Letras Libres Interview: On Robert Silvers

On Robert Silvers
Interview with Mark Danner

How did you first knew Robert Silvers and, eventually, how did you start working for him?
I was a young college student. I had just graduated from Harvard and I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. And because I didn’t knew what I was doing, one night I put a call to the New York Review of Books thinking that I would leave a message, because it was 8:30 in the evening, on a Friday. And I thought I would leave a message saying “I’m interested in, possibly, coming in...,” but I didn’t think that I would talk with anyone. The phone, to my shock, was picked up by Barbara Epstein, who of course was working at 8:30 on a Friday night, as was Bob. She proceeded to interview me on the telephone, and after about twenty minutes she said, “Well, come down next Monday and meet us.” I came down and I was completely charmed by Barbara Epstein, who is the most charming of people and then I was introduced to Bob, who, at the time, I guess was about in his late 40s, wearing a beautiful tailored suit, very beautifully trimmed out, very handsome, looking like the classic New York editor from a movie. I had brought a paper along that I had done in Harvard for professor Stanley Hoffmann, who was a New York Review contributor. And Bob proceeded to speed-read it; he flipped through it and read it in front of my eyes in about thirty seconds. And he said, “Well...” It was about the Salvadorean civil war, which I thought I knew a lot about. And he said, “Well, Mark, the left, talk about the Salvadorean left. What really is the ‘left’ when we talk about El Salvador?” He proceeded into a very minute analysis of the various parties on the left in El Salvador. His knowledge of the country completely astonished me. That was my first meeting with him. At a certain point, abruptly, even though I thought we were having a good conversation, he got up and said, “Well, perhaps you’ll hear from us,” or something like that; and then he left the room. I thought I had blown it, I thought they weren’t interested in hiring me and I thought, “Oh my god, I have to go back to Boston.” Two hours later I got a phone call offering me the job. I was shocked. It turned out to be the best job I ever had.
I worked as an editorial assistant, one of three assistants he had at the time. And there were two shifts. You could work from nine to five. Or you could work from two to ten. Because Bob would come into the office at about ten and he would stay until midnight, 1am or 2am. And I quickly came to prefer the late night shift because you would work with him alone. And he would be sitting at his desk and he would be calling, you’d place calls for him to writers, but mostly he was editing manuscripts and he would do it with a pencil and a cigarillo in his mouth, spreading ashes everywhere. Occasionally lighting he waste paper basket on fire, which happened several times when I was there. And when he was done editing page by page of a manuscript, he would throw the pages into the outbox and it was the assistant’s job to retype them. It was like a master class. It was like a PhD in how to edit and how to write, because you saw what he did.
He was a real artist as an editor. He was able to rewrite a piece so that the writer had no idea that it had been touched. It was really remarkable. I would watch him completely rewrite someone, and because I was retyping it I saw everything he did and very often it was a writer who was very well known, a great writer. And he would do this rewriting, it would then be put in galleys and he would put this note on the galleys, which would say: “Dear So and So, Thank you for your very strong piece. You’ll see we have one or two suggestions. Please send changes soonest. Best, Bob.” My job was to put it in Federal Express or DHL, because this was before the Internet. And I would be amazed because the person would call and say, “Well, I’m surprised, he made no changes.” But the thing would have been completely rewritten! He was so good at imitating how the writer’s wrote. He was an artist. He was really an artist with the pencil.

