of the programs that was most strongly advocated by Reagan himself and which turned out to be an obstacle in the negotiations with Gorbachev, the so called Star Wars program, a program of destroying incoming missiles from outer space.

Mark Danner: SDI.

Bob Silver: That’s right, SDI. Now we published at that time articles by MIT physicists who thought that this was an impractical, unworkable and scientifically unfounded, a program and people like Hans Bethe, the great Nobel Prize winning physicist also agreed with that and we published his views. So it was a judgement that Barbara and I made about the writers, whose minds, whose analysis we respected from reading their writing, and knowing and knowing, and we felt that their perspective was and their ideas were important to be circulated. And again and again, that is how we’ve simply worked. And the second point I would make is that after all here we were as a book review with many books coming out, it had bearing upon the current world and political and national situation, but at the same time the books were part of what we saw and what we encountered as waves of historical development and challenge, waves like the Vietnam War, like the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, like the Star Wars and also the economics of the Reagan administration. For an editor, these different historical, political forces loomed up and confronted us not only in the form of books but in the form of political, international, national developments. We tried to react by asking the people who we respected as perceptive and as knowledgeable to deal with them. Now that is the way we have operated, this is if we started out with some program and for domestic politics for our own. What is true--and this is something I would emphasize and something we’ve talked about. What’s true is that Barbara and I were both very aware that here we were in America enjoying a whole series of rights and freedoms, more perhaps than any editors ever had since we own the paper ourselves, could publish anything we wanted, and there was no one who could tell us to do anything so long as we could pay the printer. That is what our situation was and we’re very aware of it. At the same time we’re very aware that poets in Iran or a writer in the Soviet Union or East Germany, that these editors, writers, and people who wanted to express themselves were being suppressed, and that we felt from the beginning that we should try to give them a voice, be published an interview with Solzhenitsyn, we published dozens of pieces, dozens, by Sahkorov, Vaclav Havel, dozens of essays by these leaders of efforts to challenge Communist repression.

Mark Danner: Also the Chinese, as you mentioned before.

Bob Silver: We also published, there wasn’t in 1989 and 1990, the changes in these other countries, the Communist Party control and Leninist system did continue in China, and from early on we did publish some essays challenging what was perceived by some critics as a kind of Potemkin village presentation by the Chinese. And this was one of the criticisms that we published by Simone Leys, the walls of Peking, in which he showed how the Chinese had by a series of ruthless actions changed the whole shape of the city and that they were able to do this in both surreptitious and yet extremely destructive ways, and it’s also true that in going to Beijing in 1998 I did meet Fang Lizhi, the leading astrophysicist, one of the leading Chinese scientists, I met him with Perry Link, Grace and I met Perry on a corner in a rainstorm in December and we went to Fang Lizhi’s flat, high in a very shaky old building, and he agreed to write an essay for the New York Review on freedom in China, he had been lecturing on this subject in Chinese universities but he was willing to write an essay in a foreign paper about the need for freedom in China, And this essay was sent to us in translation by Perry and we published it in February and of course the Tiananmen Square events took place a few months later, but it was known to us we were told that his essay published in our paper in English had been circulated also in Chinese. This was an essay he wrote for the New York Review and then of course as you know after Tiananmen Square he took refuge in the U. S. embassy and stayed there for a year and it’s only last year before he died hat he wrote the true story of how he got out. And it was he got out, above all it was a long account that he wrote in which Henry Kissinger discussed the case with Deng Xiaoping that the American ambassador told him that a confession was wanted. He said that he was very happy to write a confession and he’d written many, and the confession was that he’s always opposed Marxism.

Mark Danner: Yes.

Bob Silver: And he was released after the Japanese made it a condition of a trade agreement with China. And then after he got out that he went to England for a while because that was part of the deal and then he came to America where he taught for many years. He wrote for us while in America,  he wrote about freedom in science in China.

Mark Danner: That was a fascinating essay, not least because he discussed the very idea of confession in Chinese history, yes?

Bob Silver: He did. And, anyway, my thought is that over the years with the famine in China and the cultural revolution we haven’t published many essays about the regime and its responsibility for those horrifying events. And it is something that we often publish something about the Review.

Mark Danner: It seems to me that something you’ve really emphasized, it’s been a running theme in our conversation, is the primacy of taste, of taste when it comes to writers, of taste when it comes to intellectuals over ideology.

Bob Silver: I think it’s a broader question of admiration for qualities of mind in certain writers, qualities of independence, qualities of depth of thought, and also an awareness of the historical and local factors that go beyond the obvious, that go beyond what one might say the very overt factors in political situations but try to find deeper sources of political behavior. And we know that someone like on one level, for example, we publish dozens of essays by Murray Kempton, who was very skeptical about political rhetoric. He saw the rhetoric of politicians as itself a kind of orphan, a kind of artful dodge, and he would pick apart that rhetoric and reveal it. And that was and he was one of our most brilliant political commentators because of his perceptions of the twists of language, and the twist of deception that was so common in political life. And so Barbara and I both had enormous respect for his independence, his freshness, his experience and also his particular knack for pulling apart deceptive political language.

Mark Danner: Do you think this same quality is partly responsible for to some degree a reputation the Review has when it comes to cultural matters as being to some degree conservative. That is, when I asked you this before you said, well, critical, you’d use the term critical rather than conservative. But when you look for example at deconstruction or at various academic trends--

Bob Silver: That’s a very interesting question, because there were series of developments called post-modern developments, some of them very interesting and exciting in the novel for example of William Gast, and in other writers of fiction, and we at the Review were certainly not hostile to such developments in literature, in any shall we say polemical way. We published criticism of some of these tendencies and we published articles of admiration of them.  We did feel that there could be a billion statements of a variety of views and that has always been our sense that we’ve had, there can be brilliant statements of a variety of views.

Mark Danner: It strikes me when you look at the Review within the context of other reviews or magazines that might be considered its--not necessarily rivals but where you go for the same sort of subjects--that the Review has had a sort of lifespan that many of these would really envy. Do you want to say a word about not only its endurance but also the role it has in relationship to the intellectual world in the US? And I’m talking about the various publications, whether it’s The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Commentary, neoconservative publications and so on, I think there’s a desire to have a bit of a longer view about what’s happened over the last fifty years when it comes to this world of intellectual debate is carried on through reviews, magazines, and papers and so on.

Bob Silver: Well I must tell you that I’ve always thought that it’s wrong for me to start getting into any kind of critical competitive view of other papers, I think each of them has their own problems, their own audiences, their own life, their own world, and I don’t pretend to know anything about them and I don’t think I should talk about them. I really feel that what we should do is concentrate on the Review and on the best possible articles. But being more concrete I think that one should be--I’m thinking for example of an article we published and a writer that we published on November 25th 2010, Zadie Smith, she reviewed the film The Social Network directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, and she reviewed the book You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. And what she talked about was Zuckerberg and Facebook, and she talked about what she thought was a series of misunderstandings and delusions about Facebook, and therefore this was an article that ended up rejecting much about Facebook and saying that she did not feel that the friendship on which Facebook was based, the idea of friends, was truly a coherent idea of friendship at all. And as she said, if we really wanted to write to these far away people or see them, we would. So she said that she was veering away from Facebook. Well now this was the kind of article that we published by Sue Halpern, who is writing an article right now about how more and more embedded in the internet and its uses are the trailing marks and signs about consumers that would be usable for advertising and for brand names and products, and its these commercial uses of the internet which are often shall we say rather not particularly known or even concealed are for her a central issue which has been ignored. So we have in these pieces by Zadie, by Sue Halpern, and soon we’ll be publishing a big piece by one of our writers here on video games and on the whole question of both the experience of video games, the enormous profitability of video games, much more than the movies, and the effects of video games, and the excitement of video games. And this is something that's been on our mind for years and something we’ve tried different ways to approach now we have a piece that we expect to publish within the next couple of months. So these modern developments on the internet which are forms of proliferation of electronic media I think are central to experience today, I think we are away of billions and billions of words that are projected into the world in the form of tweets or various kinds of online communication, websites and blogs, and are not susceptible to the kinds of critical approach that we have all been familiar with since the beginning of print. That is to say, these that we think of as tweets, for example, and I don’t know if we’ve talked about it but it’s a central fact of life that there are millions and millions and tweets, and that some of them may be and are quite apt, quite sharp, quite witty, but it is also true that there are billions of them that are like lame wisecracks. Now are we to accept that all this will simply go in and out of our life and in and out of the modern electronic ether without any critical comment, without any assessment, without any idea idea of the use of language, any sense that there may be something to be corrected, something to be praised? These are the traditional critical functions, but they don’t apply to a huge volume of communication that is now proliferating throughout the world. So I feel that this is a major challenge to a paper like ours which is a critical paper which is a critical tradition, which does believe in evaluation of language, of thought, which now faces a quite different world and the idea of finding the way to encompass that world, to find critical standards that can be applied and indeed to criticize it, just as Zadie did in her piece on Facebook, which I think is one of the strongest and most important pieces we’ve published.

Mark Danner: I agree, its a very fresh and unusual piece, as well, particularly when the movie was universally praised.


Bob Silvers Hours 2 thru 3

Twenty-seven pieces by…

Mark Danner: Havo?



Some before he was  president, some after he was president. One from the speech to the court, which came out to Germany.

Yeah, famous piece.

Others were statements, which I, it was in ’60. Ah, I can’t remember the date, but it's in the issue, it was in the late 60s I think. Yes, no, it was 77. After the announcement of charter 77 was announced in the New York Times or wherever, there was going to be an announcement, Charter 77, I called Harold Pinter, who wrote an extraordinary article for us by the way, called A Play: One for the Road.

Of course, I remember this very well.

Put on all over the world. He just sent it. I said how can I call, he gave me a number, I called , I said there’s going to be a charter 77, in Czechoslovakia, in Prague, and we hope to go to Prague and write on this. And he said I’ve been waiting for this call for fifteen years. And he went out the next, he got a visa the next day, and he went out the next week, and he talked to Havo, and he talked to the philosopher of the, he was very much the central figure in the movement of which was at the same time linked to the movement for the ah, ah to rescue this ah, pop music.

Oh yes, of course!


Ah, running up to the Velvet Revolution, of course.


Ah, what is it called, I know exactly what you’re…

It’s something People.

Yeah. Ah…

The Plastic People.

The Plastic People. Was it--?

And it was Stoppard and it was a drummer actually.

Yeah. And they were great admirers of Zappa, Frank Zappa.

And, and ah, Havo, was very admirer of that!

Aha. Yes. And Stoppard, how did you hit on, how did you know it was Stoppard who should go?

I knew that Stoppard had been born in Czech. I read, I just simply knew that he had been born, his mother, he’d been born in Czechoslovakia, and his father had died, or had left. His mother had married an English, and Englishman in India, Mr. Stoppard, and that, and that nevertheless, he was part Czech. His mother and father were Czech.

And he had not writer for the Review before? He just, you know—

No way!

Yeah. But he was the, right, it strikes me that one of the consistent themes in this story is finding the absolute right writer, at the given moment.

Well sometimes the wrong writer, but in any case this one, he went over there and he wrote! And then you know, he wrote this beautiful article for us. You should read it! It’s a marvelous—

Mark Danner: I think I’ve read it, actually.

It’s a marvelous summary of the whole Czech movement.

Mark Danner: Very early.

And about the philosopher who was so important, who died! And then he went on to many other things about Czechoslovakia. There’s a play, there’s an opera.

Mark Danner: Right.

All kinds of stuff!

Mark Danner: Yeah, yeah. And then there was a lot of stuff that became, that began in a sense, with that trip.


Mark Danner: Yeah. It strikes me that, you know, it, trying to fashion politics—

I felt so happy that he went. Just the way I felt happy that Mary would go.

Mark Danner: Mhm. Because it began a whole train of other things.

Well it began because I felt that they would see what others didn’t see. And they would be able to write beautifully.

Mark Danner: Mhm. And we are talking about a kind of, you know you said this the other night actually, that your trying to define a place on the Left, during the Cold War, that isn’t in a sense a backing of the Cold War itself. And I make that seem very directed and very ah—

I saw the Cold War, through, very much through, the lens of the human rights consequences. That the Cold War meant that in Poland, for example, you had a regime which was with a secret police that were stifling ah, and in fact doing more than that. They were doing what ah, your friend Milos, ah, described in his book.

Mark Danner: The Captive Mind?

The Captive Mind. Of holding out series of temptations, and an entire way of life, into which people could fit. And leave behind elementary questions of personal liberty, and personal decision. And personal belief. And so, this is happening all throughout Eastern Europe. And you can see in this Hungary, you can see it in Prague, you can see it in Poland, and you can see it in Soviet Union, above all. Where we publish from the very first, these articles about, you remember the two, the two ah, ah, dissidents who were arrested and imprisoned together. And ah, I’ll think of their names, in the 1950s. And they we, we ah, in the 60s we recalled them. Or maybe they were in the 60s. Any case—

Mark Danner: The two Russian? You’re talking about--?

Two Russians. Two Russian writers. Abram Turch.

Mark Danner: Oh right, of course!

Abram Turch.

Mark Danner: Uh-huh.

That’s the name of Syneski. That was a, Church was the real name of Syneski.

Mark Danner: Right. Wrote under that name.

He went into exile. Abraham Turch, and then it was another guy.

Mark Danner: Yeah. I forget his name.

But you can easily look it up.

Mark Danner: This is long before Sakharov was writing, of course.

Then we published eight essays by Sakharov. Or about him. And Sakharov was a man with a very humane view as a scientist. He had a view of a democratic society, he was put in Gorky in exile, we got a letter, an article, about, someone went to see him there, we had a thing on, on ah, Sakharov in Gorky. There’s an article in the New Yorker.

Mark Danner: Yeah yeah. I remember it.

Anyway, these were, there is an interesting question—that George Kennan said that he believed in containment. And he believed that the future, that Russia would change ultimately, and that ah, these, and that we should try to contain Russia from expanding, and from expanding this kind of people. Then we had M. National—

Mark Danner: Sorry?

We had MN 68, I think.

Mark Danner: Oh National Security NCS 68.

48, 48.

Mark Danner: Mhm. Paul Nitze.

Paul Nitze, who wanted to make—

Mark Danner: Who followed Kennedy.

Wanted to make a ah, a all-out military expansion. And then we, funnily enough you had a, later in the 60s you had a, you had Kissinger and the Russians meeting to try to limit it. You know? You think it got out of hand.

Mark Danner: The policy of détente, which the—

Question. Is it, was it possible to ah, limit at the same time? To try, through public exposure, through articles, through education. Both the repression and suppression of the most elementary rights in these, in this sphere, at the same time, not support a kind of extensive, excessive, militarization, opportunic [sp.] militarization, opportunistic militarization, by the American government and its allies. And ah, and NATO. That wanted to go to the edge of threatening these regimes, the edge, not the threaten, not to have a war, but to have—

Mark Danner: But to go up to the brink in a sense.

They gave a huge ah, you might say, ah, right. A huge and ample ah, grant of authority to ah, many forces in America.

Mark Danner: Right.

To ah, to ah, increase a militarized ah, qualities of the militarized investment in America. So these are both in our minds. And I thought, I think we talked the other night about, there was a tested, a tiny little example where Aryeh Neier said, he has written for us over the years, and I think is a hero.

Mark Danner: The head of ah, the Open Society Institute?

Yeah. The man was a great hero.

Mark Danner: Until recently? And Human Rights Watch?

Yeah. One of the great heroes, he built the worldwide network of Human Rights Organization. He said well I’m going to Kosovo. And I said, well, I hope you write a little thing for us. And he went to Kosovo and he found these people in Kosovo under Soviet, under ah, ah Serb rule. And they had a little, had a, ah, art gallery, that they’d actually contrived to open in Belgrade. And they had little schools, separate schools…

Mark Danner: The Kosovars, yeah.

