As the New York Review of Books celebrates its 50th anniversary, its editor for all those years explains why a world without long, serious reviews is ‘unthinkable’.
If meeting Bob Silvers for lunch is a daunting prospect, it is because he represents not just an institution but an era – or, rather, several; like Logan Mountstuart, the protagonist of William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart, Silvers has a knack for witnessing historical moments first-hand.
At a time of profound transformation in the journalism world, Silvers’ reflections to Emily Stokes in the section Lunch with FT. on Jan 25th 2013, sound refreshing. Coinciding with the 50th aniversary of the magazine, one of the most prestigious publications among literary journals, a true icon in book reviews, Silvers offered a fairly optimistic view on the transition from print to online journalism:
I ask Silvers whether he thinks serious criticism will survive the transition from print to online journlism. “Oh, it’s just unthinkable!” he says of a future without long reviews. Reviewers have a different calling from authors, he argues – being obliged above all to be “interesting” – quoting Hardwick – about even the most apparently boring subjects. Newspaper reviews, he says, often fall into the trap of trying to be comprehensive, which usually means they can’t get good reviewers, because “it’s very hard to persuade very good writers to write on books that are, shall we say, mediocre” – although, he hastily adds, he’s an admirer of the books section of the Financial Times.
What is going to happen to the NYRB after Silvers, born in 1929, steps down?
There are “three or four brilliant editors who could run the review, and people who would make an exhilarating paper. They would do something probably different, in some way,” he muses. “We don’t know what they would do.”
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the magazine started on Jan 15, 2013, a series or reminiscences pieces written by its staff members about their time working for the NYRB. Janet Coleman ianugurated the series with a historical colection of pesonal memories from her beginnings, in the early sixties, in the Fisk Building, under the suggestive headline 57thStreet Rag.
Every paragraph contains a unique bit of an extraordinary film which no cut, in a few lines like those of a blog entry, would do any justice. See the following just as an example:
I became Bob’s assistant soon after Alexandra’s engagement and a cliff-hanging episode in which I, speaking Spanglish to Mexican telephone operators, succeeded in reaching Carlos Fuentes so Bob could invite him to review Oscar Lewis’s Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and His Family for the NYR. Learning to follow the intricacies of Bob’s mental processes, editorial choices, and moral compass was a life-altering and lifelong lucky break, a First Amendment Ph.D.
Mornings, he’d dig from his pockets semi-legible names and addresses on folded blue scraps of his checkbook and attach each of them to a semi-legible assignment draft. He exchanged long chatty calls with Advisory Editor Elizabeth Hardwick and George Plimpton, his best friend. He’d plow through the piles of new books and catalogs that arrived twice a day. He’d take and make calls to writers; sign on to lunches, book parties, social events. Sometimes he’d cop a piece of my bagel. Finally, he’d burrow into a stack of manuscripts, querying, correcting, rewriting, perfecting every reviewer’s every word.
On February 5, The New York Review celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an evening at Town Hall in New York City. Before a packed crowd of 1,400 people, editor Robert Silvers introduced John Banville, Mary Beard, Michael Chabon, Mark Danner, Joan Didion, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Darryl Pinckney, who read from their past work in the Review and spoke about their relationship with the magazine, and its influence on their careers.
On April 3, 2013 The New York Review of Books and the Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers at the New York Public Library presented a panel discussion celebrating the Review’s 50th anniversary. Five regular contributors discussed their careers, their experience writing for editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, and their predictions and hopes for the future of literary journalism. We are pleased to present the excerpts below from this program.
The Opening Editorial
On our 50th anniversary, we reprint here our editorial statement for the first issue of The New York Review of Books, published in February 1963 during the newspaper strike in New York City.
To the Reader: The New York Review of Books presents reviews of some of the more interesting and important books published this winter. It does not, however, seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers’ strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel is needed in America. This issue of The New York Review does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud. The contributors have supplied their reviews to this issue on short notice and without the expectation of payment: the editors have volunteered their time and, since the project was undertaken entirely without capital, the publishers, through the purchase of advertising, have made it possible to pay the printer. The hope of the editors is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discover whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one. Readers are invited to submit their comments to The New York Review of Books, 33 West 67th Street, New York City.
After fifty years we go on as before, lamenting the death of our founding co-editor Barbara Epstein in 2006. In this issue we publish several essays on or by writers and artists whose work meant something to us when we started.
—The Editors. Nov 7, 2013
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov
Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity and Anonymity on the Web by Cole Stryker
From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet by John Naughton
Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die by Eric Siegel
Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier
Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age by Alice E. Marwick
Privacy and Big Data: The Players, Regulators and Stakeholders by Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff