ROBERT SILVERS ignores the market. He’s also the juggernaut behind the New York Review of Books.
Robert Silvers doesn’t skip a beat; his heart operation is behind him. The 82 year old is in his kingdom, the editorial offices of The New York Review of Books. The gentleman of large stature wears a dark suit and a pastelblue striped shirt. He is among his troop of younger helpers, which he endearingly refers to as his “slaves.”
You could call him a living legend, that is, if all his accomplishments were in the past. But the magazine he founded in 1963 with Barbara Epstein, who died a few years ago, is not only a commercial success, it also remains an authority in the intellectual, global discourse on politics and society, art and culture, science and philosophy. Whoever wants to talk about what the top brains are thinking has to read it – which is a pleasure. The magazine, published biweekly, may be elitist, but it avoids any form of niche banter. At The New York Review of Books literary quality isn’t just a virtue, it is a duty. Therein, any layperson can follow the explanations of the state of modern physics, which experts like Steven Weinberg, Freeman Dyson, and Lee Smolin laid out in a series not long ago.
Contemporary art, a few caricatures, furnishings of elegant inconspicuousness: The uncongested space in a former factory in the West Village, which the Review calls home, illustrates that clarity doesn’t need to be sacrificed to complexity, that tradition can sometimes trump what’s fashionable. The magazine’s ideal reader, like its publisher, is a polymath that doesn’t need a diet of intellectual nourishment.
“We do what we want and we don’t try to figure out what the public wants,” says Silvers. The pluralis majestatis reveals that the enlightened monarch, “the man” really – with pencil and fountain pen in hand, who keeps his contacts in a Rolodex, and is loyal to his fax machine – is made of truly refreshing, youthful curiosity. The Review is nothing more than a reflection of his interests, yet they are as immense as his belief is steadfast – that you can better the world, word for word.
He recounts the beginnings, the authors, the essays that made history. Any headline that you manage to throw at him, he will thread into a story in a manner where no doubt remains that he has saved the thousands upon thousands of texts from the over a thousand issues as reliably in his memory as in the online archive available to subscribers.
Vanity is foreign to Silvers, if you look past the affected accent that the American has cultivated. Even the title of the magazine is an understatement, as the Review has nothing to do with conventional book reviews. Books are merely a motive for getting into a topic; they offer the writer the opportunity to discuss whatever the book is about. Silvers raves about his magazine with a father’s love and a salesman’s passion. In an article titled “Mind Control & the Internet,” Sue Halpern reports on the dialogue taken up by some books on the societal implications of the Net, discussing the shift in the private sphere in the age of cyberspace, and the questions posed in the context of three books recently published on the topic. “Books encompass the possibility of a larger discussion,” says Silvers, “and we review them as parts of a bigger problem.”
His sense for pairing books and reviewers has created fervor since the first issue of the Review when Mary McCarthy discussed William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch (1959), prosthelytizing “The oldest memory in The Naked Lunch is of jacking-off in boyhood latrines, a memory recaptured through pederasty. This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction – the others are entertainment.”
The list of contributors documents his sense for talent. He supported the idea of sending V.S. Naipaul, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature, to Argentina to write The Return of Eva Perón (1980) and then sent him to the Republican Convention in Dallas, Texas, from which Naipaul returned empty handed. “He was disappointed, almost wounded,” writes Naipaul on Silvers, who spoke of a “hole in the magazine” in a tone as if it were a hole in his heart. Silvers didn’t let go easily. He kept sending Naipaul books and articles. He kept calling. The result was “Among the Republicans” 1980, an anthropological study of a white tribe in the United States, written in the way only Naipaul could.
There is some irony in the success of The New York Review of Books, in that its birth was the result of a crisis. A typesetter strike at The New York Times in the winter of 1962/63 paralyzed the paper for more than three months. The publishing houses were in despair because without the literature insert, The New York Times Book Review, they had no platform to advertise new releases. Jason Epstein of Random House had the idea for a new magazine. His wife Barbara and the writer couple Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell agreed that he should ask his friend Silvers. “Jason called me and said, if anyone ever wanted to found a literary magazine without a penny of capital, now’s the time to do it,” recalls Silvers. “Right now publishers will advertise wherever they see an opportunity.”
