|Editing the New York Review of Books: A Conversation with Robert B. Silvers|
|April 28, 1999|
ORVILLE SCHELL, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley: There aren’t too many people in this world that I really like to listen to, and I would say that the two gentlemen sitting here are in that rare category. Before I introduce Mark, who will introduce Bob, let me just give you one thought – why the New York Review is as important as it is. I think there are two ways that publications can be in the world, one of them is you go out and do a market survey and you find out what you can sell people, you find out what will be financially viable and then you try to create a magazine, a book, a newspaper around those criteria.
And then there’s this other way, which is actually a very retrograde, backward, old-fashioned way, which is actually not unlike the creative process itself. You have an idea, you have conception or conception develops, what it is that you’d like to do, that’s worth doing. And then you go out and you invent it, and in the process you even invent your audience, you create your audience, rather than let your audience create you. And I think for me that what makes the New York Review of Books so unusual – that it isn’t responding exactly to a marketplace, it is trying to in effect be itself and create a marketplace.
Now, maybe Bob will disagree, maybe I’m completely overboard with my flattery. I think it is a singular in this rather defoliated world of commercially sensitive publications, something that has kept its head, kept its way. It’s not surprising because it’s never had another editor, which is very unique.
Now, the other gentleman here, Mark Danner, is a teaching fellow here at school and the human rights center. Great teacher, great writer. Some of you may have managed to get through all ten parts of his Kosovo series in Bob’s wonderful publication, some of you may not. And Mark actually began, as many of you students might aspire to begin, at the NYRB, moved on to Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, now a staff writer at The New Yorker. And even more important he’s here at Berkeley. And without further adieu, Mark, I’ll pass the baton on to you to introduce Bob and commence this event.
MARK DANNER: Thank you. Thanks very much. Thank you all for coming. Bob, welcome to Berkeley. This is an extremely triumphant moment for me, I must say. Because as Orville mentioned, I began my career, as we call these things, “career,” at the New York Review of Books when I was, I guess, twenty, I think. This was in 1981 and my job was editorial assistant, which, of course, there is a more technical term for that in the New York publishing industry, for the New York Review job – it’s called slave.
I – don’t worry, Bob – I thought I would take a minute or two to talk about beginning there, because I know there are a lot of students in the audience, and it is May, or almost May, and they are splitting their time between thinking about final papers and wondering what in God’s name are they going to do with their lives and how are they going to earn a living. I wanted to say that about twenty years ago or eighteen years ago, I was in a very similar position and I responded by constantly using the New York Review of Books to procrastinate. I would constantly read it – that and The New York Times – and find that I could read it completely all the way through by the time the next issue arrived. And I would also emanate this contempt for my colleagues who were scurrying around, as I thought of it, writing resumes, doing interviews, I thought this was utterly contemptuous behavior.
And cut to two months later, three months later, in the middle of August, I found myself in Cambridge, MA, lying on my back in an apartment off of Harvard Square, all my friends had left for their jobs by this time of course, and I was living on pork fried rice delivered from the Hong Kong Restaurant, disgusting place. I got to know the delivery man very well. I was reading the New York Review in the morning, in the evening, and then I would go to sleep. Now if I knew then what I know now, I would say that I was deeply depressed. At the time I thought I was resting.
In any event, one night my dad called me and said: What has become of all the resumes you have sent out? Of course I had not only not sent out any, but I had proudly refused to write one. And I said: Well, I don’t know, nobody’s answering. And he was very annoyed with me, this was a Friday evening, it was twilight. When I got off the phone I felt a surge of guilt and I dialed the number for the New York Review of Books. And to my utter and horrid astonishment, Barbara Epstein answered the telephone. I expected there would be fifty people at least to go through, and of course the place wouldn’t be open anyway. Barbara, who’s a woman of immense charm, Bob’s co-editor and founding editor, interviewed me rapidly over the phone – said who are you, what did you do, what courses did you take – then: Come down Monday. And I hung the phone up and thought: Oh my God, how did this happen?
Well, I went down Monday to New York. I was wearing, I remember vividly, a powder-blue sport coat, a red tie, red candy-striped, red and white shirt, and white pants. And it’s a tribute to the liberality of the New York Review that they didn’t sort of say, Get out immediately, when they saw me. But Barbara interviewed me and the only thing I remember from that interview was that she was incredibly charming, I fell in love with her immediately. And also that I had quoted Auden, I made the mistake of quoting Auden, and she said something like, Ahh Wystan, and had begun talking about him. Of course, she had known him very well. And I just, Oh my God.
And I went into the next room and Bob came in to talk to me, and he sat down and I had brought along this paper, I still hadn’t written a resume. I brought along this paper I had done on El Salvador, and he proceeded to flip through it in front of me. And seemed to read it before my eyes, to my astonishment, and said, “Mark, the left. What is the Left in El Salvador?” We proceeded to get into this big argument about it. And before I knew it, he had said, “Well, we’ll call you,” and off he went. And I thought: My God, I’ve blown that. And later in the day I got a call that they indeed wanted to hire me.
Just a few more brief words about what the place was like then. The New York Review, I had expected to be this grandiose place, but actually when you opened the door, it looked like a warehouse. In fact, warehouse is…There were piles everywhere of New York Reviews, issues going back twenty years. There were piles of manuscripts. There were piles of these bottles for the water cooler. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere were these stacks of books, stacks that were going back and forth like this, almost falling. Obelisks into which people had built the books. Books along the floor – to someone who likes books, and I’m afraid I do, it was a wonderful, paradisical place.