They were having a kind of underground life of you know, maintaining a kind of Kosovar ah, ah sort of openness. And then we had the war there, and we had the American help there, and it was a very, I think it was something to support.

Mark Danner: Which I wrote about.

And you wrote about it, and you said you saw a pattern, you saw a pattern from Bosnia.

Mark Danner: From the Bosnia war to Kosovo. Absolutely.

Driving people out. You saw this pattern—

Mark Danner: The same, the same war in effect, yeah.

The same war, you saw the same pattern of ah, control. That the people came by. And then they had a kind of Kosovar, ah, regime. And they still do. And of course it turns out they’ve got the Kosovar’s guerillas, extremely rough guys.

Mark Danner: Right.

And ah from Albania, some of them. They're Albanian. So then ah, we, I went to ah, a meeting with ah, Kouchner?

Mark Danner: Bernard Kouchner. Yeah.

He was the head, appointed head of Human Rights, by US. Said to me, said in a little speech, he said I feel very guilty. I’m the director of Kosovo human rights, I have a friend, he’s a doctor like me, he’s a gynecologist, he looks after the women in a Serbian town in Kosovo. The women all want him to stay. They plead for him to stay, because he’s a very good gynecologist. Who happens to be a Serb. And ah, so, one night he was killed. By the local Kosovar ah, tuffs. And he says, I have no doubt he was killed by orders. He says, so here I am, I have five—


Mark Danner: A little more about um, not only about our present era when it comes to this new world of prose, but editing. You know, editing itself, I mean what exactly it is. But why don’t we just, go back just a second. Um, and talk about this kind of space that the Review in your view has claimed when it comes to its politics. Which really has to do with, if I understand it, getting out of the shadow of US power by standing for something, for standing for, during the Cold War, and after, for Human Rights, for basic human rights. For a kind of society, rights of artists, rights for intellectuals, basic human rights, no matter where they are.

That’s right.

Mark Danner: Whether it's in Eastern Europe or—

That’s right. In Persia, and in ah, in ah, say Guatemala.

Mark Danner: Mhm, Latin, Central America.

And, and in ah, Poland. And Cuba on the other hand.

Mark Danner: We’re actually talking about a kind of open society, you know? George Soros of course is a prominent contributor.

Well, he has written for us.

Mark Danner: Yes, has written ah, ah, very prominently.

And he’s written for us, and he’s also written, very—

Mark Danner: Economic issues too.

Well on ah, about the human rights question in the FT. Where he said that one can, one has to check this, but he wrote a thing about how there was this often disappointment about having accomplished something that one sees, that the successive governments are not as, have not, ah, absorbed the lessons of the, um, but rather see them as threats.

We see such a thing not just in Eastern Europe, of course. We’re sitting here, if you look at Egypt, you see this incredible turmoil after a revolution that had ah, you know was greeted with great enthusiasm two years ago, ah, this is true elsewhere in the Middle East, um, it really does seem that this is the pattern that you described in Kosovo, ah, where you had the Kosovars, their repression by the Serbs, their eventual independence, and then their repression in turn of the Serbs who still lived among them, that this kind of pattern—



There is a ah, a little ah, enclave of ah, Serbs that feel rather threatened.

Yeah very much so.

In Kosovo.

But I guess I was asking whether you think that there is a kind of, I mean this is an occasion of course to look back over things, and we’re talking about a half-century. Do you think there is a kind of moving towards something, a progression towards something better during that time? The Review began really at the height of the Cold War, I mentioned at the beginning the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, which is a figurative way to put it, but in essence, it begins right after this kind of, the closest the two sides came to a nuclear confrontation, and here we are, you know, in the war on terror, half a century later, and I’m wondering if you think, when you look across that time, if you think there’s a kind of gradually, gradually, as Henry James put it, when we thought things were gradually bettering, however haltingly.

Well I feel that the, that one has to, that realistically, that the greatest country of all is the ah, that, the most populous country, and where there’s the most at stake, clearly, is in China. That when we began to Review, it was generally seen that there had been a Chinese Revolution which had some justification in relation to the Chiang Kai-shek regime, which is considered to be now a Nationalist. As it turned out, the costs of the Communist revolution were very high. In the way of the ah, crushing of the ah, so-called peasant ah, ownership class, and the ah, and the ah, the ah, of the, people who were identified with, if only marginally, some sort of Bourgeoisie. But we, many people in many places felt that in China was being created something like an egalitarian society, of which they could approve. And this included many American professors, many American liberals. They did not know that under the ah, under the ah, movements sponsored by Mao in the mid-50s, of the Hundred Flowers.

Let a hundred flowers bloom.

By which people were encouraged to ah, assert a certain kind of creativity ah, that this was really a century a device by which the regime would identify potential enemies. They did not realize that the attempts by Mao to ah, encourage local industry in the form of backyard steelmaking were doomed. They did not, had no idea, that the country was about to embark on one of the greatest famines in human history. With more than um, 30 million or 40 million people starving to death. With ah, very little by way of concern by the ah, regime, but who, on the contrary, administered the ah, surprise approved to sustain the apparatus.

You know it bears saying, if I can interject—


If I can interject for a second, I was gonna say, it bears saying to mention at this point Amartya Sen, who was a prominent contributor to the Review, and who wrote later, ah, Poverty and Famine and other things, pieces for the Review, in which he emphasized that it was that very famine, and the difference of how famine was handled in India for example, that shows the importance of an open society. That that kind of, news of that kind of famine in China could be suppressed, 30 million people died. But in India, ah, in fact, it couldn’t be suppressed, and—

I remember Amartya writing that in our pages. And ah, and he made a great point, that ah, in the matter of famine, that one of the great elements is the ah, ah, lack of knowledge of ah, the kinds of supplies that almost inevitably exist that are not drawn upon for political reasons.

Mhm. So information.

Or for purely economic reasons, by people who want to make money out of it. In any case, it is not only the famine which a result of very bad planning, but it also, the Kosovo Revolution, which would attempt to degrade the ah, the ah, Chinese officialdom that had grown up under Mao, and reduce and ah, to ah, or kill them. So this, the Kosovo Revolution, was ah, the cause of a great many deaths. Perhaps many millions of deaths. And now in China we have the further test of the Tiananmen Square movement. Ah, which was, and which the choice to the regime was suppression, as opposed to negotiation.


And we’ve had since then, such events as, ah, the rise of such a person as Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xiaobo is a poet who has been to Tiananmen Square, he’s been to jail for two or three years. He got out. He believed, as many Chinese believe, in elementary rights, and wrote a manifesto in which he ah, went so far as to say that it would be right for China to have ah, competing political parties. He wanted this ah, manifesto released on a certain day in ah, December 2008. And he, through Perry Link, who’s one of the major, ah, contributors to the Review, one of the major informants of the Review about Chinese affairs, ah, ah, they requested that we print it on a certain day. We did. He was arrested, the other members of the, who had signed it, were called in. And interrogated. He was given the Nobel prize but was not able to attend to collect it.

An empty chair for him.

He was sentenced to eleven years in prison. And here, inside you hear about various attempts to alleviate some of these extremely oppressive conditions, when it comes to open thought and open expression. You hear all sorts of ah, conferences being held on the thought of, let us say Isaiah Berlin or Ronny Dworkin. You hear of ah, discussions in ah, Chinese magazines. You hear of books being published in Hong Kong which are critical of the regime, yet I think the fundamental reality is that it would be ah, a ah, major crime to help to start anything like a new political party. Or independent, a genuinely independent journal which would mention openly Liu Xiaobo. Or Fang Lee Xue. Years ago Grace and I were in Beijing, we knew Perry Link who was there, head of the National Science Academy office, he invited us to meet Fang Lee Xue in his apartment way up in Shanghai, we went up to see him, crossed some boards that served as floor plan, flooring, went into his flat, met him, and he was a man of enormous humor, and good spirit, and he told us about his lectures he was giving on the need for democracy in China in various universities throughout the country. Leading astrophysicist as he was. I asked him if he would simply send us one of these, and we would have it translated by Perry. And we did publish it in February 1989. I’d been invited there—

No no wasn’t it later? 1989? Wasn’t it later than that? I thought, I mean I’ll look it up, of course.