At that time Silvers was an editor at Harper’s. Three years earlier he had produced a special edition, Writing in America, in which the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an essay titled “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” Hardwick reproached The New York Times Book Review for practicing “shallow praise, mild disapproval, and a droughty style.” In short, she accused it of being a “provincial literary journal.” The president of Harper’s, concerned about the potential backlash of the reviewers of Harper & Row books, angrily pushed a response in an upcoming issue of Harpers.
Visibly pleased, Silvers told me how he confided in his boss at Harper’s. The response he got for his idea was, “Amazing, try it. In two months you’ll be back here.” He describes how they promised the printer the revenue from advertisements that publishing houses had booked, and how they asked authors for submissions with the remark, “We can’t pay you anything and we need it in three weeks.” On February 1, 1963, issue zero came out including writers Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal and others who would soon make names for themselves.
The magazine, printed in the reasonably priced tabloid format, was a hit. They collected money from friends and acquaintances for its sequel. There were two tiers of investment possibilities. A – shares were offered to a small group, selected by the editor, who were given some control over the editorial content; B – shares were for normal investors. “That was the key to everything,” says Silvers. “We had absolute freedom, complete control, we could do what we wanted, publish what we wanted, we weren’t bound to a publisher or a foundation, we weren’t subsidized by anyone.”
This freedom, seldom seen in the media landscape, was guaranteed to the Review when it was sold to the publisher Rea Hederman in 1984. With a circulation of 143,000 and revenue that was 90 percent based on subscriptions, it was about as secure as it gets; they’ve been in the black since 1965. After the passing of Barbara Epstein, with whom Robert Silvers shared his life as if they were married, he became the sole editor. The only significant innovations in the history of the magazine are the online archive – with excellent search functions for topics, books, and authors – and a blog for the website, where up-to-date current affairs are discussed.
Six weeks after the publication of the first issue, President Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War escalated. Turbulent years followed: the Civil Rights Movement, student protests, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate. “It was clear to us,” says Silvers, “that a serious literary magazine cannot isolate itself from the political world and its de bates.” He appears irked if you categorize the Review as leftist and points out how important his independence was in those years, as it is now, in a time when the nation is again divided. The criticism of the Vietnam War by authors like Jean Lacouture, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh displeased one of the main holders of the B – shares so much that he withdrew his investment. When the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon and the Review published a report by the French Canadian priest André Gelinas in which he described how books were burned, writers were arrested, and residents were deported and killed, another faction of Bshareholders complained. You can never please everybody. And therein lies the genius of anchoring the freedom of opinion in the business model of the publication.
“From the start we were on the side of those who suffered under state power, who were being harassed, detained, or killed for their views, their values, or their identities,” Silvers explains. “Regardless of whether it was perpetrated by Communist regimes or right-leaning military dictatorships.” The abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, the persecutions under the Shah’s regime, the struggle for freedom in Poland, everything was discussed. Václav Havel wrote for the Review while he was still president; he wanted a platform that would reach the global public. Silvers met the leading Chinese astrophysicist, Fang Lizhi, who published his criticism of the power monopoly held by the Party in Beijing in the Review in 1988 – shortly before the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In 2008 around 8,500 Chinese intellectuals – writers and members of state institutions – wanted to have their manifesto, “Charta 08,” a criticism of the regime, printed in Silvers’ magazine. On the day it was published, the initial signer, Liu Xiaobo was arrested.
The second Bush Administration also gave the Review an adrenalin rush with their register of sins: from tax breaks for the super rich, to the invasion of Iraq, to commending the practice of torture. A new generation of writers called attention to themselves with reportages from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay. The old warhorse, Norman Mailer, got the chance again to castigate his country as a “monumental Banana Republic.” It may have been a little more difficult for the spirit of criticism regarding Obama but unlike many sympathetic intellectuals, the Review didn’t keep silent. “We admire Obama, but we’re also extremely critical,” says Silvers and offers a short abstract of the article, “Obama: His Words and His Deeds,” in which David Bromwich finds fault in the fact that the President isn’t able to transform his impressive statements into real political actions.
Robert Silvers’ skepticism, similar to his regard for human rights, is informed by his down-to-earth biography, rooted in an animated intellectual life. His father was a businessman; his mother was a music critic. In order to raise their kids in the countryside, the family left New York and kept chickens, dogs, and goats on a farm in Farmingdale, Long Island. Little Robert, a bookworm, was only five when he realized that he had an almost perfect photographic memory; once he read something, he would never forget it. In 1944, when he was 15, he left his parents’ home and matriculated at the University of Chicago. He shared his dorm room with a former bomber pilot, who was 30. “It was a wonderful university where everyone had to study various disciplines – humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and math,” recalls Silvers. “Everyone read Plato and Freud, Marx and Augustine.”
