• August 30, 2014

The Graying of 'The New York Review of Books'

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Illustration by Scott Seymour and Bob McGrath

In a world of disappearing and diminishing book reviews, every two weeks The New York Review of Books slaps to the table with a satisfying thud. Printed in a large format, its 60 pages—at least!—reassure those of us obsessed with books that the world is not totally lost. Here are serious essays by serious reviewers on serious books. A recent issue contains, for instance, a lengthy review of fabliaux, 12th- and 13th-century verse ditties, and a biography of the Empress Dowager, as well as reflections on Syria ("The Road to Genocide?") and a short piece on the fate of New York's "stop and frisk" program. A mix of long reflective reviews with left-leaning political commentary has marked the NYRB from its beginning. Neither academic nor populist, its unapologetic devotion to earnest reviews and political reportage has enriched our culture.

To a point. The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the NYRB, and a series of events in New York and London celebrated the magazine, and especially Robert Silvers, who has edited it since its beginning in 1963. The assessments of the 50-year run consist of wall-to-wall encomiums. "Silvers is the wise emperor of a brilliant literary empire" is the gist of the articles and interviews. Perhaps this is not surprising. More than a thousand issues of a magazine crammed with heavy-duty reviews and essays impress critics. How can one question such an enterprise?

But something else thwarts a critical assessment. Timidity. "There is often to be found in men devoted to literature," declared Samuel Johnson several centuries ago, "a kind of intellectual cowardice." Writers and professors parade their toughness, their credo of "speaking truth to power." But when it comes to talking truth to mini-power, the magazines in which they might publish and editors who might allow it, laryngitis strikes. Who criticizes the professional journals or the general book reviews? Few or no one. The reason is obvious. We all hope to be reviewed or noticed. Even the most specialized sociologist of adolescent dating patterns harbors dreams of a major book review. Some public words about the dismal quality of reviewing in this or that journal may not help that cause. Less courage is required to attack the architects of American foreign policy than the editors of Foreign Policy.

In fact the NYRB began by way of a rare critique of The New York Times Book Review. In 1959, the novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, who went on to cofound the NYRB, published an essay in Harper's, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which lacerated the Times book review for its "torpor" and "sluggishness." Edmund Wilson, America's pre-eminent man of letters, chimed in, remarking that the printer strike of 1963, which closed down the Times book review for three months, "made us realize it had never existed."

Torpor and sluggishness did not mark the start of the NYRB. In the first issue, Dwight Macdonald began a review of an essay collection by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. stating that "Of the 20 essays here ... six seemed to me excellent, nine poor, and five so-so. Quality was in inverse ratio to length and ambitiousness." Others who contributed hard-nosed reviews to the first issue encompassed the crème of the New York literati: Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin. The first issue struck an immediate chord with writers and professors, including Bernard Malamud and C. Vann Woodward, who wrote in to express support.

From Gore Vidal and Christopher Lasch in the early years to Amartya Sen and Paul Krugman today, the NYRB gave space to important figures—but only once they were already important.

That the initial reviewers constituted a small interrelated crew was obvious to everyone. Not long after the founding of the NYRB, Norman Podhoretz crowed that "just about everyone I know has contributed a piece to the New York Review of Books." He confessed, however, "there are a few contributors I don't know" and—imagine!—"even one I never heard of before."

The situation could not maintain itself and didn't. The very success of the NYRB required additional contributors—and success included economic success, which set the NYRB apart from virtually every other small magazine or serious weekly from Salmagundi to The New Republic. Except for a year or two in the mid-60s, the NYRB has always turned a profit. How? From its first issue, the magazine garnered ads from publishers in New York, headquarters for all the big houses. This was not by chance. Jason Epstein, one of the NYRB's founders, was a top executive at Random House and channeled advertising toward the new magazine.

How unique this is can be confirmed by picking up just about any other literary periodical; typically it will have a page or two of ads. By contrast the NYRB is fat with adsincreasingly. The big and small university presses tout their titles. Indeed one reason to peruse the NYRB is the ads, to find out what books are being pushed. And not only books. Like investment banks, universities have started taking out display ads in the NYRB to announce new star faculty acquisitions.

The expansion of the NYRB pool of writers brings us to the nub of the matter. Who over the years has the magazine tapped or nurtured? This subject requires not simply a disclosure alert but a disclosure siren. My own 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, dedicated some pages to assessing the NYRB. While stating that it "buzzed with energy" during its first decade, I argued it had since become a closed and graying shop relying too much on British professors. "While it continues to publish serious and sometimes provocative pieces," I wrote, "reading The New York Review summons up Oxford teas rather than New York delis." I concluded that the NYRB had a deplorable record of enlisting younger American intellectuals. "For a quarter century it withdrew from the cultural bank without making any investments."