Nonetheless, it could be dangerous. I do remember sitting and Bob would be talking on occasion to someone who came in, a VIP, as we slaves would refer to them. Someone would come in, an ambassador or an assistant secretary of state, somebody like that would be talking to Bob, and Bob would be talking and this person would be looking over Bob’s head like this and pointing, and the books would be swaying back and forth. And I thought of it sort of as the ice towers on Everest that would crash on you. And one day, and I’ll end with this, this is still my greatest moment of my life. Bob, who smoked at the time, he doesn’t any more, was speaking I think to the ambassador of Israel if I’m not mistaken, and he flicked his cigar behind him. Well, it happened to land in a very full wastepaper basket. And the first thing I noticed, I heard a sniffing sound. I looked up and this poor man, this wonderful diplomat – very distinguished – was ashen-faced and pointing with both hands. Bob, of course, was just talking away. And my colleague, Shelley Wanger, was looking over at me, and flames were shooting up. So this is where I realized, as Nixon would say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And I walked up very nonchalantly, no hurry, grasped the wastepaper basket, and walked out the door, just like I did it every day. And of course immediately afterward we ran and dumped the water cooler in. But that is the kind of self-control that you have to have to be in this business.
Now, let me go through very briefly identifying a bit who Bob Silvers is. He was born in 1929 outside of New York City. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947. For those of you who have trouble with mathematics, you will notice that’s eighteen years, seventeen years later. So, work hard. You’ve already missed the chance on that I’m afraid. He worked then as a press secretary for Chester Bowels, then-governor of Connecticut. (Many are probably too young to remember, he was a very strong politician who later served in the Kennedy administration, the State Department.) He then went to Paris, where he lived from 1952 to ‘59. He was in the army during those years, serving at SHAPE Headquarters, NATO headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander. He also at that time became close to the Paris Review crowd, or the Paris Review, and he became eventually the Paris Review Paris editor, in 1956. He returned to the United States in 1959 to become Associate Editor at Harper’s Magazine. He edited a book, Writing in America. He translated, Le G from French.
And then, in 1963, Barbara Epstein, her then-husband Jason Epstein, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, came together to found the New York Review of Books. In the first two issues – well, it’s really rather remarkable – contained, this is very much a partial list but I can’t help reading it out, the work of Elizabeth Hardwick, Dwight McDonald, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy, W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, John Berryman, Irving Howe, Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin, William Styron, Alan Tate, Richard Wilbur, Edmund Wilson, Frank Kermode – those are only the ones I remember, which is, I think you’ll agree, an incredible list of people.
There is now, as of 1991, an Italian edition of the NYRB, which is partly translated articles and partly original Italian articles on which Bob sits on the editorial committee. He edited the first anthology, Thirty Years in the New York Review, and a wonderful collection called Hidden Histories of Science, which is again, consisted of pieces from the New York Review. He has been a member of the executive board of the Pen American Center, trustee of the New York Public Library, American Academy in Rome, a member of the Century Club, Council of Foreign Relations – many, many other honors. And Barbara and Bob were recently honored at the Authors Guild.
I’m going to start with a rather simple question, and one I hope is going to be oriented toward the students in this audience, which is how and at what point did you decide that you would want to become an editor?
ROBERT B. SILVERS, Co-Editor, New York Review of Books: Well, Mark, I want say first how nice it is to be here with Mark, an old friend and a writer whom I admire so much. Well, you know, about editing, I fell into it in a way, I worked as a writer for the United Press in Washington at one point, and the Paris Review. That was a rather lively paper when I was in Paris, and I met the people in Paris when I was in the Army. I had some friends who had a publishing house in New York, and they said, well, you’re going to Paris, why don’t you keep an eye on the publishing there for us. I was working at SHAPE headquarters and I would be able to go into Paris a lot and do research at the Bibliotheque Nationale. And I called on these people in publishing houses, looking into French books at the time. It was called the Noon Day Press. And met the Paris Review people and liked them very much. And they said: Look, well, you’re getting out of the Army, we need a managing editor, why don’t you do that?
And so, I was entranced by the thought, because you could live in Paris on the GI Bill, rather well. And Paris in the Fifties was a particularly beautiful place, it was rather much more poor and run down. Just particularly for that reason it was immensely accessible and undeveloped and unbuilt up in many ways. It was like an old, ?-Paris. And so it was completely attractive to me, the idea of staying on and going, went to various French Universities, the ENA and so on, and supported myself while going to school by becoming the managing editor of the Paris Review.
We had a lot to do in the way of reading, and stories, and doing art portfolios, and interviews. And I found as some of these nonfiction pieces came in, they obviously needed some kind of attention, that I could deal with them, I could see that perhaps the entire last part of something could be dropped. And so, it seemed, I think in life, if you find you can do something at all and you have a chance at it, you’re very lucky.
So I was very lucky to do it, and I worked at the Paris Review, and then at another paper called Forum, which was addressed to the youth of the world, which was political articles, particularly about the Third World. And at that point, someone from Harpers Magazine said come and work for us in New York, and we’ll pay your way back and we’ll give you a stipend to get a room in New York. So I thought, although my life in Paris was immensely enjoyable and agreeable – I was drawn to many French friends – that, A, no one else was likely to pay my way back, and B, if you’re an editor, you should probably have a crack at editing in your own language, in your own county, rather than being an expatriate forever.
So, I thought I would try it, and I did. And one of the first things, early things, I got to do there, is relevant to our paper, which was, we had a special issue, on writing in America. And the editor at Harper’s, John Fisher, said: Well, you know about writing, why don’t you do something on writing in America? So I put together an issue of Harper’s, a “special issue,” with articles by Alfred Kazin, and Robert Brustein, and the article that meant the most to me, was an article on book reviewing. And it was by Elizabeth Hardwick, and she was the wife of Robert Lowell, and she had written several articles for me at Harper’s. She is one of the most brilliant and interesting writers in America, and was someone I immensely admired for her command of prose. And I asked her to write on book reviewing and she wrote an article which was extremely provocative and bold because it said that the state of book reviewing, at that moment, in America, 1960, was very dreary, mediocre, dull and perfunctory. And that it lacked the literary spirit itself, that what we needed was a paper that would give books and ideas, the length, the attention, the interest they deserve. And in doing this article she quoted from various reviews from the New York Times and from other papers, and she revealed that there was, as we all know, a certain kind of reviewer’s language in which prose, let us say, is not always vivid.