When was Tiananmen?

’93. ’93, Tiananmen.

Oh yes you’re right.

I think that’s right. Yeah.

You’re sure?

No no I’m sorry, Tiananmen was ’89. Quite right.

What I said was correct!

I’m sorry. I should have known.

Right. What I said was correct.

You’re quite right. Forgive me.

Ah, 1989. I’d been invited there in 1988, I’d been asked by the ah, I’d been asked by a group of Chinese who were in some way associated with the Soros group, in China then, to give a lecture at Tongji University. I gave a lecture. Ah, the lecture said that the way to advance intellectual work, was to have a magazine that if you could possibly do it, organize it yourself. Own it yourself, and have the freedom to say what you want. I said this is the ideal, and by some extraordinary convergence of luck, the New York Review had that. Peculiarly, ah, advantageous situation. But this was the basis of which you could start. And that if you can’t have complete ownership, you might have some. And if you can’t have full say, you might have some. But that this was the ideal. Then we were approached by a very small group of Chinese, in Beijing, they said they had a plan for a Beijing Review of Books. It wouldn’t be published in Beijing, it would be published in a small town, somewhere in the West. Where there was a print shop, and this print shop they were in touch with, and would print the paper. And could we help them. And they were extremely attractive young people. They included a poet, they included an economist. And they included above all, a man who was, seemed a little older, who was a son of a well known artist, in the ah, China, who seemed one of the more sophisticated people we met. And who, to who’s house we went for dinner, Grace and I. And ah, so this is before we met Fang Li Xiu, and ah, and then, not, then we published, in the New York Review, in as it can be seen, in February 1989, the article by Fang Li Xiu on freedom in China. We were told this article circulated in China. In Chinese. And then came Tiananmen Square.

Mhm. In June if I’m—I believe June.

No! No it was a run-up from April on. And it was in May.

Yeah I’m talking about the actual, repression.



But the thing went on from—

A long time. Mhm. Yes.

And this, this was part of the run-up. And then of course what happened is that the poor, the young people who had had the idea they, Beijing Review of Books, ah, went into hiding. They, some of them escaped through Hong Kong. Some paid large sums to do so. 500,000 dollars.

To get out.

To get out.

Can you pull this down a bit? I can’t hear.

Oh. They escaped to Hong Kong. Some of them just got out otherwise. Some of them were to be found later in Princeton, New Jersey, where they, a central figure for them was Perry Link.

Perry Link. Mhm. And the Shanghai, is there not now a Shanghai Review of Books? Ah, if I’m not mistaken?

That’s right. And I want to tell you that I ah, that ah, there is a Shanghai Review of Books that’s grown up. But I want to continue with the other one.

Yes, please.

Because the climax was that the more, the more mature, the more, one of the most attractive, one of the most, shall we say reciprocal, of the people we had talked to about the Beijing review of Books, turned out to be a high secret agent. Had been in charge of the whole thing.

Ah. So it was in the sense of provocation, or a kind of lure.

Something the regime was managing.

Right. Right.

And one had the impression from Mao, and from many other indications, that the regime was managing everything.

How did you discover that? Was that through Perry Link?

I was told that later.

Incredible. It’s like the trust under Stalin, you know? This kind of management of the opposition effort, which is actually run by the NKVD at the time. Yeah, astonishing.

That this man was ah, very nice man. But I mean he seemed openly very nice. And ah, he had been caught up in the culture of revolution, he had been sent off to a remote, rural town. Anyway. You had asked about the question of the ah, progress of Human Rights.


And it’s true that there is a Shanghai Review of Books. And I, of course I can’t read it, but I did do a big long interview with them, and I was with, and I was able to talk openly about this concern with human rights.

I remember I brought them copies of the Review, you sent them when I was last in Shanghai.

That’s right. As you may have noticed, that the names Liu Xiaiobo and Fang Li Xiu were not mentioned in that ah—


In that issue. Because those are two names which I gather cannot be mentioned on Chinese media today. So that is a question—the question of China is an enormous question. Of, concerning this larger question of human rights.

Let me ask you something—which is, does it surprise you or shock you that you have in China, you’ve given this wonderful précis of recent history in China when it comes to human rights, but now we have their regime, which has a capitalist, a kind of quasi-capitalist, roaring Capitalist society. Which you see when you arrive there. It’s like a Frenchman coming into Manhattan in 1920, you know? It seems like the future of everything. This kind of enormous building, capitalist, ah, sort of surging, churning, ah, feeling of an economy gone wild there, that coexists with what is still essentially a kind of Leninist political system. Um, this kind of hybrid, it seems to me, was not anticipated, you know, it existed perhaps in Singapore, but not, the idea that it would be a major political model, powerful Capitalist economy in a Leninist political system, seemed inconceivable 20 years ago. No?

Yes. Well there was, in the ah, 1920s, in Russia, ah, a brief period.

The NEP, yes.

Of the NEP, the Nep.

Yes, this is true. I wouldn’t have thought that. Yeah.

And the thought was that ah, this was something that Stalin himself had approved of, they would allow a certain degree of ah, of commercial competition. And they actually have the word the Nep-man, who was the storeowner, or the store clerk. And ah, and this was closed down toward the end of the 20s, when Stalin exerted full power, and ah…

Many of these nep-men were killed in the 30s, of course.

That would be interesting to know. How many. I’d like to know. I’d be interested to know. Anyway, there have been that kind of developments within Leninist countries. But basically, as we’ve recently seen in the election of the Bureau, they want to maintain as firmly as possible, the process of the election of a tightly circumscribed political bureau that will have full power. Un, ah, unchanged. So—

And whose families are now acquiring enormous wealth, as we learned recently.

A number of them, apparently. And that of course is again a paradox, isn’t it?

It is.

But ah, so, I would say that this is the ah, a ah, when we come to the question of whether human rights has ah, in a sense of an organization of society, that will allow for such rights, and above all protect them, the question is very much open. And ah, and one constantly sees around the world, are these ah, a social phenomena where people are who will feel again and again, unprotected. And this has been true, has been publicized recently, concerning women in India. Many of them unprotected by the government. By their community. By their family. Unprotected.


I’m sorry. Talking of Amartya Sen?

Ah, years ago, he wrote an article, one of the most, one of the most well known of our New York Review articles, a Hundred Million Missing Women.

Mhm. I remember this.

About how they’re, they ah, the various feeling in favor of having male figures. And feelings. And also a lack of provision for female children, have resulted in a huge increase in male children. And he is now reconsidering that whole question with regard to the status of women in India.

Mhm. Is he? What, he’s working on a piece on that?

We hope something. At least we know he’s working on it, whether it’s for us or others.

It’s interesting. He is a, a writer who, it seems to me, exemplifies something ah, interesting about the review. People who ah, are contributers to the Review over a very long period, and their interests change, and they have various things that take them in different directions, and the Review in a sense, ah, benefits from these. In other words it’s as if the Review is partner.

Yes! We publish many different aspects of his thought, including many reflections on Indian history.

Mhm. And Indian writers, occasionally.

And, oh, and ah, I must say Ancient Indian history. As they pertain to the current arrangements in India.

There’s also, it seems to me, and I want to start evolving here toward a little bit more toward editing, that there’s a kind of, when you look back at the Review over 50 years, there’s also a tradition of kind of picking someone, very often a novelist, powerful writer, and saying, You know what? It would be wonderful if this person went there. And trying to get them. I mean of course the capital example of this, to me, because I so admire his work, and this piece in particular, is V.S. Naipaul, who in 19… I think it was 75 or 76, or perhaps a little later, you had the idea to send to Buenos Ares, to send to—

That’s right. We knew that in Buenos Ares there was a particularly brutal regime, which was suppressing ah, open dissent.

