Robert B. Silvers is Editor of The New York Review of Books. The offices of The New York Review of Books in the West Village are in a large, very simple open space. Robert Silvers works at a desk piled high with books, with other editors and assistants around him. When it gets too late – after 2 a.m. – he sometimes sleeps in a monastic room next to his office. The night before our meeting he worked until two and then resumed at around ten in the morning.
“I have worked seven days a week for fifty-one years, since the first issue of the Review that Barbara Epstein and I co-founded with our friends in 1963. You see, there is an infinity of work. We have to publish fifteen to twenty reviews every two weeks. We have writers all over the world.
“In every issue there is a piece on fiction, one or two on history, something on science, something on American political life, art criticism, and a poem. By the way, I am just now expecting a long reportage from Ukraine.”
Bob Silvers, as his friends and writers call him, is eighty-five. He looks and acts exactly like he did thirty years ago, has the same passion and drive for his craft of editing that he calls a “métier”.
What is your work as editor?
To look at the incoming books and to send some out to review.
Who is reviewing them?
The best people, the best in the world for the specific book in question.
How do you know who is the best?
You have to consider that over fifty years we have published 16,000 articles. We are always looking for new young people.
How many of you are at the Review?
I have four assistants and three senior editors who read manuscripts and galleys and check facts. All our reviewers are outside, since the beginning. Every review is commissioned. I personally edit every article and there is nothing I have not carefully gone through.
But what is editing?
You think of each article as having a voice. The voice has to be clear. Then there must be style and imagination. You have to hear the voice. Clarity is the goal. You make suggestions and you send the text to the author.
How can you manage fifteen to twenty pieces every two weeks?
Some pieces are done and ready in advance, some have to be edited at the last minute. An issue has to be shaped and, as I said, there should be history, political events, poetry, novels, what is happening in our political future.
Do you sometimes publish special issues?
Yes, in June we will publish a special issue on art. For instance, we have a big piece on the Italian Futurism show now at the Guggenheim Museum. One of our regular contributors on modern art should be writing about the Sigmar Polke exhibition at the MoMA.
Do you think that there are fewer books translated in America today?
Yes, less than in the Sixties. It is probably an economic matter. America is quite isolated from Europe. But many European writers today have an eye on America. Yes, there are fewer translations from French, Italian, German. But today in America one of the most popular and followed writers is the Danish Knausgård, who writes very long and detailed stories about his own family; he is particularly fascinating.
Did you discover many writers?
Some writers became more known because of the Review. We were one of the first to publish the work of Oliver Sacks – his early stories of neurological abnormality – and now his books are widely read.
You helped writers like Primo Levi and Milan Kundera to become well known in America?
We published marvellous articles about them when they were not as well known here at the time. I remember that in 1977 Václav Havel was among the leading intellectuals during the Prague revolt. I knew that Tom Stoppard was born Czech so I got his number from Harold Pinter. I called him and asked him: “Can you go to Prague and report?” He answered, “I have been waiting for this call for fifteen years!”
You published a play by Harold Pinter in the Review?
Yes, a wonderful short play: ‘One for the Road’.
Who are the most famous writers that you have published?
I particularly liked Isaiah Berlin. We admired his mind range: philosophy, politics, British history. He wrote for us on de Maistre, Turgenev, Machiavelli. He became a sort of shadow editor and he meant a lot to us. It was a privilege to have someone with that kind of intelligence and moral integrity willing to help us.
To go back to your question, from the very beginning we published W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Bill Styron, Jimmy Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth…
Have you always been an editor?
From 1954 to 1959 I was in Paris as an editor of the Paris Review. Then I was hired by Harper’s. Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell’s wife, wrote an article for me on book reviewing called “The Decline of Book Reviews”. She said that the New York Times was becoming trivial and made it clear something else was needed.
In 1962 there was a huge strike at the New York Times lasting for months. Jason Epstein, editor of Random House, said that it was the only time in history that one could publish a new book review without putting up a penny, because all the publishers still needed to advertise their books. We just had to have a plausible project. When Jason proposed this I left Harper’s and asked Jason’s wife Barbara to join me. We called many people: Gore, Norman, Bill, Mary and others. Because of the strike at the New York Times we sold 100,000 copies of the first issue.
We sell 150,000 copies and we have our New York Review of Books blog. The brilliant editor is Hugh Eakin and many of our contributors write short pieces for the blog. We also started the London Review of Books and asked Karl Miller to edit it. Now we only own one third of it. In the 1980’s we sold the Review to Rea S. Hederman who has been our publisher since then and he helps the Review a great deal in its advertising, promotion, distribution and development – but Rea has never interfered with our editorial work and I am totally free.
Barbara Epstein died in 2006, do you miss her greatly?
Yes, I do. We had a lot of fun working together every day and we collaborated on everything. She was a charming, very intelligent girl.
Do you think that an editor should never write?
It depends. Some of us have been very good writers, like Cyril Connolly. Or there are people like me that consider editing a “métier”. As an editor what you care about is to create a marvellous journal.
Do you sometimes reject pieces?
We do. I consider that some things are not good enough. Occasionally you have to say, “Look, I am so sorry.” It is crucial to sustain a quality of a certain level. I believe in beautiful writing. Clarity is the fundamental thing. Good English is a question of voice. You want to avoid clichés, bad metaphors. You want a certain quality of language and not to descend into the vulgarity of loose, sloppy, thoughtless, non-authentic popular usage.
What makes a brilliant writer?
A distinctive original voice, intelligence, originality of view.
Do you think that people are reading less?
We are on the verge of a new mentality. In the digital world “tweets” have 140 characters, sentences are very short. The new quick communication has an effect on language. There is no criticism of the digital world itself, no critical voice, yet there is a tremendous amount of reading and writing on the internet. Forms are changing.
Are you becoming digital yourself?
I edit with a pencil and paper, but I use the internet.
How do you read?
I read a lot, at some times quickly, at others every page carefully. Sometimes it is good to go straight to the conclusion because often it is in those last pages that a writer makes his or her most intense effort.
Have you published many poems in the Review?
Poems come in and we know most of the poets. We just published a poem by Fred Seidel.
How can you still be so faithful to the Review after so many years?
It is the most fantastic opportunity for an editor. We have had complete editorial freedom from the first issue. I think of Donna Tartt, who just won the Pulitzer Prize and has had good reviews everywhere. But our reviewer had criticisms of a book that seems full of clichés. Our task is to have our own opinion. So the very reason to continue is the rare opportunity to be free.
What about politics?
We have tried to make intelligent criticism of Obama and of the fierce, unfair attacks on him. We have been both favourable to him and critical of him. We criticised the fruitless, futile and expensive war in Iraq. But we have been critical of American wars since Vietnam.
Are we going back to a Cold War?
The European position vis-à-vis Eastern Ukraine is weak. Putin wants to create a Eurasian group. He wants to reunite the Old Empire, with Russian dominion.
We end our conversation. Robert Silvers has to go back to work at his desk and he gives me a copy of the first issue of the Review. I look at the names of some of the contributors: Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe….
When I go out I think he is a very rare man and of what John Richardson wrote in his article in Vanity Fair in 2007: “Jason Epstein’s assessment of Silvers as, “The most brilliant editor of a magazine ever to have worked in this country,” has been shared by virtually all of us who have been published by Robert Silvers.”
April 17th, 2014