So, I was very excited to publish that article, and I noted that when we published it that many people were divided about it. Because the Harpers publishing company, which in fact supported and financed Harper’s Magazine, was terribly worried about it, because they were publishing all of these books. And at Harpers publishing company, the editor, the man who was in charge was very charming, Cass Canfield, wrote a letter to Harper’s, to the very paper he owned, saying that Ms. Hardwick, for all her brilliance, had gone too far. She had gone too far because many of the books that were reviewed in these perfunctory and mediocre reviews were in fact purchased and sought after and admired by the public.
And Elizabeth Hardwick then wrote a reply and she said, “Mr. Canfield believes he carries with him the common reader, and he does. But I see no reason, in the current literary situation, to trust the common reader.” That was an episode and it was very much on my mind that book reviewing was a subject that one could be quite excited about, that there was some unfulfilled need for it. And I did talk to someone at that time about having something like an American TLS, or an American back pages of the New Statesman, in which V.S. Pritchett wrote a brilliant literary article every week.
And of course, people said: Well, that’s the most absurd idea. We have Saturday Review, we have the New York Sunday Times, there’s no advertising for such a paper, there’s no demand for such a paper. And you could always have a fugitive Greenwich Village broadsheet, but no one will – it could never be a going operation. So, that was the end of that.
Then, there was a newspaper strike in New York; it was in 1962. The linotypers and topographers of the New York Times, refusing to accept automation, they went on strike. No New York Times, no New York Times Book Review. At which point, my friend Jason Epstein rang me and said I’ve been talking with Elizabeth and Robert Lowell and I have pointed out to them that if anyone ever wants to start a book review with not a penny of capital, this is the only time, because all the publishers in New York are going crazy, they’re going mad. The books keep coming out inexorably, but there are no reviews. The authors are undone by it, they are pleading to have reviews. There are no reviews. The books are coming out unnoticed. Therefore, if you have any kind of plausible project for a book review, the publishers of New York will simply have to all advertise. They’ll all have to take a page, because, for whatever other reason, they’ll have to show their writers that they’re doing something.
And so, I was excited by this, and the fact that Lizzie, Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, who are friends of mine, wanted to join this and support it, and that Jason’s wife Barbara, who’s a friend of mine, was willing to throw herself into it, made me think that it would be a good thing to do, to go to the editor and say, I would like to try this. And I went to him. And I said, there’s a chance to start a new book review, I’d like to give it a try. And he said, “Excellent, try that. It’ll be good experience, you’ll be back in two months.” He couldn’t have been nicer.
So then we got together, and we met at Harper’s offices at night. And because there were these piles of books that had come in for review. So we could all sit around and say who should do this who should do that. And of course the principle we followed was simply – and I hope it’s a principle that we want to follow still, and try to follow still – is in looking at each book, we thought: Well, who would be the, literally, the best person in America, in the world, to write on this book? Who would we dream of writing on it?
Now, there’s a book on Hemmingway. Would it be interesting, and wouldn’t it be rather special, to have Norman Mailer write on it. Because we know that Norman Mailer is capable of very incisive literary criticism if he wants, and we know that he has always been obsessed by Hemingway, so wouldn’t it be interesting to have him do that? And Lizzie knew that Mary McCarthy had been interested in the work of Burroughs. It was new to me, I didn’t think that Mary McCarthy would be reading Burroughs. But Lizzie knew. And she said, “Let’s ask Mary to do Burroughs.” And she did the most marvelous article on his…
So the essence of it was that we sat around and we then, by night, we rang up all these people. We said: Look, we’re starting this new book review, it’s during the strike but it’s not to do with the strike really, it’s to show what a different kind of book review can be. And would you review this book? We can’t pay, and we need it in three weeks. But would you do it?
DANNER: Literally, didn’t pay anything.
SILVERS: There was no consideration of that because we had no money. It was all based on Jason’s fantastic notion that we would support the entire operation by selling advertising, all to be done. So Barbara and I set out during the day with a maquette we had had drawn up, a kind of very rough sketch of a magazine. We knew it had to look like a newspaper because we knew that newspaper printing is the cheapest. And we knew that the people who did the Village Voice, for instance, would be willing to print it. They would be potential printers. But we hadn’t even got a printer yet, but we did have a maquette, a mechanical you could see.
And we went around to these publishers. Well, of course I knew some of these publishers, and Barbara knew some of them because Jason was a leading publisher. And we went from publishing house to publishing house with our maquette and our growing list of people who had said they would review: Auden, Mary, Norman Mailer, Bill Styron, etc. I knew that Bill Styron was working on a novel about slave rebellion, and it turned out there was a book just coming in on slave rebellion. So it seemed to me, if there was one book review he would ever write, which is not his usual thing, it would be that. And he was very happy to do it. And so these people were miraculously willing to join him, I think, to some degree we knew them, and to some degree they saw the moment. They felt that the New York Times Book Review and other book reviews were rather dull, rather dreary. They were not worthy of what a literary life should be. So they pitched it.
To make this story short, we found a printer. Robert Lowell was willing to sign a paper guaranteeing payment against the contracts we had now assembled from these publishers, we had a pile of contracts, for a page or a half page of ads. The printer was willing to accept this guarantee and we wrote out our issue, we laid it out in Lizzie’s flat. The girl who had done this, Lucy Donaldson, who had been the makeup specialist at Harper’s, volunteered to come in and lay it out. And she did it on this kitchen table. And we took this layout to the printer and he set it in type and printed it within a week. And we took, I think there were 60,000 copies, and we put it all over New York easily because all the distributors were willing to take it. The newsstands were hungry and greedy for anything that might sell. But Jason had another brilliant idea, which was to make bundles of these papers and send them to all the college book shops, with a note saying, “This is a new paper. It’s meant to show what a new kind of book review might be. You’re on your honor. If you sell it, send us the money.” And Jason was able to get a list of these book shops from Random House, and, lo and behold, the whole thing sold out rather quickly. Well, there had been no book reviews, etc.
Then we put a note in, “This is not meant just to fill the strike, it’s meant to show you what a book review might be. If you want us to go on, tell us.” So, we got over a thousand letters. Well, once we got these thousand letters, it was rather easy for us to raise money. Because if you’ve done something like that, and people have bought it, then potential investors are easier to come up with the amount of money. We raised that summer not a huge amount of money, but the key in raising that money was that – and again Jason with his brilliant idea and perception of business had the idea that the stock must be divided into two groups. The groups that put up the money would have one set of stock, and we, who had conceived the paper would have another set of stock, and total control. And these people were kind enough, or naive enough, to accept this scheme.
In my view, that was the quintessential point for our paper, is that we did have this absolute and total control. We could do anything we wanted, publish anything we wanted, we were not beholden to a publisher, to a foundation, to a government subsidy, to a university, to anybody. We could do exactly what we wanted as long as we could pay the printer. We took little salaries for ourselves, enough to keep going. And we did have this stock of money that we had raised from these people of good will, who had paid for their stock, and thought, I think, some of them, that they actually might do all right on them. And they did, ultimately.
But I would…We did, having this control, not feel intimidated, and not feel daunted if we wanted to do something that seemed to us interesting, even though it might not seem particularly popular or usual. And so we had a very long article on subjects such as the thought of Claude Levi-Strauss, which at that time was terribly a central question in intellectual life having to do with structuralism and Levi-Strauss’s idea. And if it was an article of 12,000 words and we thought it was interesting, we were able to do it. And there was no one to say, there was no publisher to say: Well, you’re not carrying with you the common reader, or something like that.
And that is, I believe, I hope not too boringly to go on about these origins of our paper because I think they’re key to whole thing. Because that we’re essentially, we’re literary people, I worked at a literary magazine, Barbara had worked on the Partisan Review, we felt the backing and encouragement of Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, and Jason himself is a great a publisher, a friend of Auden. And we set out with an idea that prose, great writers, literary standards, intellectual seriousness were the premises in which the paper started. We were not trying to compete with any commercial publication. And we were tremendously lucky in these origins because we had this independence, this freedom to do what we want.
DANNER: I’d like to,- I feel like we need now to, like in many old movies to go, “wheew, wheew,” with the calendar months flying by. Here we are thirty-five years later, and The New York Review, I was telling my class the other day, one of the most extraordinary things about it is that it makes a profit, almost from the beginning, or really from the beginning.
SILVERS: Three years. It took three years.
DANNER: It took three years to begin making a profit. Now, one perhaps can appreciate how extraordinary that is, I think, when you consider that in this country of two hundred sixty million people, all these other magazines that would be roughly considered in this category, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Harper’s, National Review, what have you – one could name others -
SILVERS: The Nation.
DANNER: The Nation – all of them have, in one way or another, an angel. That is, whether it is Mortimer Zuckerman, or S.I. Newhouse for The New Yorker, or I guess Paul Newman and others for The Nation, everybody puts money into these, and they invariably lose money and they would not survive did they not have these angels. So, I’d like to ask you really a two-part question. First of all, how has the New York Review – and you started to answer this, but I want to get more particular about it – made a profit year after year? And secondly, why in heaven, in your view, I mean here we are, the amount of wealth in this area is incredible, why can this country apparently not support any other magazine like it?
SILVERS: Well, your second question is probably unanswerable, because it has to do with culture in a general way and all these things usually come down to particulars. In the case of the Review, there are a number of things that became clear to us. One was that there was no way to run a paper, to do a serious intellectual paper, a literary paper, that was cut off from or protected from or in some way immunized from the political world and the issues that were central in that world.
And we started in 1963 and the first issue appeared just before the Kennedy assassination. And in fact, one of the first articles we published was by Dwight MacDonald, which was a review of Arthur Schlesinger’s book, an early book about the Administration, and Dwight’s piece was called “To the White House.” And it was a critique about the intellectuals that had attached themselves to the Kennedy administration. Well, that was a very important perspective, that there were many at that time, it was a great dream and aim of many bright political scientist, writers, what not, to be in some way within the aura of power and the Kennedy world. It’s impossible to even exaggerate how intense this feeling was, that Kennedy represented a great new departure. And Dwight’s article was rather critical of that. And critical of the sacrifices that certain intellectuals were making. But…
DANNER: Like McGeorge Bundy and people like that?
SILVERS: Well, yes. He was trying to confront that question and to say to what degree is this kind of work in the White House compatible with intellectual integrity? It was a kind of old problem that Max Weber and others had talked about and Dwight wanted to pose it and not drift along in a kind of convenient, syrupy assumption that it was perfectly happy and nice to be a serious intellectual and also writing speeches of a highly political kind. He wanted to confront it – that there was a contradiction there.
And that article aroused a lot of attention, it aroused a lot of attention, I think, in universities and among writers. That was simply, it was one thing that I think is of importance, is the question of some kind of awareness of political things. The Vietnam War at that time was just beginning, and the Review became very involved in some kind of, in a series of critical and reportorial articles about the war, which became more and more the issue that seized the attention and the conscience of people in the university world. And at the same time there was the civil rights movement and many other issues that we became involved in through book reviews.
What we saw was that the book review is a form that is capable of being used to address nearly any kind of issue, and any kind of question because there’s always a book. There were books on Vietnam, there are books on Kennedy, there are books on every – the most intense issues are addressed in books. And book reviewing can be a way of bringing critical perspectives to bear on the most intense political issues.