This is during the dirty war of the late—so-called Dirty War of the late 70s.

And I remember ah, this was in just when I, in the early days, when I was with Grace, I happened to make the remark one night, saying, God I wish we had the money to send someone like Naipaul to Argentina, because I know he speaks Spanish.

Mhm. Because he of course came from Trinidad.

He came from Trinidad, which is near Karakas. And Grace said, Well I’ve read his work, and I know his book about the Caribbean very well, and I can, I’ll put up the money to send him there! And she sent the money to the bank in Trinidad. And he set off. And he found in Argentina, which was by no means simple, and which many of the people he found who were objecting to the harassment were themselves not particularly committed to human rights. Ah, where his life changed, and he met new people. And ah, he wrote of the best things we ever published. The Return of Eva Peron.

Mhm. Which begins with the image of the return of—

The corpse.

The return of the corpse from Spain. That Juan Peron, the returning dictator, brought back.

What he saw, in Egypt. In, I’m sorry, in Argentina throughout, was an obsession on all sides with a kind of violence and a repressed violence.

The macho.

The macho feeling that had to be acted on. And also a guilt about it that was reflected in the largest ah, largest attended of psychiatrists in any country.

That’s right. Psychiatrists. The imagery, as I recall, were psychiatrists, bordellos, all these bordellos near the graveyard—

The bordellos he found, one after another.

Yeah. And then the macho with their—

This macho mentality. And ah, and of course, a very, very authoritarian an torture-minded police.

Mhm. I remember there’s a scene, he describes very well not only the mounting hyper-inflation, which gives this incredible anxiety to everything, you know, you have to instantly spend money. You have to, the currency is devaluing. At the same time, these raids, these secret police raids on houses in which people would be arrested and disappear. The so-called, the beginning of the desaparecidos, the disappeared, in which, there’s one scene in which he describes how, you know, a house would be raided, and some people happen to be in there putting up wallpaper, and they’d be arrested with all the rest, and tortured with all the rest. You know? It was just this incredibly—

It was—

--vivid description of—

That’s a marvelous scene.


That shows the arbitrariness and brutality. And ah, anyway Grace was the one who made it possible. And otherwise, ah, in the matter of Mary, we put money in the ah, already had the money in the bank.

To send her to Hanoi.

To send her to Hanoi.

Susan went to Hanoi as well. Was that for the Review?

Susand was not for the Review. She went for the ah, Farah Strauss Publishing Company.

Right. It does seem, this kind of getting the right writer, and very often the kind of novelistic kind of writer, reporter but more you know—

Well I’m very excited, I’m very happy that ah, yes, hello. Things are okay.

I just wanted to—

Is everything alright?

Yeah. Would you like something to drink, or?

How about you Mark?

Oh, perhaps some water?

Just plain water.


Very good.

You’re very happy, you said, that—

Ah, we were talking about ah, what were we talking about?

We’re talking about sending particular writers to particular places.

Oh! Well I was, a boy came to work for us years ago, Nat Rich?

Yeah, Nathanial! Yeah.

He worked in the office, he has written, and he went off and did a book for the New York Review of Books. A book that we didn’t commission, but New York Review of Books commissioned, on the series Noir in San Francisco.

Well Nat, I’m please to say, I recommended for that job. So I’m very ah—

That was a very—

I’m very happy for that.

A very shrewd and ah, and showed a kind of control of the subject I thought. Understanding. And now he’s down in New Orleans and we were so happy he just happened to know some of the people who were involved in the divers.

Oh yes. We spoke about that. Ah.

Ah, and ah we’re hoping to go on to other, other subjects, other professions in America who are among the more dangerous. The sea is a completely ignored world of people, risking their lives all the time.

Tell me, let’s talk just a little bit about editing. About, you know we've talked about tastes, matching writers with subjects, but the actual, I was fascinated by it, I came to the Review in ’81, I was a college, just graduated from college, and one of my jobs was, you would working on piece with a pencil, behind your desk, and every once in a while a page would come flying out into the inbox, and it was covered with ah, changes made in pencil, and my job, part of my job was to sit there, and take that page and type it into a new form, incorporating the changes. And it was a fascinating process, because I learned in essence what editing is.

And now that function is fulfilled by the regular typesetters.

Oh really?

The regular typesetters will simply take out, will immediately make a text of the page, and that text will be in the process.

I see.

It will be digitized.

So when you edit—

And so I edit, it goes back to the typesetters, and they roll it out again.

But do you still use a pencil and—

Yes. They get my highly-penciled text.


And they, which has already been digitized, and run out, you might say.

Right, so it didn’t—

And then they just redo it again.

Yes. When I would retype it, it would—

They often come and say you must tell us…

What this is. Yes I recall that process of not quite being able to understand what you’d written. But I also was shocked, really at the time, by the fact that some writers who work I greatly admired in the Review, I learned, and who I had admired as writers, as wonderful prose and so on, I was shocked to discover that you did a great deal of work on a lot of their prose. And yet, a lot of this work seemed to me to be uniquely in the service, how I should I put this, of making them sound like themselves. That is, the editing seemed to me—

Yes. That’s true. I wanted to keep their voice. And if anything can be done to make their voice continue to be characteristic of them, then all the better.

And how do you, how did you learn how to do that? In other words, do you have anything to say about editing line to line? I found it a fascinating ah, thing to watch, and felt I learned a lot from it, um, but I’m curious, because I have worked with a lot of editors over the years, but I’ve never seen someone quite able to, I mean when you, let me continue, after you would edit someone very heavily, this text would be put into gallies, these sort of tall New York Review columns, and those gallies would be sent to the writer, usually with a note of yours saying, Thank you for this very strong piece, and so on. And more often than not, a writer who had been edited very, very extensively, a lot of changes made, would essentially say, My god, this, you hardly touched it. You hardly touched my text. And I always thought this was a kind of magic, in a way. That you’d essentially brought out in that text what they had wanted to write, had they been in a sense more able. So it seemed to kind of, a kind of magic process, you know? Where you made a lot of changes and a lot of improvements, but in fact the writer at the other end would very often not notice anything. Which I find—

Well I hope so. Sometimes they would get very angry, and don’t, angry and want to restore everything. And often those people who want to restore everything are not very good writers. But the, the fundamental point is simply, the ear for a person’s prose, and trying to sustain in one’s hearing or reading of the prose, what one’s ear for that prose tells you. The kind of thing that the writer is at ease with and ah, and the kinds of expression they use. And it’s simply a question of following their ear, and attuning one’s ear to theirs.

Do you think of it as kind of scraping off, in a sense, barnacles, off of what the piece—

Well I think that often there’s a lot of, a lot of words that have crept into language, that have become accepted, that simply, the Review doesn’t use.

What are some examples of those? Though I know them well!

Well, the ah, well and there’s the obvious thing that ah, that one of the most used words are “in terms of.” And this is true, that you can always calculate x and l in terms of a and b, in science. But there have to be clear terms to be transferred to. In the case of “in terms of,” like “in terms of the New York Times,” there are no terms. There are no exact terms, is what I mean.

Mhm. It’s usually a way of blurring a relation.

It’s a way of blurring a reference. And instead of saying, He’s not explaining the subject the way a New York Times reporter might, he’s doing it “in terms of” the New York Times. That would be bad. And so, ah—

Let me give you some others and you tell me if I’m right: massive. Don’t use massive.

Well massive is a, that was Edmund Wilson wrote a whole article in the um, TLS, many years ago, examining many phrases. And he said that massive has been rising all around us, but not in relation to mass. But in simply meaning largeness. Or bigness, or without any large mass. So the ah, massive use of the coma. But of course the coma is a very small thing, and it can’t be massively used.

Let me say another one: framework.

