The New York Review of Books turns 50
By Neely Tucker,
The New York Review of Books turns 50 in a big fat issue that comes out today. Just about everyone who contributed to the magazine — it has never had a staff writer — has a cocktail-hour-worthy tale of legendary editor Robert Silvers tracking them down to check an infinitesimal editing question.
Let’s get Daniel Mendelsohn’s.
Armed with an Ivy-League doctorate in the Greek Classics, he is a noted critic and author, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and has written dozens of pieces for the Review over the past 14 years. This being a story about the Review, it is only fair to allow him adequate depth to relate it, so here goes:
“I was on a cruise in a tiny boat in the Aegean Sea, a Classical cruise, I was a lecturer. The captain came down from the bridge in the middle of dinner, saying there was a ship-to-shore call for me, from New York. I thought my parents were dead. I just couldn’t imagine another reason for anyone to call. Shaking, I went up the steps to the bridge. I was already thinking I’ll get a flight to Athens . . . that sort of thing. I get to the phone — and it was Bob! He was going over galleys of a a reply I had to an author whose book I had written about. This was in the letters column. And he says, ‘Oh, Danny’ — (he’s the only person in the world who calls me Danny, which I just love) — ‘I wanted to go over this one word in your reply.’ That’s why he was calling. One word. In a letters column. I almost fainted with relief.”
Ah, yes. The Review. That tabloid-sized organ of the nation’s intellectual discourse, discussion and harrumphing on art, literature, history, international politics and American society. Home to the essays of Mailer, Didion, Sontag, Havel. Where books and ideas have been pinned and examined like bugs on an insect board since 1963.
Hopelessly smart, unapologetically progressive. Clubby. Sometimes called staid, if not dour. Also, unique, unparalleled and often brilliant. Also, it’s been blasted for not having nearly enough women writers.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, has called the inaugural issue “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” Esquire has called it “the premiere literary-intellectual magazine in the English language.”
Silvers, who is 83, has edited the magazine from the beginning, with co-founder Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, and on his own since then. He has always treated the magazine as his alter ego. He’s famous for his unimpeachable manners, a mid-Atlantic accent despite a Long Island upbringing, and a work day that extends to long after midnight.
“Barbara and I have been able to do everything we wanted,” he said in a phone interview, with his trademark panache. “It’s an extraordinary situation . . . people have been extremely loyal to us.”
The 50th anniversary issue is gaudy with intellectual firepower. Four Nobel Laureates have bylines. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer muses on reading Proust. There’s the transcript of a long-lost lecture by T.S. Eliot. British novelist Zadie Smith writes about her dad and their walks in public gardens.
The market for this sort of high-brow pontificating?
Circulation is at an all-time high of about 150,000, says publisher Rea Hederman — and this in an era when print is considered dead or dying. The average age of readers is just north of 60, but a younger audience is taking to it on the Web, he says, and he expects the average age to drop in the next readership survey.
The magazine’s first, experimental issue was during the New York newspaper strike of 1962-63, when the New York Times Book Review was shuttered. “Too many important things were being missed,” Silvers says. Epstein and her husband, Jason, a publishing executive, came up with the idea, along with their neighbors, poet Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, a literary critic. Silvers, then a young editor at Harpers, signed on as co-editor.
After that first issue — in which they persuaded Norman Mailer and other literary giants to write for free — they cobbled together the funding for regular publication in the fall, when the magazine began its 20-issues-per-year schedule.
The staples of each issue, Silvers says, are history, art, politics, social issues and the international scene. Fiction and poetry reviews have always been included, but not as much as the rest.
Reviews have never hewed to tight time pegs; depth was the more important concern. You don’t read a 4,000-word article about, for example in the current issue, a biography of Titian and an exhibition of Tiziano if you’re worried about a time peg. (Also, if you need it explained that Tiziano Vecellio, a 16th century Venetian painter, is also known as Titian, then maybe the Review is not the mag for you.)
This sort of depth, and the quality of the people writing for it, has made a Review byline a résumé definer. If one wishes to be thought of as a certain type of writer — of heft, style and a certain gravitas — a Review byline is pretty much the gold standard.
Remnick, the New Yorker editor, was posted in Moscow for The Washington Post in the 1980s. He got a telex from Epstein asking him to review an Boris Yeltsin’s autobiography. The feeling of reading that telex, he says, is with him still: “It was like being anointed, in some way.”
“The idea isn’t that you write for them because of the clip,” he says, “because ‘a clip’ infers that you might want to use it to get somewhere else. There is no somewhere else.”
Today, there is that same sort of we’re-addressing-the-historical-record-here zeitgeist. Silvers typically starts his day late, colleagues say, then works into the evening. He often attends the ballet or the opera or an art exhibition, and sometimes winds up back in the office. The stories of writers calling his desk at 1 a.m. to leave a message and him picking up the line are staples of the trade.
“They’re incredibly generous about taking the time to go through things,” says novelist and contributor Claire Messud, who once worked there as an intern. “So much of [business today] is about people doing things quickly, with haste. One of the first things to go out the window is a type of graciousness, because who has time? . . . There’s a whole sort of rhythm and tone of how they deal with people. I’m sure it was always rare. But it feels incredibly precious now.”
Silvers does not dabble in social media, but this doesn’t mean he is immune to popular culture. After hearing several writers talking about the HBO hit series “Game of Thrones” last spring, he asked Mendelsohn to write about it. Mendelsohn was a fan of the series but hadn’t read the epic George R.R. Martin series of fantasy novels that are their basis.
So he went back and watched every episode of both seasons, then read all the books over the summer. They total nearly 6,000 pages.
His 5,000-word article, reviewing both the show and series, is your vintage Review piece: Extremely well-done, serious, and filled with literary and historical references. He describes Martin creating his ancient world with “Herodotean gusto”; the feudal lands in the books as “quasi-Assyrian city-states,” one of the nomadic tribes as “Scythian-like” and he invokes William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. That’s all in the first half.
Here’s a thought further on:
“I don’t think that the theological preoccupations of Martin’s novels — grittily realistic, for all the fantasy — raise them, in the end, to the level of, say, “Lord of the Rings,” whose grandly schematic clash of good and evil, nature and culture, homely tradition and industrialized progress gives it the high Aeschylean sheen of political parable, the enduring literary resonance of cultural myth. But the not inconsiderable appeal of “A Song of Ice and Fire” lies as much in its thematic ambitions as in its richly satisfying details, and the former ought to be a salient feature of any serious adaptation.”
Also, he says, actress Emilia Clark should be tanked as she is “an untalented lightweight.”
How much longer can this last?
Maybe a long time, but one has to remember: Silvers is 83. He always graciously deflects questions about a successor. People debate, they gossip — veteran contributor Ian Buruma is sometimes mentioned as a candidate — but, really, nobody knows. Silvers keeps the schedule he has kept for decades.
“As long as he’s here,” Hederman says, “he’s our editor.”