In an interview with Brian Lamb–asked if he wrote–Mr. Silvers’ answer was: “No, I just edit [...] Being an editor is a job in itself.” What kind of editor was he?
I think there are several things. One was his pure skill with the pencil, which I’ve just described. Second was his taste: that is he really had impeccable taste when picking writers he wanted to write for him. He was a great discoverer of writers. Whatever the given issue–suddenly there was the Bosnian War, he immediately would find some person who was a great writer covering Bosnia–, and he did this time after time with all kinds of different stories. He had great taste. He also was brilliant at making an author want to write for him. He had a way of persuading people to deliver their work. Because, of course, one thing that an editor does is not only to assign something but get somebody to turn it in. He was wonderful at it, he would send out clippings and other things and say: “I thought this might be of interest for your ISIS piece. Best, Bob.” And you would get this kind of endless stream of little reminders in effect that he was thinking about you and thinking about the piece.
There are this various things to being an editor. One is being good with the pencil; one is taste when it comes to picking writers. And he had an impeccable ability to send the writer a book on a surprising subject that would in fact be secretly close to the writer’s heart. In other words, he knew writers not just for their vocations, what they usually wrote about, but their avocations, their personal interests. He was very good at matching writer to subject. He would send Frank Kermode, the literary critic, a book on Beethoven, because he happened to know that Frank was a great Beethoven fancier. He would do that continually. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire would get books on opera, because Bob knew what a fervent Verdi fan he was, and he was great at doing that, at playing at the left hand, as it were. He also, as I said before, was wonderful at getting people to turn in their work by continually sending them things that would remind them that he was expecting something and that he was thinking about them. And finally, he was just a wonderful editor line by line. Writers trusted him, because if he wanted to make a late change or something, he always called. He was famous for his Christmas Eve phone calls.

The night calls from Mr. Silvers just to discuss a certain semicolon or a word are famous. Do you, as a Review contributor, have any personal experience with that editorial thoroughness? It seems he had an obsessive passion for detail.
He would call me all the time, even at odd times, like midnight, because he had a question about one word; or wanted to warn me on something that Trump had said. I was writing on Trump and something he had said just ten minutes before on television Bob thought should be mentioned in the piece. He was scrupulous, not to say obsessive of making sure everything could be as absolutely good as it could possibly be. And he was devoted in a way that I never experienced before. He would be in the office, go to the opera and, once it have finished, he would take the cab back to the office at ten thirty or eleven o’clock at night and be there until two in the morning.
I live half the time in California, and at ten o’clock at night, if I’d be working on a piece and would be frustrated about it, I would pick up the phone and call the office and he would answer, because he was still there, working at his desk. You could find him there at all hours of the day because he was devoted to his work, really to his vocation in a way that I just can’t think of any comparison.
I would call him at all hours. There were a series of pieces on Bosnia during the nineties, I covered the Balkan Wars and some of the pieces were thirty thousand words, they were immense pieces, and we would be editing them at two, three, four in the morning, over the phone. I was saying this to the publisher of the Review today: I remember my back hurting, I was so tired, we were just going through the notes. There’d be thirty or forty notes in the piece, and he’d want to make sure all the notes were congruent, that note 13 was actually going to the right 13 and so on. And I just remembered saying, “Bob, my back is killing me, I have to go lie down. Can we finish this tomorrow?” And this would be like 3:30 in the morning and he would say, “No, we can’t, we have to do it now.” I remember I eventually had this terrible back pain and it turned out to be pneumonia. I was exhausted going into these things. It was like an endurance contest. At the time, he must have been in his sixties, probably. He was just an amazing figure.

Did he keep this rhythm throughout all these years?
Yes, he did. He was one of the founders of the Review, in 1963. He edited it for 54 years. Barbara Epstein, his co-editor, died in 2006, so the last eleven years of his life, which would be from the age of 66 to 87, Silvers edited it all by himself. This last decade, the last decade of his life, he was still working those hours. There was a bedroom, a little tiny bedroom in the New York Review offices where he would often stay. There is really nobody to compare him to when it comes to devotion. And a lot of it was spent editing, but also he’d be there looking at galleys, he’d be looking at books to review. He just knew what was coming out, the books that were coming out with amazing thoroughness.

