Lunch with the FT: Robert B Silvers

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.

Born in 1929, Robert Benjamin Silvers grew up during the Great Depression, on a 15-acre Long Island farm where his parents kept chickens and some goats. At the age of 15, he attended the University of Chicago alongside GIs newly returned from the war; on graduating he worked as press secretary for the Connecticut governor Chester Bowles. During the Korean war, he was drafted to Paris, where he worked first as a speechwriter and press aide for Nato; and later, after meeting its founder George Plimpton, for the literary magazine the Paris Review.

On his return to New York in 1958 Silvers joined Harper’s Magazine, five years later becoming the first editor, with Barbara Epstein, of a new literary journal. At that time the New York City printers’ union was on strike, newspapers had been off the newsstands for months and advertisers were hungry for pages. Dreamt up at a dinner party by poet Robert Lowell and his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, along with publisher Jason Epstein and his wife Barbara – who co-edited the journal with Silvers until her death in 2006 – the New York Review of Books would, its founders hoped, invigorate the intellectual life of the nation.

Now one of the world’s most respected literary institutions, the fortnightly journal has provided critical commentary on culture and on political events for 50 years, with critics and contributors ranging from Joan Didion to VS Naipaul, Vladimir Nabokov to Tony Judt. It breaks stories too, such as Mark Danner’s revelation in 2007 of a secret report on the treatment of 14 “high-value detainees” in CIA custody.

Today the NYRB, owned since 1984 by Rea Hederman, is said to have made profit since its third year, has a circulation of 143,000, and, with the help of a popular blog, its readership is growing.

At 83, Silvers looks fit and well. He has an old-boy charm – today enhanced by a dapper suit and a loud, striped scarf – and radiates genial warmth. His favourite restaurant in New York, he says, is Perry Street, run by French restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but it’s been closed since superstorm Sandy. “They’re drying out or something,” he laments.

His second choice is EN, a Japanese brasserie he describes as “very convenient” – it’s in the same Hudson Street building (a former printing press) as the NYRB. EN, which means “destiny” in Japanese, turns out to be a large loft space with dark wood panelling and surprisingly low tables and chairs, which give diners the feeling of being very small.

Silvers is interested in food only “up to a point: frankly, I’m in the office most of the time, and people tend to bring me one thing or another ... ” he says, laughing as tends to in response to questions about himself.

As an editor working at a literary magazine, I find Silvers’ work ethic inspiring, if hard to mimic; he is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours; many have stories of receiving clippings and queries from “Bob” in the middle of the night or as they sit down to Christmas lunch.

Daniel Mendelsohn, for example, one of the NYRB’s regular critics, told me how Silvers telephoned on New Year’s Eve (also Silvers’ birthday) to discuss some ideas. When I mention this to Silvers, he pauses to recall the occasion. “Well, I suppose I was in the office,” he allows. “Although I should say that I was returning his call.”

A waitress asks if we would like a drink. “I’d love some New York water,” he says in his old-fashioned accent, which has a faintly British ring to it, and laughs again. He says he reads all readers’ letters to the NYRB – to get a sense of how the review is being reviewed. “When we have articles on the Middle East, no matter what we say, we always get angry letters.” He smiles. “We can never get it right.”

Silvers’ mildness is more than politesse; it is part of the editor’s role, he says, not to be swayed by friendships with authors but to let reviewers express their genuine views. The need for distance is particularly acute in the case of the NYRB, which is known for publishing work by a relatively small group of regular critics, who often dissect each other’s work. Even the first issue contains several cases of cross-reviewing: Dwight Macdonald writes about Arthur Schlesinger and has a book of his own critiqued by Barbara Probst Solomon; WH Auden’s criticism is reviewed by John Berryman while Auden contributes a review of the poetry of David Jones.

Silvers doesn’t care about such “overlaps”, however, saying he rather likes the idea of an intellectual elite. “There was an old friend of mind, a teacher, Daniel Bell,” he says of the sociologist who specialised in the study of post-industrialism, “who said that the neglected ‘c’ word was not ‘conservative’ but ‘clique.’ ”

Silvers mentions a review of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch by Mary McCarthy, published in the NYRB’s first issue, in which she analyses the effect of drug addiction on the protagonist’s sex life (and on Burroughs’ prose), describing it as a “very original review.” I mention a recent article by Zadie Smith, entitled “Joy”, and he exclaims in delight. “Zadie Smith has a very original take on rather ordinary things,” says Silvers, who believes that, most of all, editors should be fuelled by admiration for their writers.

A waiter arrives to take our order. Silvers recommends the cod. I have heard that he is a vegetarian but, when I mention this to him, he says only that he was struck by the essays of the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, who has written extensively about animal rights. “One must do what one can,” says Silvers, and orders shira ae, a dish of Brussels sprouts and tofu, with rice and miso soup.