Well framework is an absolutely fine word, if you have an actual frame, and you want to, let us say, um, lay it down in a garden. So that the hollyhocks will be on one side, and the roses on the other. But the framework is now being used to mean any system of thought, or any ah, any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

Left and right. You don’t like the use of Left and Right when they're used in political terms.

Well Left and Right in my sense is that, for there to be a Left and Right, there has to be a Left, and there has to be a Right. But what is the left? It's like in your original paper.

I was gonna say, this is the original conversation we had when we first met. About Salvador.

There are people who are more interested in liberties than others, there are people who are more interested in a fair distribution of goods, there are people interested in protection of rights, there are people interested in ah, in the ah, control of poisoning and pollution for the public good. These are all issues, and yet you can say that people who are more leftist or progressive or something are more interested in one range of issues or another, but I feel that just the ascription left or right is often lazy. It can be exact. If we’re talking about certain countries or certain places where there is a clear left of a clear right. But it’s often a lazy way of describing a ah, variety of different tendencies.

When you say lazy, of course, the opposite would be to be specific. Laziness is about vagueness, really.


It does make me smile that the very first conversation you and I had was when you looked at this piece on the Salvadoran War and said, What is the Left? What is the Left? And asked me about that. And I was 21. And the last piece I think I did for you, called the Politics of Fear, on this election, we had a similar discussion because I used Right and said, Obama has left no room to his right, when it comes to National security, so the republicans have nowhere to go, because he’s all the way to the right, he’s using drones, he’s—and so on. And you also wouldn’t let me use right as I recall. No room to his right. Um, so these are very consistent.

He left a lot of room to his right in, I would think, in the sense of ah, of the people who are against any, any ah, shall we say, ah, negotiated arrangement on immigration.

Oh sure.

Or any negotiated arrangement on the use of public use of automated weapons.

Oh absolutely. But I was talking about drones, very specifically. But ah, the other word I’d bring up, by the way, was peroration. Which I noticed you used earlier when speaking of Lionel Trilling. And I remember trying to get into the review in a description of Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was of course the Priest, Liberation Priest, and then President of Haiti, who launched in a peroration just before he was attacked and almost killed in his church of St. Jean Bosco. And I had this very long description, very long piece, about Haiti. Very long piece as I recall, a series on Haiti, and he wouldn’t let me us peroration, because you said it was ah, too elaborate a word, and too, it stuck out. Um, so I have to call you on that, because you did use it with Lionel Trilling just a minute ago.

Oh did I? I didn’t say that about Lionel Trilling!


Bob, hi? Do you have a moment to continue now with a few of these?

Hi. Yeah, let’s do whatever we can. You tell me what to do.

I wanted to ask, of course we’re talking a lot about reviews and writers, but of course, the name of the paper is the New York Review. And I noticed, looking through even recent issues, the paper’s played a very strong role in covering New York, from Janet Malcolm’s recent pieces, to Michael Greenberg on Occupy Wall Street…

And on the NYPD.

Yes. I just wanted to ask…

Partly on how the police handled some of the activists of Occupy Wall Street. And then a special separate article on the intelligence unit within the NYPD which was concerned with counterterrorism.

What do you see as the Review’s relationship to New York? And how New York has changed during the half century the Review has been in existence.

Well, of course it has. But it would be bogus for me to pretend to review the vast changes in the city that have gone on since we started in 1963. Because of course there’ve been vast changes, and it is true that the articles by Ada Louise Huxtable and Martin Fuller, we tried to follow some of the principle trends in building, and also, our articles about Jane Jacobs and her campaign to stop the big thruway through the West Village. This was a principle concern. She was someone we knew very well. She was someone who Jason knew very well. Barbara and I saw a lot of her. And then she moved to Canada, you know. And we did publish a strong piece in favor of her views about New York. And she was a very influential figure at one point. And so was Ada Louise, and so was Martin Fuller, who had been very critical of a number of developments in the city, and of particular buildings. But also, and this is something that I noted in a note to you, he was a very early supporter of the High Line and was able to see in it a much more complex vision of what an elevated park could be. And he did that by concentrating on the various architects and planners who took part in the project, and then in his most recent article, on the extension of the high line, he called attention to the enormous economic affect of the High Line on that, on the Chelsea, and other neighborhoods that it ran through. And that was involving say, a 2 billion-dollar change in real estate. And so, this is something that he, it’s just an example of the kind of attention that, from time to time, we, some of our writers, want to devote to the city. And we have, for example, an enormous, a very long article that’s soon going to be, we hope to publish soon, on the whole question of the sanitation department. And sanitation in the city, and other cities. And the problems that surround it. Now I can’t tell you who’s writing it. I mean I can tell you.

How does an article like that come about?

An idea that’s, something I’ve been asking for, for years, but it came out as conversation with Michael Kimmelman, who writes for us quite a lot. New York Times critic of art, and then a roving correspondent abroad, and now back in New York covering, writing on, particularly, city planning. But he’s gotten fascinated with the Sanitation Department and sanitation, and the whole, often quite hidden difficulties that any approach to sanitation faces. So we expect to do that within the next month or so. But, we can’t say who’s going to do it.

We needn’t say that. There’s a couple of other questions I just want to put to you in the matter of due diligence. One is, interesting notion, but several have pointed out, particularly in the early days, there were a number of quite strong and distinctive women. You’ve talked at some length about the influence of Elizabeth Hardwick.

She’s the major influence, really.

But we also have Barbara Epstein. Susan Sontag as well.

Barbara and I were really, extremely intimate and close partners until she died in 2006, in the sense that we published nothing that each of us had not read and gone over. We shared every piece, every assignment. We talked about every thing at the Review. We had no division of labor. We both had writers who we were in touch with, but we both dealt with every kind of subject. And we both, we respected each other’s ideas and sensibilities and we shared every piece.

I’m just curious whether there was any notion that the Review was something of a path breaker when it comes to having these rather influential women at the top. We’re talking about the early ‘60s, and yet you have very influential women.

Barbara was a very strong personality. And she and Jason were great friends with W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, Fred Dupee and many others. So they were, very, the two of them knew very many writers who were important to the Review. It must be said, so did I, know Norman Mailer, Bill Styron, etc. and brought to the Review many writers. But Barbara was a woman of enormous intellectual competence, enormous intellectual meticulousness. And had a particularly strong sense of prose. And having great influence on the paper in her sense of language. So she was very, very admirable, and powerful mind, and yet very, in many ways, very reserved publicly. So people didn’t realize how formidable a mind and ability she possessed.

I certainly remember her vividly. And also her, she gave the office a very effervescent personality.

Well the thing is, that she had a marvelous sense of humor, and I must tell you and this is absolutely true, that one reason I looked forward every day to going to the Review was that Barbara and I did see a huge amount of what we were doing as very funny. Absurd. As funny. And as a kind of weird gamble. A weird gamble, we were both engaged in, in which we had this quite astonishing freedom. And out general approach, if someone had an idea that was quite different from anything we’d ever done was, why not? And that included the personals column, by the way. Because Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us after the first issue, came to us one day with some ads that someone had sent in, and they said something like, beautiful Jewish writer seeks sexual partner who can dance, or something like that. And Whitney said, well, is this the sort of thing we want to do? And Barbara and I said, why not! At which point we then, I think we did, other papers of course may have done this, the TK Review and others, but nothing quite as, shall we say, elaborate and bold as many of these ads came to be. People in a way competed for the most colorful, lurid description of their sexual and other needs.

The ads have attained a kind of celebrity.

I’m sure that many of them now are to be found online in one corner of the internet or another. But they were a kind of model for these kind of wrenching personal appeals. And some rather famous people we knew actually met people through them.


Yes. And furthermore, about once a year, a couple would appear and say, we met through the New York Review and we’re just married.

Are there any famous people we should know about, who met through these ads?

Can’t say, but between you and me, the widowed Philip Roth found some intellectual in Washington with whom he carried on an affair. The granddaddy of American intellectualists! Now listen, I’m going to ask Alex—do you have that Lizzie piece? That piece of Lizzie’s, there are a few phrases that I feel are so important. If Alex can give it to me, I’ll just tell you what I mean. What I mean is that Lizzie, in her article she wrote for me.