At the same time, we believed in the writer. And so we didn’t think, we thought the form of the book review should be put in the hands of the best possible writers in America and in the world. And we also thought that the imagination of writers often contributed something new and special to observation of …?... So, therefore, we would send, and still do, novelists, poets, to report on and observe political events. We early on sent V.S. Naipaul, for instance, to Argentina to write a book, what became a series of articles that would turn into a book, called “The Death of Eva Peron.” This was at the time of enormous repression in Argentina, and we knew that he had an enormous ability to observe events, as he had written a small book about Trinidad. And we thought it would be extremely interesting if he went to Argentina. And we got some money and sent him there. And all through our days, we have often done this. We have sent Joan Didion for instance to cover the national political conventions time after time. Or the poet, James Fenton, we’ve sent him to Ethiopia. Those are just a few examples of our feeling that the writer, the imagination and the gift of the writer, who is not usually writing about such matters, should be, that these people should be persuaded, if they will, to go and look at what is happening.
So we’ve done that, and we did that then. And then at the same time we had the feeling, to answer your question, that the universities were so divided into different departments and different disciplines, all of them specialized, all of them demanding, all of them in many ways extremely intransigent to many readers and to many people so far as understanding – whether in linguistics, or analytic philosophy, or psychology, or, I would say that above all, history, there are enormous developments in all these fields of knowledge. And yet, as we all know, they have been to a large degree fragmented, segregated, with walls between these academic departments. And we thought it was a tremendous challenge to us to try and find writers who would write in language and with imagination who would be able to write about these very interesting intellectual developments in these disciplines.
And so, in every issue of the Review since those days you generally will see a variety of different interests, of different subjects, some of them very arcane, some of them very demanding, dealt with in a way that we dream and hope will be intelligible to people who are not specialists. Immensely difficult thing to do. And we often feel we fail at it. But that is a central premise, that in every issue of the paper, ever since its beginning, there always has been some articles on fiction, some on history, some on the social sciences, and something in the natural and physical sciences, and something having to do with the arts, whether or not painting or music. These were all things that interested us. We all felt baffled, inadequate in understanding them. We tried to seek out people – and they’re in the room here; some people like Fred Crews, who’s written so much for us on questions of Freud and modern psychology – to interpret these often rather hermetic questions to readers in an intelligible way. Now, if the Review gained readers, it was because enough of these articles were intelligible and interesting.
DANNER: You’ve talked about clarity of language; you’ve talked about persuasion, the idea of persuading writers who otherwise might not otherwise think of a certain subject to go after it and undertake it; you’ve talked about the creative act of trying to match a writer with a subject that someone might not have thought of before. It occurs to me listening to that that the word “editor” itself is one of those strange words, sort of like the word “producer,” that is very, very broad. And I know that when I worked for you in the early Eighties, I was fascinated by all of the different things that you do. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit now. What do you think is the main – or what do you think being “an editor” is?
SILVERS: Well, I would say, in one word, being an editor is being a fan – a fan, an admirer, someone who has a kind of great sense of wonder at how people can write, of intelligence and writing and prose, and some willingness to – some interest in what you would think of as marvelous writing, or marvelous thinking. It’s admiration. It’s a kind of fan, being a fan of writers that I think is the quintessential quality for editors. That is what you have to start with. That you feel that there is a writer whose work is exciting, engaging, you want to publish it. That’s the first influence that is important. Other impulses are crowding around you, such as, well, there’s a book, there are certain things we have to review and do and perhaps we cannot find this marvelous…
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– one must always, I feel, try at least to have some sense of what one understands oneself. That is, I believe that if there is any code that editors must have, it should be that you mustn’t pretend either about prose or words and ideas that you don’t know. And you must try and get them explained. So you do understand them, or at least you feel, shall we say, some touch of understanding. And secondly, when it comes to writers, you mustn’t think that just because we’ve used A or know about B that there’s not C, who we don’t know about and who we must find by inquiring, by getting their work and reading it. Now, this is very difficult because people are always recommending, many people recommend writers, all the time. They say: Well, the best person for this is X. It’s perfectly obvious. They’re the greatest experts, they’re great writers. You must use them. So, at that point, in the New York Review, what we do, is we have on person, – , who spends all her time getting articles and checking those for us. Now we use the Internet more, but we still have one person who just goes to libraries and makes photocopies and gets books, the writings of people.
She also, of course, checks all sorts of things, we have to check every quotation, every reference, and so on. One of the things she does is simply get us examples of writing; writing in obscure journals, writings in ancient copies of the TLS or whatever. And we look over these writings, and we think: Well, is this the tone, the voice, the kind of exposition that is going to come off for us? And it is nearly always a gamble. It is always, nearly always, an element of chance, risk, in editing. Because some of those articles in the TLS have been immensely edited by the editors of the TLS. And you never know really what the result will be, you never know. And you never know if whether that writer who wrote something beautiful three years ago will now do something perfunctory. Risk is the quintessential in all these things. But those are the two things that I believe if there is any kind of principle, that they are guiding things.
DANNER: Thirty five years: the Sixties, Vietnam, Watergate, the Carter administration, the Reagan administration, Clinton. We’ve gone through a lot of politics in America. I have to ask you a political question about the Review. A lot of people here will remember the Molotov cocktail, the famous “Molotov cocktail cover.” Can you talk a little bit about how the Review’s politics have changed, or if they have changed for that matter?
SILVERS: Well, people are constantly talking about that. I would say two things. One, that in dealing with – if there’s been a current, let’s say a consistent current, from the first, that Barbara and I have felt strongly about, that we have felt rather suspicious or critical of the exercise of government power on individuals. In the sense of governments that bully, torture, kill citizens, whether in Communist countries or Right-wing dictatorships. We published huge amounts of material, let us say, on the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, or the struggles in Poland in the Eighties, or about the persecutions of the Shah or the persecutions of people in South Vietnam during the Sixties and Seventies.