He hadn’t reached 18 when he was accepted to Yale Law School, which he ended up not liking. He became the press secretary for the governor of Connecticut. When he was 22, he served in the Army and was stationed at NATO headquarters in Paris, where he edited military communiqués. In his free time he moved in literary circles. There he met George Plimpton, who brought him onboard as an editor at his Paris Review. At the same time he studied French and Political Science at the Sorbonne and the École Libre des Sciences Politiques. “Paris in the 50s was an especially wonderful place, it was much poorer and somewhat rundown,” says Silvers. “Everything was accessible.” Six years later, after being approached by Harper’s, he moved to New York.
“The publisher of a magazine is an intermediary, a person that brings writers he admires together with readers, who will hopefully appreciate them,” says Silvers. He’s worked as a journalist and as a critic, but his passion is that of an editor who puts himself in the service of others, and their texts, without reservation. He sees it as a calling, as something that came to him naturally, something he never doubts; it isn’t a position that came out of the frustration of not making it as a writer. “You shouldn’t purport to do something that you can’t,” he says.
The tone is one of adoration when he describes his writers; he speaks about their genius with the innocence of a child – he is a stranger to jealousy. If you ask him how much he edits texts and who requires heavy editing, he will name people who write flawlessly, but he won’t mention names when he has to compose finished texts out of raw material. That’s how it is; Silvers is a man who shows his greatness by remaining invisible.
Susan Sontag called him a “fantastic, fantastic, brilliant” editor; Joan Didion dedicated books to him; from Timothy Garton Ash you hear a telling story: Silvers once called him at 4pm on Christmas Day (the family was already gathered around the turkey) and said, “Tim, how are you? In the sixth column of the third page proof there’s a grammatical error.”
Robert Silvers doesn’t speak about his private life. He was a born bachelor, he once said. Others say he’s married to his desk, where you can find him seven days a week, sometimes until two in the morning. There’s something monkish in his nature; but there’s also his penchant for glamorous events and parties. His companion is Dubrovnikborn widow of the third Earl of Dudley. Grace, Countess of Dudley, shares his passion for opera. It’s rumored that Silvers occasionally will change into a dress coat after a long day of work and return to his desk after the finale.
He was a longtime friend of Lady Caroline Blackwood, the Guinness heiress, novelist, notorious drinker, and femme fatale. Her daughter, Ivana Lowell, wrote up her memories of it in Why Not Say What Happened? (2010) Silvers was convinced that he was Ivana’s father, but her true father was scriptwriter Ivan Moffat. Lady Caroline let them both think what they wanted. She never cashed the checks Silvers sent her, and denied him his wish to spend more time with his supposed daughter. A DNA test later showed that Moffat was indeed Ivana’s father; and her mother took the mystery of why she lied to Silvers to her grave.
If you write for the Review, or if a book you’ve written is discussed, it’s a distinction in and of itself and it’s a guarantee that you will be read. Wherever there is honor, there is also envy, and some charge Silvers with snobbery and arrogance, with being an Anglophile. The contributors to his title are criticized, that they belong to tight circles of New York intellectuals and Oxbridge notables – a incestuous group in an institution that should be called “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” Tom Wolfe offered perhaps the hardest criticism in the 60s after the infamous issue with a Molotov cocktail on the cover appeared; Wolfe called the Review “the key theoretical institution of the radical chic.”
Taking a look at the classified ads in the Review is illuminating. Under the Old World “International Rentals,” vacation home rentals are offered in the urban trinity: London, Paris and Florence. In the “Personals,” singles who are notoriously “sophisticated, smart, sexy, successful” search for similarly cultivated partners; the “Personal Services” section even offers phone sex with “educated beauties” and “goddesses from elite universities,” who assuredly know how to garnish obscenities with quotes from Plato.
If you address this with Silvers, you’ll get a hushed chuckle. There are questions that one doesn’t ask; and one of these is certainly who his successor will be. He always brushes the question aside with a curt remark. And now that he’s returned to work from the hospital, full of energy and enthusiasm, it really isn’t the time to ask.