At Harper’s.

I then published a special issue of Harper’s called Writing in America, in which I invited a lot of writers, who had only written before that say for the Partisan Review or for the New Republic. To write for Harper’s, which had not published such people. And they included Elizabeth Hardwick. And they included Alfred Kazin. And They included Stanley Kunitz, for example. But Lizzie, in attacking the New York Times book review of that time, quite aside from the Times book review, she established two criteria that I feel are central to the Review from the first, and are really the inspiration of the Review. And I’m now going to—now that Alex is about to bring it to me. Do you have it? This is what, there are two things that Lizzie in her, among other things, it’s a marvelous article and she went to, took up a great many themes, but, what I’m about to say is I think the crucial thing of what I should say, just hold on.


Here I have it, and I’m going to tell you exactly what I mean. At least, what I think is the crucial thing. This is what she said: “The worst result of decline”—she’s referring to the Times—“is that it acts as a kind of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books, or in literary matters generally.” Now, that’s her introduction.


Now here are the two categories—first is what I think the New Review, and what I think others should avoid. And what is that.


This is what she said: The flat praise, and the faint dissention. The minimal style, and the light little articles.


But those are what I take it to be what we have tried to avoid. And then she said, and the absence of, and now I would say this is what one would hope for, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity, the lack at last of the literary tone itself.


So those are what, those words describe, I think, what Barbara and I were trying for.


And also trying to avoid.

Yes it seems, a, kind of marvelous and typically concise summary—


You know, to—

And then she, and then she said something that ah, the, her essay is so brilliant, but ah, and one could quote it, but there is one thing where she says, um, which was also an inspiration ah, for the Review.


And it may sound banal.


The ah, the communication, the delight and importance of books, and ideas, books, ideas, culture itself, is the very least one would expect from a Journal. Devoted to new and old works. But beyond that, ah, the interest of the mind of the individual reviewing is everything.


The interest of the mind, of the individual reviewer, is everything.


That is what she thought. And I do believe that the interest of the mind of the reviewer, um, is what one thinks of as the central concern.


Now there’s one other thing that she said that I think I’m looking for. And which I think is, was again, was inspiring statement. And don’t forget that Lizzy, when we met after we decided to do the Review, we met in Harpers offices at night, with Barbara and Lizzy and myself, and we, there was a pile of books that had come in for review.



Yes we talked about this.

We found a number of books there. Um, but so Lizzy from the first was very much there, as she always was there, in the sense of a critic of what we did. And as an advisor. But you couldn’t help thinking that Lizzy would be reading this. And that it would, and that she would detect anything slack.

Right. So she was like the—

She was a conscience.

She was over your shoulder in a way.

Yeah, well, in a way, in a very general way, personally, but in a very vigorous way intellectually.


She was, how could you publish that? And how ah, but I’m looking for, I hope you have every page here, just hold on, one second more.


Where is that goddamn thing. 142, you’re sure you gave me the whole thing. 143. Now here it is. Ah, Nothing matters more, than the kind of thing, this is just a general point and it’s not even worth quoting, just that if you are an editor, it is, has its point. And what she said is, Nothing matters more than the kind of thing the editor would like, if he could have his wish. Editorial wishes always partly become true.

Yeah that’s a wonderful line.

So that is, that is ah, that is her idea. That what matters is what you would dream of if you could have it. And you know! And this is what we know—that we often, in the Review, can’t have it! We have many articles that are somewhat, we think are worthy, are decent, are very intelligent, but are not as, but not what we would dream of! Ah, and so, but we, that’s what we’re tempted to dream of such an article as the one by Zadie I told you about.

Mhm. Did you, Bob, let me turn this slightly toward the um, toward your editorial experience. Just because I was struck a moment ago, when you were talking about Barbara and her meticulousness. And it made me remember that you know, when I was, worked as an editor, um, at Harpers, at the Times, you know, beginning at the Review itself, that one of the things that struck me most is how one has to have infinite determination and meticulousness, and go over each draft.

Each one!

Again and again, each word with absolutely the same degree of intensity, and I found that immensely ah, challenging. And you’ve been doing that for a half a century. Fore more.

I can’t, you know, ah Mark, it’s very compulsive. In a sense that one simply can’t have a sentence saying The Key Problem. But in every paper that I see people are talking about the Key Problem. But we can’t!

What are other phrases, give me a handful of others.

Well we have a, we say—

In terms of.

We never say framework.

In terms of.

We never talk about something in terms of, unless there are clear terms.


The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid ah, context. Unless ah, there is a real, there is a good reason for it. The reason is that context has an original, honorable old meaning. It means the actual language surrounding a particular text. The context would be the lines of, lines of language and type right around the text.


The context. This has now been made into a, a very powerful and I think one of the most widely used metaphors, which has no become extended into contextualize. So for instance, we have a controversy coming up in the New York Review, in which they say your reviewer did not contextualize the murders carried out by John Brown. Now what does he mean? He means that there were other murders taking place in by slave owners.


That somehow, ah, it, one might say, justified ah the murders by John Brown. And that is called contextualizing. That’s an extreme case.


But the word context is become a very, very powerful metaphorical use of a very, very concrete word. And we try to avoid it.

So when we—

So we also try to avoid, and one of the most widely-used words in modern writing, that word is modernity.


Because if you look into what people mean by modernity, they could mean for example Machiavelli’s began modernity, by dividing by, by showing the difference between the considerations of politics and those of the church.


You could consider then do we have modernity in the English Revolution of 1688, which was meant to set England on a different course at the same time of the Reformation, another source of modernity, as well as, the Industrial Revolution, the Electronic Revolution, or the end of Divine Rule, or the lack of faith, the end of faith in religion.

Or modernism itself—

Well, and now you can add ten others.


But modernity is flung in by one writer after another, as a vague reference to some kind of modern phenomenon, without specifying what it is.


Context, modernity, framework, key. Key.


The ah, the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, consideration or political feud, on or off the table, it’s, we have for example, the question of whether or not the Palestinian State will ah, Independent Palestinian State, is on the table! Or is it off the table! On or off the table. So we have, this is a kind, and what does it mean? It means that it’s a convenient sloppy metaphor, which in a way avoids what the actual state is of consideration, of, for example, an independent Palestinian state. So on or off the table is something you don’t see in the New York Review! Because it’s a sloppy metaphor. And this constant use of very, very doubtful metaphors is something that we are, that Barbara and I both felt we should take some sort of stand against. And ah, and we did. And we have.

Let me, let me ask again though, I was talking about meticulousness, and the fact you still after 50 years ah, running the Review with Barbara and now yourself, you come into the office for ten or twelve hours a day, and go over every single galley and every single word, several times. And of course. And this is a source of—

Right, of course. Firstly I go over it when a manuscript arrives, and then when we have a, then we have it run out as a manuscript, and then we have the manuscript is looked at, always, always by one of our senior editors for checking dates, for and checking logic, too. But just general critical view, and then it comes back to me, and then I go over it again, and we have it set as a galley. Then it’s read as a galley by the senior editors, and then I read it finally and send it out.

I think this is—

And that is the first galley. And then it comes back corrected, and we do a second. So there really, we have the manuscript, we have our text, which is set, and which I go over, we then, and which I show one of the senior editors, and then we have a galley, which is read twice, once by them, once by me, and then we have yet another, that corrected galley, and then we have the final galley. So there are many, we have I suppose five stages in every manuscript. Now, some of them are so well written that one can go through it quickly and send it to be set right away as type. For example, I just received a marvelous review of a book on Eisenhower and Nixon by Russell Baker. A man of such brilliant, writes such brilliant prose, and such, with such concision, that ah, to me it’s a kind of model of ah, of how one can write about politics. And I have very little to suggest!

