High-minded, rigorous and liberal: 'The New York Review of Books' has set the standard for long-form criticism since 1963. Monocle meets editor Robert B Silvers for a lesson in how to stay inspired and relevant.
Robert B Silvers – “Bob” to everyone – is the sort of person you’d want to be seated beside at a dinner party. The New York Review of Books editor is a window into another age; old-school New York with all its stories to boot. Silvers continues to work what he calls a “seven-days-a-week job” at the ripe age of 85, his hunger and passion still evident, along with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his writers’ names. Silvers has been at the Review since he co-founded it during a newspaper strike in 1963.
Costing 25¢ at the time and labelled a “special issue”, it was unashamedly highbrow and text heavy, with a list of writers below the front-page masthead that included literary heavyweights such as WH Auden and Gore Vidal; everyone from Philip Roth to VS Naipaul have contributed since. Silvers was established as the co-editor alongside Barbara Epstein with the aim of publishing fresh commentary on books and events around the globe.
One of the founders, writer Elizabeth Hardwick, had penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s (where Silvers had worked) shortly before and the Review aimed to be the antidote to this malaise by running long-form, informative pieces weaving together books exploring social, political or historical issues, with essays and poetry thrown in for good measure. It was anti-war, liberal and, according to Tom Wolfe, a vehicle for “radical chic”.
Fast-forward over half a century and The New York Review of Books continues in the same vein. With Silvers the sole editor since 2006 (when Epstein died) it still probes, still secures the best writers and still publishes twice a month with a circulation of around 150,000. Little has altered the format despite the passage of time, the different political environment and the more precarious state of the publishing industry.
The paper’s West Village office is everything you’d expect: an ordered chaos of loosely filed paper, open-plan spaces and books, books, books. And at the helm, Bob: an erudite tour de force and beacon of continuity.
Monocle: What makes a good editor?
Robert B Silvers: A lot of editing is simply intense natural reaction to text. And these reactions are uncontrollable; you just have them.
M: Do you love books too much to ever stop working here?
RBS: I feel like I’m in the thick of these books coming in and the issues they raise. What do we really know about Isis? They control a territory the size of Great Britain, they have hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re cutting off people’s heads. What is going on? We haven’t grasped what we should have grasped. I feel that here is an opportunity to clarify things.
M: You never think, ‘This is exhausting; I’m tired of this’?
RBS: I don’t feel tired; I feel driven by it. I feel that there is something we must do that we haven’t done yet.
M: What has changed since you started?
RBS: Everything. We started off in the optimistic Kennedy era; we went quickly into the rising Vietnam War until in the 1970s it became a central source of estrangement from US policy and culture for our audience, as well as for many of our writers. And then we went into the Nixon era and then the Reagan era. We had many critical writers who had deep questions about what was happening and we still do.
M: Is ‘The New York Review of Books’ political then?
RBS: You cannot avoid being political if you’re going to live in this period because the question of life and death, of power and powerlessness dominates. The future of society, of the earth and its climate and diversity are at stake and you can’t ignore these things. And you can’t just have the usual banal concern about them; you have to try and go beyond what you would think of as the expected reaction and see if you can achieve a deeper analysis.
M: Do you think some presidencies provoke and provide more material than others?
RBS: I believe the presidency in this country dominates the whole mood of a culture, the whole tone. And you feel deep, basic responses to life and to what people do are in some way associated with the mood cast by the presidency. And in the case of this recent Obama administration we’ve seen something I haven’t seen before: a kind of almost depthless hatred.
M: How is it having a literary review in the 21st century?
RBS: For the moment our paper with its paid circulation of around 136,000 and 15,000 online – meaning perhaps 200,000 or 300,000 people are reading it – is in a rather good state. Many readers who subscribe like to read in print; one day there may be fewer and everyone will read on screens. There’s no question that while we’re criticising novels and works of history there’s little attention being given to different forms of digital journalism. There’s a critical function that isn’t being done and we’re trying at least to do it.
M: Are people reading less than before?
RBS: I’m not sure they are. I feel that people are reading our paper often very intensely; I can’t tell you the critical letters we often get about tiny points and errors. I think books are selling rather well in America. Some bestsellers shift millions of copies. The book business exists on about 15 different levels, from vampire novels to books on the meaning of life.
M: Why do you think you have been so successful an editor?
RBS: It’s a mystery. I marvel at the idea that people actually want to read some of these things. If I find a book that I enjoy I hope rather desperately that others will. And enough people have enjoyed them, so we go on. Not anything vast but more than enough.