Roberto Calasso said that being an editor was some sort of art. The decisions and taste of the editor, the idea of creating a catalogue. For him not every editor elevates the edition to an art. Do you think Robert Silvers did elevate the editorial process to a form of almost literary art?
Yes. I actually just did a little tribute to him that’s going to run in the New York Review and one of the phrases is “The artist as editor; the editor as artist.” I think if Bob didn’t elevate the edition to an art form, then no one has, ever. He certainly did. He brought art not only into the editorial process of working on words, words on the page, but the editorial process of composing a publication, putting together the larger work made up of different areas of interest from politics to science to the Classics to literature to opera to the Internet. He took in the digital world very much and published some wonderful pieces: Zadie Smith wrote on Facebook, a classic piece on digital culture.
If we are talking of Robert Silvers as an artist I think that is part of it, that he was able to put together, week after week, month after month, year after year, these beautifully composed issues which spoke to every interest and while keeping up right to the edge of things when it came to politics, also delved into public policy, delved into literature, opera and the Classics. So I think the art form comes not only from the use of a pencil and the dealing with writers but also with the putting together of the publication, which he did so brilliantly for such a long time.

Every issue of the “paper”, as he called the Review, was almost an anthology. It was that editorially detailed, almost a collage that is a very important piece in the American intellectual world.
I think that is true. And it reflected his mind and his taste in a way that few other magazines do.

At The Fifty Year Argument, Avishai Margalit said that magazines didn’t change the world, “but they shape a certain kind of climate of ideas.” What was Mr. Silvers’ idea for the Review? What role did Mr. Silvers thought a publication such as the Review had to play in American intellectual life–and in a broad sense, in culture?
I wouldn’t try to answer that kind of question for him. He always insisted that he edited the Review, in a sense, for himself. He considered himself the ideal reader, someone who is interested in many different things, from politics to all sorts of other interests at quite high level.
I don’t know that he had strong views about what role the paper had in intellectual life. As I say, he rather edited for himself. There were some people who reflected a lot about the Review’s politics, and there was controversy about that. I think if you look at the history of the Review what’s distinctive about its politics is its resolute support for human rights. He published really from early on reports on human rights that would come from Human Rights Watch, and Helsinki Watch, and various other organizations and people who worked for various other organizations that were at the vanguard of human rights writing, and human rights reporting. That really began in very dramatic form in the mid seventies. But the Review, even further back than that, very early on, was critical of the human rights record of the Castro regime, for example. So it has a long record of interest in China and its performance when it comes to human rights. So I think that gets closer than anything else to his interest, to his political interest. I think that the Review’s continual emphasis is one of his real legacies.

The Review was one of the few American publications that from the start condemned the Iraq War in 2003.
The Review was one of the few that did condemn it, frankly. Most of the center liberal publications supported the war. The New Yorker supported the war, for God sakes. The New Republic did, The New York Times in effect did. The Review really is kind of alone when it comes to a moderate liberal publication that really was against the war from the beginning and published a lot of critiques, and he published mine, and then he had mine on the war. I think it is remarkable that Bob Silvers, in my opinion, in the last ten years of his life, didn’t lose a step. The Review was still aggressive, was still recruiting writers, was still leading the way on very diverse issues. And he was in his mid eighties! I don’t know that there is any parallel to that, when it comes to the history of magazines and editors.

In an interview, Robert Silvers was asked about the things he disliked of his job. He replied: “The guilt of have missing things. That is a burden of an editor, I think. What are we missing?” Do you think there were subjects, authors, issues that Mr. Silvers missed?
The answer to that has to be yes, simply because any editor is going to miss certain things. One could look over the Review and say it doesn’t adequately cover such and such, or this and that. I think one would always have a discussion about the Review and what its focus is and what other focuses could be. But I think it is very fair to say that the Review reflects the interests of a very highly cultivated, highly educated, broadly interested polymath. It reflects the broad interests of Robert Silvers. And no person is going to be interested in absolutely everything. It just isn’t humanly possible, and it is also of course not editorially possible. So when he said that, it is kind of a paradox. It shows his desire to take in everything, but of course the laws of the universe say that you can’t do that. But it certainly expresses the desire, a desire he had. And I think he had that till the end. The amazing thing is he was editing the Review up until just before he died, at the age of 87, and that he remained fascinated, interested and excited about things right up until the end. I don’t know of anything you could cite as a parallel to that. It seems absolutely unparalleled.