Mr. Silvers was not pleased—or so I was told. An NYRB office assistant whom I encountered at a social gathering intimated to me that my name was mud over there and that I would not appear in its pages. That proved accurate. While my first book had been reviewed and my name had occasionally surfaced in other reviews, from that point to the present—25 years—I vanished entirely from the NYRB. Was this cause and effect? Reminder memo to authors who speak truth to power: Do not speak truth to book-review editors. But I have no evidence of a lockout, only suspicions.

But then most everyone has suspicions. The major reviewing outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, and the NYRB review a minuscule number of books. That means 99 percent of authors can harbor grudges—or secret pride, or both—over being ignored for some reason: They were too radical, too conservative, too original, too something. Proof rarely exists, but who knows? Moreover, it is easy to come up with a list of writers, usually friends of the lister, who were never reviewed, or asked to review, in such-and-such magazine. More proof of an organized blackball. Yet magazines are not subject to equal-opportunity laws; they bear the imprint of their editors and founders—and should. If a New York City editor such as Silvers doesn't want contributors from Kansas State University—even if it's located in Manhattan—so be it. It is their prerogative to pick and choose.

Nevertheless, this does not settle the matter. A magazine that lasts many years, especially one like the NYRB, which has the resources to elicit reviews or essays from anyone, is not exempt from critical appraisal. The issue is not the rights of an editor but the choices made and the direction taken. David Remnick, now editor of The New Yorker, recalls the thrill of getting a telex in Moscow from the NYRB asking him to do a review. "It was like being anointed, in some way." Almost anyone would respond similarly. Once the NYRB expanded beyond its original coterie, it is legitimate to ask where it went, how it has changed, and what has been its impact.

At the risk of getting on literary New York's "no fly list" for another 25 years, well beyond my actuarial expectancy, I would give the NYRB a mixed report card. Politically it has moved toward the center but remains firmly left-liberal. It is difficult to believe that once upon a time Noam Chomsky's 1967 slashing attack on Vietnam War apologists, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," appeared in the NYRB, or that I.F. Stone, the staunchly leftist journalist, was a regular contributor. Chomsky vanished from the NYRB by the mid-70s (except from the Letters to the Editor) and Stone, who contributed mainly in the 60s and 70s and who died in 1989, was never really replaced.

In recent years, Tony Judt's writings on Israel probably marked the furthest left of the arc. But Judt's own attack on intellectuals supporting the Iraq war, "Bush's Useful Idiots," did not appear in the NYRB but in the more politically driven, if not faddish, London Review of Books, which the NYRB helped spawn more than 30 years ago. Nevertheless the left-liberal politics of the NYRB remain unbowed, and almost every issue includes political commentary on the issues of the day: spying, drones, Egypt, Syria. For some conservatives, the NYRB's flirtation with leftist politics in the 60s has damned it forever as the arch representative of chic anti-Americanism. But the political peregrinations of the NYRB are its least interesting features—or, perhaps, its most predictable. More pertinent are the woof and warp of its reviews and its pool of contributors.

Silvers is regularly celebrated as a ruthless line editor who excises fat and clichés. Several contributors report being chased down at distant removes by messages from Silvers. One author feared a death in his family when, during a cruise in the Aegean, the boat's captain interrupted him with news of an urgent call. It turned out to be Silvers, questioning the use of one word in a submission.

To an outsider, however, the NYRB does not seem especially well edited. "I enjoyed The Climate Casino, and felt that I learned a lot from it" is a sentence from a recent review. A review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book on underdogs, after tacking about, summarizes the content and offers no judgment, except to say that Gladwell focuses on "real people" and "brings them wonderfully to life." Many of the reviews seem too long by half and meander without an argument. Moreover the emotional register of the magazine hardly varies from one piece to another. It is consistently poker-faced, circumspect, and humorless.

The coverage, of course, reflects the interests of the editors. Still, what the NYRB did not address over the years is conspicuous. Marxism and the Frankfurt School hardly appeared in its pages. Giants of post-World War II Germany such as Theodor Adorno did not exist—except for discussions about music. Anglo Marxists like Perry Anderson: ignored, except for one review almost 40 years ago. Critical theory, postmodern and recent French thought, which swept the universities: virtually nothing. Conversely, political-legal theorizing anchored at Harvard and Yale: endlessly pursued.