When the Vietnam War came to an end, we received a piece in French by Father Andre Geminasse, who was a Catholic priest who was in Saigon at the time. And he gave an account of how the North Vietnamese had come into the city, how there were piles of books that were burned and a number of people were killed and other people were deported. And some of those people actually had been against the war. We published this article and I suppose more people cancelled their subscription than at any other time, because they had come to think of the victims of the war being exclusively the victims of American power. And we felt, I think, that this was a very important thing for us to publish. And we have published many such articles about different kinds of regimes, including the American.
About its – you remember an article very well – that we published by a man who’s the editor of The New Republic, about how the CIA had concealed evidence that was very important about the killings in Bosnia. And this was CIA deception.
Well, we’ve done a lot of articles of that sort, and it is hard to say. I think that Barbara and I have felt that we have tried to react to and in some way engage these difficult phases of conflict in different parts of the world, trying to get quite a range of views. But they do reflect ultimately I think that concern that I mentioned, that we do feel that we’d be wrong, we generally don’t feel that we must put ourselves in the place of governments, which is, by the way, one way, that many magazines and magazine editors do conceive the role. They see, in some way, as surrogates of policy makers. And I don’t think that’s the way we approached this. I think we saw, we are much more concerned about the effects of government on citizens, the deceptions of government, and I think we started off with a certain suspicion of power and of governments. And we still do.
DANNER: I think there are many other questions to consider here, needless to say. I think perhaps, with your forbearance, I think we will open the floor to some questions.
SILVERS: Yes, I think there’s a gentleman here.PETER (student): How much of the various David Levine design was inspiration and how much did he interpret your ideas? And why are you such a literary Anglophile?
DANNER: That’s two questions.
SILVERS: I’ll try to answer both those questions. Because we laid out the paper, it was first laid out by this excellent young woman from Harper’s Magazine, Lucy Donaldson, who just took a ruler and took the proofs from the printer and laid them out one after another. And I had dinner one night, just the night after the Review appeared, and funny enough with Gloria Steinem, who was starting her own magazine. And she said, “You know, it doesn’t look bad. But it’s got to look better. And the best man is Sam
DANNER: When did Levine come on?
SILVERS: Well, he came on very early. Because he wasn’t in the first experimental issues. But a friend of ours sent us some little drawings he’d done for Esquire. Charming little caricatures. And we immediately felt an affinity with these. And we sent him some articles, and we said could you illustrate them. And he said, Send me some photographs. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.
DANNER: Thirty-five years later.
SILVERS: And he does something in every issue. So, a friend of mine, a friend of both Barbara’s and mine in Esquire, and another friend showed us a book which was terribly important to us. Illustration is a terrible problem for a book review, because there are all sorts of books that don’t lend themselves to illustration at all. And you have to think of illustrations which will in some way have an affinity with the subjects, but have some independent existence of their own. And so we drew onto certain artists that we liked and certainly Dore and
DANNER: You are meant now to defend your Anglophilia.
SILVERS: Anglophilia is not what I would call it, naturally. I would simply say this, that we simply want people who we think will write brilliantly and interestingly and in a way that we admire. And it’s true that many of these writers happen to English. And some of them are Egyptian Jews, and some of them are from other places. And it couldn’t matter less to me. I have no sense of nationalism in book reviewing. Don’t believe in it, never thought of it. If you could get someone like V.S. Pritchett to write for you, you’re lucky, in my view, whether he’s English, Scotch, Irish or Lithuanian. Really, it turns out that many of the writers we did admire and do admire happen to be English. And we feel immensely lucky. There they are. Jasper Griffin is a great writer on classical studies, and immensely clear and vivid and admirable. So, I would say we’re simply greedy for these excellent writers.
DANNER: Let me prod you on one matter, though. There is, one could make an argument, that the English system, in which you go to your tutorial every week with a paper that you have to read, does train English writers to some extent to write for space and to hand pieces in on time, both of which makes them somewhat attractive to editors.
DANNER: Other questions? Ah, journalism school – I’ll get very angry if there are no others. Yes?
QUESTION: After thirty-five years of reviewing books, what have you learned about books? The mystery and value that they hold, that they don’t hold. Books that are corrupt, books that don’t come through. Can a book still change your life?
SILVERS: Well, I think that a great part of one’s life is books. So, what one’s learned, what one thinks about and what one’s passionate about are in literature and in ideas. So, I feel that they’re simply like the atmosphere we live in. And you can’t – there’s no escaping them.
The one thing that is true, and this is my own sense, is that there are really very few very good books. They’re rather rare. There are thousands of books of fiction every year, and we try to review one or two or three in every issue. We fall far short of what we should do, but if you look back and say, Well, how many really marvelous works of fiction have there been? There probably haven’t been all that many.
And I think that’s true in many fields. So, the marvelous book, the book that changes thoughts, the book that contributes something really quite original – those things seem to me rather hard to find. There are many levels of useful and interesting books. Books that in scholarship contribute to the conversation. Biographies that give someone new perspective. But really unusually good books are very rare.
Now, for instance, just to take an example, there is a book, which I think is marvelous, which happens to be on J.P. Morgan. It’s by Jean Strouse. She wrote a book on Alice James fifteen years ago. I feel strongly about it because she was also, along with Mark, one of my assistants.
SILVERS: But she is a writer of remarkable, I think, talent. And she wrote a beautiful book about Alice James, and now this book about J.P. Morgan is an exceptional, interesting book about a most unlikely subject, you might think.
So it does happen. And there are these unusual circumstances and these unusual works of imagination. But I believe one must not get into an emotional confusion about the great work, the great book. There aren’t that many.
DANNER: Do you learn how to write by reading books? In other words, I think the phrase is, “You write with your ears.”
SILVERS: Well, I wonder, I wonder. I think it can work in every possible way. I think one can learn to write very badly from reading books. And think of all the bad models people have followed. Think of all the people who have tried to write like Pater.