Mr. Silvers often said that the Review was a very personal publication. For 54 years it have been a publication that cover his and of Barbara Epstein’s interests. However, their interests, as you said, were very diverse. Was this general curiosity one of the Review’s virtues or was it a flaw?
It is certainly a virtue. Anyone can look at the Review and say, “Well, it should have more of this, or it should have more of that.” Any sort of cultivated reader is going to have opinions on things that aren’t there that should be. But the amazing thing to me is what is there. In every issue you’d have a great piece on art. In every issue you’d have a great piece on the Classics. In every issue you’d have a politics piece, and a science piece. And usually written by people who are terrific writers and authorities in their fields. So, did it cover some areas better than others? Absolutely, there is no question about that. But I think he did a really extraordinary job of covering the landscape of intellectual life. I can’t think of a publication that did it better.

Is the New York Review of Books just a “book review”?
I don’t think it’s just a book review. I think books where the way to get interesting opinions and interesting essays. In every issue of the Review there would be one or two pieces that are book reviews and then the reporting or essays that aren’t book reviews. In fact, a lot of what looks like book reviews aren’t book reviews either. The books are actually occasions for pieces. It is certainly much more than a book review.

Mary McCarthy was sent to report from Saigon and Hanoi to cover the Vietnam War for the Review; V.S. Naipaul reported from Argentina and Congo; James Fenton was sent to Ethiopia; Joan Didion to El Salvador and Miami; you were just yesterday in Beirut...
That is right. The Review sent me to the Balkans and to cover Donald Trump. It sent me also to Iraq, where I reported for the Review. And it has sent all around the world a lot of other people. So it is certainly more beyond a simple book review.

At Letras Libres we think that Robert Silvers was one of the most important actors in the global intellectual public sphere. Enrique Krauze called him a “cultural hero.” What do the cultural world–this borderless community–lost with Mr. Silvers’ passing?
The cultural world lost a huge figure. A dominant figure in intellectual life. He was responsible for bringing together a great number of the best writers to think about issues, many of which they never thought about before. If it hadn’t been for Bob Silvers, V.S. Naipaul would never have gone to Argentina and written about the return of Eva Perón. And the fact is that one could compose a list of so and so would never written such and such that would comprise an entire book of it’s own when it comes to Bob Silvers. There are enormous numbers of pieces and of books that never would have been written if he wasn’t around. And God know how many books have been dedicated to him: I am sure it must be in the scores of hundreds. Without Bob, Joan Didion would never written Salvador. That book was Bob’s idea. In fact, I was the young assistant at the time sending her clippings to El Salvador. That was my job: sending her updates and so on.
We could do a list: Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag... Many other bright names in the intellectual landscape would not have done a lot of the things that they are best known for doing where if not for the invisible hand of Bob Silvers. It is an enormous lost. But I think we need to be grateful that he was here and that he lived a long life of 87 years in dedicating so much of it to enriching the intellectual life of the planet. I think that Enrique Krauze couldn’t be more on point by calling him an “intellectual hero.” I think that is accurate.

How will the New York Review of Books continue without Silvers?
I think the Review will continue. It have a fine publisher in Rea S. Hederman and publications do continue after their founders past from the scene. This will be a particularly difficult transition to ensure, but I have confidence in Rae Hederman and the Hederman family and I think they will put the Review in good hands. They will no be able to find another Bob Silvers, but they going to have to find someone else. That’s the publisher’s job. I think the Review will continue, I think its too important a publication not to. ~

Mark Danner discusses Robert Silvers with Patricia Nieto of Letras Libres.

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