The preponderance of English reviewers remains striking. If one had to name one contributor who incarnated the NYRB, it would be Isaiah Berlin, who had all the accouterments it prized: English, knighted, liberal, connected, lionized. The preference for well-placed Brits may be related to the personal life of Silvers, which revolved around high-born English ladies. (Intellectual gawkers—or is it gawkers of intellectuals?—can find snippets about Silvers in the memoir by the Guinness heiress Ivana Lowell, Why Not Say What Happened? Her gorgeous, talented, and wealthy mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood, married the painter Lucian Freud, the poet Robert Lowell, and had a long affair with Silvers. For years Ivana Lowell believed Silvers might be her father. He's not, it turned out. Silvers appears as a mensch throughout Lowell's memoir.)

More to the point is the NYRB's generational profile—or lack of one. The key American magazines of the past are associated with specific authors and more generally with writers coming of age. The Dial, The Little Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Partisan Review all helped young intellectuals find their voices. But even after 50 years it is difficult to name a coterie—even a couple of writers—that the NYRB nurtured or found. From Gore Vidal and Christopher Lasch in the early years to Amartya Sen and Paul Krugman today, the NYRB gave space to important figures—but only once they were already important.

To update my earlier judgment: For 50 years the NYRB withdrew from the cultural bank while making few deposits.

Moreover it remains committed to a narrow band of already established writers and professors who have New York perches or chaired professorships in Britain or the Ivy League; occasionally it makes forays to Chicago, Stanford, and Berkeley, and once in a great while, the hinterlands. However, the sign outside reads: "Members and Guests Only." What does it say of a literary journal that it names its letter writers in the table of contents? Even at the back door the NYRB checks CV's.

To be sure, Silvers and his co-editor and co-founder Barbara Epstein, who died in 2006, had an eye for younger talent. But almost always it was talent that initially showed up elsewhere. Zadie Smith, the British novelist and essayist, is a current favorite and a prime example inasmuch as she started appearing in the NYRB only after publishing award-winning books. Some of the newer faces associated with the NYRB, such as Daniel Mendelsohn and Mark Danner, did emerge out of the ranks; along with Ian Buruma they might constitute a younger NYRB grouping. But do they suggest a changing of the guard or an opening toward new subjects and writers? This is not clear. Already some of these younger writers, like the Harvard English professor Louis Menand, have moved on—in his case to The New Yorker—which suggests that a shift in the NYRB is not under way. Moreover, this newer crew, now in their 50s and 60s, is not especially young or new. Buruma has been writing for the NYRB since 1985, Danner since 1993.

However the cloud in the NYRB sky is not simply the dearth of new talent, but the editorial future. For decades, Silvers has been unwilling or unable to groom successors. Inevitably the moment will arrive when he will have to give up the reins, but when and who will take over?

What also has not changed over the years is the dense geographic and social cross-hatching of the contributors. None of the new and not-so-new additions had far to travel to celebrate the NYRB's 50th anniversary. The festivities unfolded with lectures at New York's Town Hall, the New York Public Library and at a party, which was described as "worthy of Edith Wharton and Henry James," held at the Frick Collection. The distances were short since Zadie Smith now teaches at New York University; and Mendelsohn, Buruma, and Danner—as well as another regular, Francine Prose—all teach at Bard College, just outside of New York. (Memo to would-be contributors to the NYRB: apply for positions at Bard.) At a party hosted by the Paris Review in New York, Zadie Smith presented Silvers with a prize honoring his contribution to literature. It's a small world.

You don't have to be a malcontent or a Midwesterner to wonder if the hoopla and fawning are excessive. The fact is, for 50 years, Silvers and Epstein put out a biweekly sans pareil in American letters. In the era of tweets and hyperlinks, the NYRB lavishes attention on books, and it often retains an intellectual and political punch. This is no mean accomplishment, and Silvers should be toasted for it. Moreover, as the outlets for nonspecialist reviews plummet, the NYRB plays not only a central but an outsized role. The success of the NYRB partly rests on a larger cultural failure, the shrinking domain for serious discussions. Where else can a scholar hope to reach people who are not disciplinary colleagues?

Yet the critical spirit requires more than panegyrics. Apart from its prolix and cautious reviews, what troubles about the NYRB is its insularity, Anglophilism, devotion to New York-based writers, and love affair with Ivy League-chaired professors. But most troubling of all is the absence of a younger generation. This is the gravamen. When Silvers began at the NYRB he was 33, and Epstein was 34. Contributors to the first issue such as Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal were also in their 30s. Fifty years later Silvers is 83, but where are the younger voices?

Correction (1/6/2014, 11:34 a.m.): This article originally misspelled the first name of Lucian Freud. The article has been updated to reflect that correction.

 

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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