DANNER: Well, thank you. I’ve been telling my students all year that you do write with your ears, and now you’ve ruined it. A simple “yes” would have been sufficient.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Maybe this will be self-serving: the rest of the world of magazine publishing. And as you’ve surveyed over these last three and a half decades what do you think is going on and what impresses you about its evolution?
SILVERS: Well, I’m a bad person to talk about hat because I feel very reluctant to be critical of colleagues and other papers. I sympathize with them deeply. I feel I know more than most people how excessively difficult it is to get out these papers, to find good writers, to find good reviewers, to engage in some of these difficult questions that are imposing themselves on us and that which we don’t understand. Like they say, information technology or biological technology, these are enormous questions that we have to deal with here, where even the forms of prose that are adequate haven’t been developed.
So I’m very sympathetic to the difficulties of other editors and other publications. And particularly I’m sympathetic to them in the sense that I can imagine the breathing pressures upon them, in the sense that they do not have the extraordinary freedom that we do. I mean, suppose that we had to produce some kind of commercial paper, and we had to write about celebrities or we had to review every movie. Now I would feel that this would be a crushing thing to have to do. To find good reviewers, who were really interesting people and good minds, to write about every movie that comes out, that would be a killing thing to do.
And so I’m very sympathetic to editors. But I do feel that they’re often driven by that sort of pressure. And it’s a palpable thing and you can sense it when you read the papers. That there is a tremendous sense that they must tune themselves to popular culture and popular events and popular tendancies, and in some way not just be critical of them or interesting about them but in some way attached to them. And that is a difficult position to be in, if you believe in critical integrities.
And I do also believe that we are again, the New York Review, is a in a very privileged, special position. It’s what Barbara and I feel we can do. If we can’t get a good writer on some book or something then we don’t do it. We don’t pretend to be comprehensive. We don’t pretend to cover every book or subject. We feel we’re very idiosyncratic. We do what we think we can do, with writers that we admire and like, and if we can’t do it, we’d rather not do it. We’re not under terrible compulsions, as many people are. The New York Times Book Review has the crushing task of reviewing every practically, more or less, advertised book, which is a terrible burden to have to live under and almost an insoluble one, if one wants writing of the highest quality. And so, we’re the luckiest possibilities, in that sense. We have an audience who seems willing to buy the paper and we can do what we want and we try really to publish things that we respect and not to do things just because the books or the subject exist. Now that is the kind of definition of freedom that we can hardly believe we have it.
SCHELL: You know I wonder, your perspective as a writer, I’m just thinking out loud here, that we writers will write for two motives. One, for money. And one for a much sort of subtler reason, because we like to be in a place that seems to bestow a sense of integrity on us. Now, it seems to me that nobody makes a living writing for the New York Review of Books, at least nobody I know. But -
SILVERS: I don’t think anyone ever expected to.
SCHELL: No. But, I mean, I’m wondering, there’s a subtle distinction between the maybe psychic currency and real currency that is operating at least in the perspective of the writer. I mean, why should somebody write for you if you’re going to pay them a rather small amount compared to what they could get?
SILVERS: That’s a very good question, and many writers have posed this question to us. I think in some hard to define sense, when people do want to write, I think partly because they feel they will be read by their peers, by people they respect, by certain worlds they’re aware of who they want their work to be known to. And there may be papers who will pay much, lots more, but though not that much more really, I think, than us. But I think that, and writers have told me this, they feel that people who they respect will be reading it and responding to it. And that’s what means a lot to them. And so, the audience is, in that sense, is quintessential. Now, this gentleman who I know is a mathematician. QUESTION: I remember when the first few issues came out, and what seemed revolutionary to me at the time, though I wasn’t an avid reader of a lot of different journals, was precisely what you referred to, that you wanted to get really good writers, and then you used books sort of as an excuse let them take off and talk about a subject. And it seemed to be different from the standard book review where you really went through and said what the book did, often combining several books. Was that an innovation of the New York Review?
SILVERS: It’s interesting that you say that. I think that if you look in the history of book reviewing from the Edinburgh Review onward that you do often find the following possibilities: That the books are boring or of no great interest, but the subject is passionately interesting. And the books do become an occasion to in some way advance the discussion of the subject.
Now, it may be that the fact that the books are, shall we say, mediocre, uninventive or dreary does itself say something about that particular field or that particular state of intellectual activity – that there is often a perfunctory quality in much our intellectual life, scholarly life. And so it is also the case, if you have a marvelous writer or a very important or interesting writer, you really can’t expect them to spend a huge amount of their time, their minds, on simply addressing the defects of a rather uninteresting work. On the other hand, we do feel that there is a critical task of dealing with these books. And I think if you look at those reviews you will find that there is some justifiable critical attention given to those books. But it is also, as you say, that the subject itself far transcends the kind of treatment it got in those books. And therefore it’s entirely justified if that subject is interesting and valid and important to have a really interesting writer discuss it. So I feel that the balance is often tainted. Because there are some books that we review in the most intensive, meticulous and wholly concentrated way, because the book deserves it.
QUESTION: From your position as an editor, could you comment on the growing consolidation of the publishing industry as effecting the culture and intellectual life in general? That seems as important not only as the publishing industry with the mergers of book companies but also the chains and the online distributors.
SILVERS: Well, I tell you, I think that is an interesting and central subject. I think that it deserves a lot of attention. I am not the person to pretend to know a great deal about it.
In general, I try and stay a little apart from publishers. They all want something from us: they want reviews, they want good reviews, they want attention. And we, I think properly, should not be too involved with them, even if we know them. And it is often the case that we have publishers who are friends, and we review their books very rigorously and negatively.
