№ 5

The Making of a Monument

What began as the voice of radical chic has
mellowed. But the New York Review of Books is still the place for intellectuals 40 years later

—the globe and mail, march 22, 2003

After 40 years in charge of the New York Review of Books, you’d think that edi­tor Robert Sil­vers might yield to a brief anniver­sary cheer, that just for a moment he might roman­ti­cize the biweekly’s ear­ly days, that after build­ing one of the world’s most esteemed intel­lec­tu­al jour­nals he might even want to talk about its legacy.

But when I reached Sil­vers at his Man­hat­tan office, the Review’s 40th anniver­sary was quick­ly pushed off into a cor­ner of our con­ver­sa­tion. What real­ly ani­mat­ed him were his newest projects, the work he and co-edi­tor Bar­bara Epstein had recent­ly assigned: John Updike’s piece on an obscure art exhib­it in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, Steven Weinberg’s arti­cles on sci­ence, the debate sur­round­ing war in Iraq. Iden­ti­fy­ing the Review’s lega­cy wasn’t some­thing he was will­ing to do.

I don’t know, I real­ly don’t,” he says, and begins to laugh.

I think we have to take our stand on the accu­mu­lat­ed work we’ve done. There are many thou­sands of reviews and mil­lions of words, and who could pos­si­bly make much of a judg­ment about it? It’s so var­i­ous: so many dif­fer­ent issues, so many dif­fer­ent books, so many dif­fer­ent writ­ers. And if you’re some­one like myself, you’re obsessed by the next cou­ple of issues. They’re absolute­ly big, big chal­lenges. What will be in them, how they’re going to work out, whether some of these arti­cles will come in, and so on. That kind of ret­ro­spec­tive view, I don’t have.”

Oth­ers, how­ev­er, most cer­tain­ly do.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that get­ting my byline in the New York Review of Books was like dying and going to heav­en,” the Toron­to-born con­trib­u­tor Michael Ignati­eff told me recently.

Indeed, Ignati­eff couldn’t think of anoth­er jour­nal — in any lan­guage — that had the same abil­i­ty to “unashamed­ly walk between the high aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­ret­i­cal world and the world of pol­i­tics and journalism.”

That bal­anc­ing act, accord­ing to Susan Son­tag, is its great­est strength. “Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­al life,” she told the New York Times, “would be vast­ly poor­er had it not been for the Review and the mod­el it gives for how to write for a gen­er­al­ly edu­cat­ed audience.”

Since its inau­gur­al issue in Feb­ru­ary 1963, that mod­el real­ly hasn’t changed. Sil­vers and Epstein have tar­get­ed an audi­ence with the same kind of broad, odd­ly inquis­i­tive tastes as their own. Why, they won­dered, couldn’t there be a mag­a­zine that was seri­ous, read­able, and direct­ly engaged with the impor­tant mat­ters of the day?

It’s sim­ply our own inter­ests. We real­ly don’t claim too much more than that,” Sil­vers says. “What we start­ed out doing, and have con­tin­ued to try to do, is to get writ­ers we admire to deal with the books and issues that inter­est us.”

It was actu­al­ly Epstein’s for­mer hus­band, Jason, an edi­tor at Ran­dom House, who came up with the idea dur­ing the win­ter of 1962–63, when New York’s news­pa­pers had been shut down by a pro­longed print­ers’ strike.

He had the inspi­ra­tion that this was the only time one could start a new book review with­out any cap­i­tal because if you had a plau­si­ble plan the pub­lish­ers would take an ad,” Sil­vers recalls.

So, the Epsteins and their friends, poet Robert Low­ell and his wife, writer Eliz­a­beth Hard­wick, asked Sil­vers, then an edi­tor at Harper’s, to join them.

The first con­trib­u­tors were an impres­sive group, to be sure, includ­ing Mary McCarthy, W. H. Auden, Nor­man Mail­er and William Sty­ron. They wrote quick­ly (a three-week dead­line) and for free.

By the fall, after more than a thou­sand let­ters urg­ing them on, and a sec­ond, sum­mer edi­tion, the Review began in earnest. Mon­ey was raised and, accord­ing to Sil­vers, by the fourth year “the paper” was turn­ing a mod­est profit.

(In 1984, Rea Hed­er­man, a for­mer Mis­sis­sip­pi news­man, bought the Review for $5 mil­lion. Today, its paid cir­cu­la­tion is more than 115,000.)

Cer­tain­ly the Review’s ear­ly for­mu­la stuck: the large, brick-like logo; the newsprint with long, foot­note-laden columns; David Levine’s extra­or­di­nary draw­ings; the Per­son­als straight out of a Woody Allen sketch (“Divorced, non­re­li­gious, Jew­ish-fla­vored math pro­fes­sor, 70, book­ish, NYC, Ivy League, two chil­dren, rid­ing wave of exu­ber­ance, seek­ing surf­ing com­pan­ion, 60–75, to share the life of the mind and the body”).

Then there’s the sub­ject mat­ter, where you’ll find every­thing from dis­cus­sions on cos­mol­o­gy and Freudi­an psy­chol­o­gy to pieces on Rohin­ton Mis­try and Bar­nett New­man. In every issue, accord­ing to Sil­vers, there will also be a com­men­tary on “some cen­tral pub­lic event or chal­lenge or crisis.”

Indeed, the Review’s ear­ly days were bound up in the tur­moil of the ’60s: the assas­si­na­tion of John Kennedy and, above all, the war in Viet­nam. In 1967, a cov­er fea­tured the recipe for a Molo­tov cock­tail. Noam Chom­sky was a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor. It was a feisty, aggres­sive voice on the left. Tom Wolfe even called it “the chief the­o­ret­i­cal organ of rad­i­cal chic.”

While the jour­nal may have mel­lowed — one observ­er has called it a “mid­dle-aged, rather Estab­lish­ment voice” — it still tugs to the left of cen­tre, whether one thinks of its pieces on Yugoslavia in the ear­ly ’90s, or those more recent­ly on the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian conflict.

But the Review has, undoubt­ed­ly, had its crit­ics. Ever since the ’60s, con­ser­v­a­tives have often found its point of view par­tic­u­lar­ly unap­peal­ing. Roger Kim­ball called it “a jour­nal of blithe polit­i­cal oppor­tunism, ready at the first hint of a change in the pub­lic mood to embrace extreme, even rev­o­lu­tion­ary, ideas that were total­ly at odds with its ambi­tion to be ‘a respon­si­ble lit­er­ary journal.’ ”

Oth­ers have accused it of being Anglo­cen­tric, deaf to new­er intel­lec­tu­al trends and over­ly reliant on a tired and exclu­sive ros­ter of writ­ers. As James Wol­cott point­ed out, the only book-length study of the Review, Philip Nobile’s Intel­lec­tu­al Sky­writ­ing, “probed the inner sanc­tum of the mag­a­zine as if it were a rat­tlesnake nest.”

Still, among those who’ve worked for Robert Sil­vers, detrac­tors aren’t easy to find. Susan Son­tag, for one, has called him a “fan­tas­tic, fanat­i­cal, bril­liant” edi­tor. Joan Did­ion ded­i­cat­ed her last book to him.

I know this is going to sound like Ceausescu’s Roma­nia, but all praise to the leader. It’s going to sound like Kim Jong Il’s Pyongyang Review of Books. It’s going to sound pho­ny as hell, because I know you’re going to speak to him, but it is the case,” Michael Ignati­eff said, in a tele­phone inter­view from Cam­bridge, Massachusetts.

I’ve worked for a lot of peo­ple and a lot of edi­tors but until you’ve been edit­ed by Sil­vers you don’t know what mag­a­zine edit­ing is.

You get a call on Sun­day night, if you’re in Lon­don, and it’s Sun­day after­noon in New York and he’s in the office going over your com­mas. He is say­ing, ‘I’m sor­ry we’ve checked out Fact X and it just doesn’t wash.’ ”

It is a sto­ry, Ignati­eff says, about good editing.

Once a review project is agreed upon, writ­ers tell sto­ries of “mys­te­ri­ous FedEx pack­ages” arriv­ing at the door, as Silvers’s assis­tants start send­ing out addi­tion­al books, notes and sup­port­ing mate­r­i­al on the topic.

We’re sur­round­ed by all of these books,” Sil­vers explains. “So our thought is this: Sup­pose there are oth­er books on the sub­ject that have come in, whether on, say, D. H. Lawrence on the one hand, or the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary on the oth­er. We have our review project, and now here are some oth­er books that you [the writer] might want to look at. Don’t feel that you have to review them, but look at them, see if they’re inter­est­ing to you. We have this great admi­ra­tion for, and con­fi­dence in, writ­ers and their minds and we’re very will­ing to leave a lot deci­sions to them.”

Sil­vers, Ignati­eff points out, is also an extra­or­di­nary net­work­er, always on the look­out for who’s new and up-and-com­ing. And he’s often court­ing old­er, estab­lished writ­ers, as well.

A recent addi­tion, Sil­vers offers, is Mar­garet Atwood.

I had read some­thing by her that made me think she might be inter­est­ed in a par­tic­u­lar book that was about to be pub­lished. So I sent it to her.”

Atwood, who Sil­vers calls “a mar­vel­lous crit­ic, very, very inci­sive,” has con­tributed four pieces over the past year.

Although he’s now in his ear­ly 70s, clear­ly Silvers’s appetite for renew­al isn’t on the wane — even if most of his con­tem­po­raries have now retired.

That, I sup­pose, may be true. But I don’t have the faintest idea of that,” he says.

I think the Review at the moment is in a peri­od where we are very engaged in a series of impor­tant issues. There’s no end to it. That’s all we’re inter­est­ed in: in what lies ahead.”

And with that, Sil­vers spoke about the “mar­vel­lous reviews” he soon hoped to run, includ­ing a piece on, of all things, “the whole indus­try and cul­ture of com­put­er games.

From time to time, they give us the most enchant­i­ng sat­is­fac­tion. To have a beau­ti­ful arti­cle: that is what we feel is at the cen­tre of it all.”