Mhm. Just one other question about this. You know it is I think a source of wonder to many people ah, how after fifty years you can maintain the same level of meticulousness and ah determination when it comes to these articles and indeed the job in general, that um, and this isn’t a very specific question, but I’m just wondering if you reflect at all, particularly in the face of others asking you, you know the number of hours, the fifty, sixty hours, more than that, a week, the very late nights, the determination, ah, to get these pieces right, the famous calls in the middle of the night about a semicolon, etcetera. Um, whether you have something to say about that kind of ah, endurance and determination—

Well I don’t feel that that kind of work is a matter of decision. I really don’t. I feel that there's simply no alternative to reading every piece very attentively and very critically. There's simply no alternative. It would be unthinkable. I always have a pile of them and I slowly work my way through them and if I'm at home I'll simply stay up until I do it. If I'm here at the office I'll stay until I finish it here.

I have here several questions about not only the future of the kind of books that the Review pays most attention to, but also just the future of the paper and whether you see it as a thriving future or whether we're at a twilight of a particular time.

I must tell you that my sense is that there are more books published than ever. I think that's true. Most people don't seem to understand that, but I believe it is the case, physically. I think if you look at the advertisements in the New York Review, just to take an example, from Yale Press, Harvard Press, Princeton Press, Stanford, Berkeley, etc., you see an enormous number of books on various serious subjects—not to mention the lists from Knopf, Viking, Harper, Doubleday and Random House. There are enormous numbers of book. A major problem for us is, as I see it, is the floods of books that do require consideration for review. That should be reviewed. We're constantly struggling to master the flood, to find the books that we should be reviewing out of many that we could review. So I don't think in any way—it's true that there are more and more e-books and there's no reason why… we flash them to our writers and they include them for review. It's true that among the books that we are considering and writing about are books precisely about the new electronic media, which is an essential fact of modern life. What is crucial that there is no falling off, in my view, of very, very serious books. I really feel that's very much the case. There are lots of scholars producing various works of history, philosophy, neuroscience, and a great many interesting novels by young writers—and many of them, it must be said, from places like Pakistan, India, as well as England and France. Or from Taiwan. There is, I think, I very burgeoning impulse that you can see in new publication, whether in fiction or non-fiction. That's my impression. I think it's true. I think someone told me that there are more books published than ever and more books bought than ever and more books read than ever.

How about the way you see the future of the Review. Do you have particular goals for it? Do you see a particular near-term—

--Well, you know, everyone will say that within 20 years a paper like the Review won't exist on paper. It may be there is a whole audience that prefers to read on paper, and that will be replaced as it is to some degree. I think (we'd have to check) that 9% of our subscribers are subscribing the electronic edition, which we have. And it is also true that our blogs, edited by Hugh Akin, are very widely read, and often by our regular contributors like Gary Wills and others. Many of the writers for the Review also write for our blog, short pieces often timed to the events of the day, which go up in real-time, immediately. Hugh Akin is in charge of that and from time to time I collaborate with him on a blog that might also be a piece for the Review.

Yes, I've done that with you with Obama and sweet potato pie, for example.


That began as a letter.

Did we run that as a blog post first?

Actually, it began as a letter to you, an email to you, that then went in as a blog and then after the McCain section was added it was published as a piece.

We did it as piece.

So it had several lives.

And that's what's happening with a number of pieces, not an enormous number—but in every issue there's something like that.

Do you, do you think that this number of electronic only subscribers will be only be steadily increasing?

I think so. I think that is because as numbers of people become of the loyal subscribers, who want to read the paper edition, may dwindle and therefore the younger subscribers may want the electronic edition. I was told by Ray just yesterday or two days ago that a recent mailing we've sent out, the results are very good. And that's largely the paper edition, but I believe, yes, inevitably there will be more and more people subscribing to the electronic edition, which looks like our website, like the New York Review, and they send in letters by email. It is true: practically all the letters we get now are by email. When started we got thousands of letters on paper.

I wonder—does the move to the electronic edition have any implication for ad revenue? I know that the NY Times has had great problems with this, because the advertisements on the electronic edition pay much less than those do in the paper edition. And so although the Times has more and more readers, the ad revenue has actually gone dramatically down. Does the Review have that same dynamic?

I believe Katherine Trice and Ray can answer that question. What I do know is that the advertising on paper does increase, yearly. The yearly count increases and it must be said that it is largely at certain times of the year, in the fall months from August until December. Then suddenly in the spring there's a lot more. But I wanted to tell you: Barbara and I have stayed out of all things having to do with advertising. We never involved ourselves in any kind of—in seek advertising. This is something of interest: Whitney Ellsworth, when he was publisher, would say, "You know, you could have a survey showing exactly who the readers are and what they like to read," and Barbara and I said, "No, we don't want to know!" We really are interested in the books that interest us and we have to hope that they'll interest the readers. I look at our advertising literature and I see that they have surveys, and they know a lot, but it's nothing that concerns me. There are books we think we need to review, and we send them out to people who we think would do a good job reviewing them. We also have these articles—I was very happy that the young Nat Rich living in New Orleans knew someone who knew some of these divers into the Gulf Stream and he wrote an article on the life of the diver. Well, he's now going on to do a series for us on other dangerous jobs in America.

That's excellent.

He has a whole thing about the most dangerous jobs and we're going to go on to other most dangerous jobs.

Well, Bob, listen I think this is wonderful and extremely helpful—

--You know, I always feel short of what they want because they would like a ... about the events of the world.  And they want to locate just where the Review stands. But that's the point: we stand in a state of admiration for certain writers—and that's the difficulty in answering the kinds of questions they were interested in.

Well, I think that's quite a good answer.

These people have a definite mission in life and a definite view of the world and they're getting people to carry out that view. And we think, I think, that there are people that are marvelous minds and writers who are brilliant and can write in strong ways and have very fine and original sensibilities, and one would like to know what they think.

Well, I think that's—

--That's the difference.

I think that's an extremely good answer. You know, I'm going to send this in to be transcribed and we'll be putting it together during the week. If you think of something you meant to say and didn't, just send it to me.

I will. I did want to give you those four words, the four bad words and the four good words.

The four bad words and the four good words…

[The] four good words and four bad words.

Yes, that's extremely useful I think. I think it's very good and,

And you know, Mark (and this is not for anyone but you), but that list of Lizzie's things, the light little articles—you know, that has become the obsession of many magazines.


They feel they must do it. The New York Times, the New Republic, New York Magazine. They always have to have very light things. With lists and pictures and pictures and lists. Everyone does it. Everyone does it. And I don't think people can even remember them, but people are fascinated by them, and they study them and you have funny diagrams pointing to celebrities.

Well, she was prophetic about that, as in so much else.

Right. She was right in the faint dissension, the light little article. She was so shrewd as seeing these as the dangers.

She was. Shrewd is the word. That piece is remarkable, that first piece of hers which I looked at. An extraordinary piece of writing.

It is! It really is. And it had this extraordinary sequel which we won't go into, but I got a letter from Cass Canfield, Sr., the chairman of Harper and Row—a charming man—and he said: "I want to congratulate you on 'Writing in America.' It's given Harper a lift." So that was nice. Then of course when Lizzie's piece was published, the gang at the New York Times Book Review and some others were very angry, very angry. And Harper and Row was ... a big publishing house. They want their books reviewed. So Cass wrote a letter to the editor, which we had to publish, saying Miss Hardwick is condescending to all those people who love the New York Times Book Review. And Lizzie wrote this marvelous reply, saying: "Mr. Canfield evidently thinks he carries with him the common reader. I have no doubt he does, and I see no reason to trust the common reader."

Amazing. [Laughs heartily] That's amazing.

So, anyway, that was fun. I told her, "Lizzie, we're told that Cass is writing this letter" and she said, "Good! I can't wait."

She was really marvelous. Just enchanting.

Well, listen: if you need to ask me anything or want me to do anything, you tell me.

All right, well thanks so much Bob. It was terrific.


(Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath)

© 2017 Mark Danner