So I think you are referring to a process of consolidation in publishing. My sense is that it has imposed on certain publishing houses that I know of certain standards and certain guidelines and certain requirements that some of the editors feel are excessive and impeding the kind of publishing they would like to do, the kind of risk-taking they would like to do and so on. On the other hand, I think of a publishing house, an independent publishing house that was recently acquired, which seemed just as independent as it ever was and admirable on the whole. So I am very wary of generalizations. I think that you could have a marvelous discussion right here of that question with some people who really know about it, and I don’t. I just have a vague sense.
QUESTION: I was wondering, given the strength and personalities of each of those founding editors, how you arrived at a modus vivendi so that you could each have your strong personalities and the periodical fields like a strong personality without killing each other.
DANNER: Could I interject?
DANNER: I don’t pretend to be able to answer this question, but one thing I do know is that occasionally the door would close in Barbara’s office and the ground would shake, and all of us would sort scuttle around and say, “Mommy and Daddy are having a fight.” But that’s the only thing I know about it. So, I’m sorry, go ahead Bob. That didn’t happen very much, however.
SILVERS: Well, it’s true that when we started the paper, Lizzie has always been the advisory editor and she’s always had ideas, and Cal Lowell was a great poet with many friends, and I never felt any great sense of difference with them at all. We were all very close. But when we started the paper in earnest, as a regular operation, it became a collaboration between Barbara and myself, and we’ve collaborated on everything very closely ever since. And that’s really all I can say. I don’t feel that we’ve done anything that she has not had a central part in. And that is the truth.
QUESTION: To follow up on that, does that mean that you both read and both edit all the same articles?
SILVERS: We have our own division of labor, in which in the end we both see everything and both feel responsible for everything. And we work out between ourselves, as best we can, these little burdens.
DANNER: There was a fascinating sense that I remember very well from working at the Review, where one would seem to know everything that was going on, because one was working in Bob’s office and could hear the phone conversations and talk to the various writers and know exactly what was happening. But then the real decisions that were being made happened in this kind of black hole that one didn’t have access to. Bob went over to Barbara’s office and they had discussions and suddenly things were decided. You wouldn’t appreciate this point of view at all, of course; this was our point of view.
SILVERS: I’m sure. It’s exactly right.
DANNER: And we had no idea – “Oh god, that’s the issue!” – and we didn’t know about it. So, there’s this collaboration that was completely distinct from anything that we were able to see.
QUESTION: Coming back to this point about as editor you remove the encumbrences from the writer’s voice. What was the feedback between that and the process of asking a writer to do something that they have never done before? In other words, were there less encumbrences in their writing when you suddenly ask a Norman Mailer to cover something that he hadn’t covered before?
SILVERS: No. I mean, it depends. Some of these writers who we’ve asked to do things that are unexpected have seized the opportunity with the greatest interest and they have done beautiful work. And I haven’t felt that there was an encumbrence at all. I’ve felt that many of them have been rather keen to have this chance to do something, to look out, to go out in the world, to look at something or to observe something or go to a far off place.
And, you know, it doesn’t happen all the time, but at any given time we have writers in various parts of the world. Some of them are just marvelous observers, writers, journalists. Just to take an example, there’s an English writer, Timothy Garton Ash. He’d been writing for us for many years. He’d first wrote for us, he’d been to Salvador and he’d observed the American policy there and he wanted to write on that. And he actually sent me, out of the blue, an essay that he had written, and it was marvelous. Then he went to Eastern Europe, and he made friends with Vaclav Havel, who invited him in to observe the Czech Revolution.
I don’t know, when I say we ask novelists and poets, like James Fenton and others, to observe the world and so on, I don’t want to seem invidious. I think that someone like Garton Ash is the writer of the highest order, of very superior, brilliant and literary sensibility, as well as political analyst and observer. He’s not a writer of fiction, but what he does for me, and what Mark does, I would not in any way see as inferior or distinguishable from what a poet or novelist would do.
QUESTION: We heard about from Lillian Ross that Mr. Shawn always struggled, I don’t know what … has said about this, but we’ve heard that he struggled throughout his life with the desire to jettison his work as an editor and to have been a writer instead.
SILVERS: What was that again? That he wanted to what?
QUESTION: That Mr. Shawn would have liked to have jettisoned his work as the editor of The New Yorker and have been a writer instead.
SILVERS: Oh, really. Did she say that?
DANNER: She said a lot of things.
QUESTION: The question is not to speak of him, but have you struggled with that?
SILVERS: I have exactly the opposite point of view, a completely different point of view, and it’s very different from many other editors who do write books, novels, poems and all sorts of things. Just because of what I am, I believe that one shouldn’t pretend to do what one can’t. I think that being an editor is a kind of metier. It has its own responsibilities and its own standards and its own hopes. And if you can do that, it seems to me to have its own validity. I think the editor can be in a risky situation if he is a kind of writer manque, which is true of some editors, but not of all. T.S. Eliot was a great writer and he also was a brilliant editor. So it’s the immense human difference that we’re talking about.
DANNER: I guess I will seize the privilege and ask a final question. I feel that somewhere in this audience in the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is someone thinking that a month from now they will be out of school, their exams will be over, they don’t know what they’ll do, they haven’t filled out a resume or done anything else to prepare, they’re feeling a bit of nausea. I wonder, if that person has ambitions to be a writer, to write for the New York Review, to do other sorts of long pieces, to try to make their way in this – I don’t know what it is: this endeavor? I wouldn’t call it a profession – I wonder if you have any words for them?
SILVERS: I believe that, my own way of dealing with that kind of question, I always say to people: Let us see what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve published it or not. But let us see what you think is your best work. And to produce your best work it may be that people have to do something quite independent, to do something that they just want to do for the purpose of showing what they can do.
But everything else is just talk. It’s the writing that counts.
DANNER: Well said. And a very good point to end. I hope you’ll join me in both saluting Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the New York Review of Books and thanking Bob Silvers for coming here and talking to us and teaching us. Thank you, Bob.