A few days before we met, Silvers had sent me Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, first published in Harper’s in 1959. It’s a witty indictment of a kind of “light little review” which acts as a “hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.”

The essay, Silvers explains, was an inspiration for the NYRB, which in its first editorial said it would not deal with books that were “trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation”.

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.

The NYRB has had a successful blog since 2010, but Silvers believes many new media haven’t yet found their “critical function”. “Just think of the tweet form,” he says, describing tweets as sometimes “apt and to the point” but often “no more than off-hand wise-cracks”. The challenge now is to find a way of reviewing these things, he says, “just as we would bring a critical perspective to bear on other forms of prose”. He pauses, gazing out of the window. “This is a huge ... universe of prose,” he says wistfully, “that is simply slipping through the consciousness of time without any systematic or thoughtful criticism.”

The waiter places in front of me a tray full of small bowls – of rice, salad, tofu, pickles, some sort of fungus, and a piece of fish on a leaf. Silvers, who has just three small bowls in front of him, laughs merrily at my helping, saying he has quite enough.

I ask him whether he thinks some people’s wariness of harsh critics and negative reviews might be a response to the cruelty of anonymous comments online, and he nods thoughtfully. “Well, one must always be fair,” he says, deftly handling his chopsticks. “We are constantly asking our readers to clarify their arguments and to provide examples”.

Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by “reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted”, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles. “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ ... ” He dips a sprout into his soup, absent-mindedly.

When I ask whether he has a role model, he winces. “By the way, that’s another word ...” he says, and tells me about Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) the American sociologist who invented the term for a specific use. Silvers says, instead, that he admired the literary critic Philip Rahv (1908-1973), who edited the Partisan Review and wrote for the NYRB, and Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), who wrote for the second issue. “I think we all thought of him as the most admirable American mind at that time,” he says. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), the playwright and dissident who went on to become Czech president and wrote for the NYRB, was another person he admired.

Silvers has moved on to his soup while I feel more as if I am playing with my food; despite so many bowls, the meal is oddly insubstantial.

I have heard a rumour that the Pentagon Papers – which demonstrated that President Lyndon B Johnson had lied about his reasons for going into the Vietnam war – were once kept in the NYRB offices. “Oh yes,” he says, as if they might still be in a drawer somewhere. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst and NYRB writer, had asked if he could “keep a suitcase in the closet for a while”, he says, “and then a man came from a law firm and took it away again.”

Our plates cleared, I suggest we have some tea. “Oolong, please,” he tells the waiter. I wonder if he ever has a break, and he says that sometimes he travels with Grace, Countess of Dudley, his partner since 1975 and with whom he lives in a grand apartment on the Upper East Side. He says he would prefer not to talk about her but then looks out of the window, and speaks into the distance as if dictating a memo: “I must say that she has a kind of fineness of spirit and of intelligence, and such a rigorous mind, that she’s been a great inspiration in my work and in my life.” There is a long pause while Silvers spoons four sugars into his little teapot.

Silvers doesn’t like to discuss what might happen to the NYRB after he steps down, saying only that 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.”

He is most comfortable talking about his life before the NYRB – as a student at Chicago university, where he was friends with a bomber pilot, and his time in Paris, where he lived on a barge on the Seine and once helped to put up a group of men fleeing the Hungarian revolution.

Though he has often insisted that he is not a writer, perhaps he might, I ask, consider writing a memoir? “My thought”, he says carefully, “is that it’s not impossible. But I wouldn’t think of it as I’d have to find the right form for it.” He pauses, as if trying to come up with a plan on the spot. “I couldn’t contemplate it now; there’s so much to do.”

He looks suddenly a little worried, so I pay the bill and we gather up our coats and walk into the January afternoon, and then almost immediately back inside, into the lobby next door. We take an elevator up to the office, a large white and beige space, and pass a wall of drawings by David Levine, whose caricatures illustrated the NYRB for 40 years until his death in 2009. “That’s Edmund Wilson,” Silvers says, gesturing towards a drawing of a man with a very large stomach.

He pads over to an empty living room, which resembles a theatrical set, to show me a bookshelf he says has been kept exactly as Barbara Epstein had it. “That’s Barbara,” he says, pointing to a picture of Epstein and himself, laughing over some private joke in their old office in the Fisk building on 57th Street.

We continue past another small room (“that’s Andy,” he says of a young man clutching some manuscripts), and into the main office, where there is a large desk raised on a platform in front of three assistants all typing away. The phone is ringing, and he clambers up to his desk, so I thank him for all the good advice, and leave him to take the call.

The NYRB will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an event featuring Joan Didion, Michael Chabon and other contributors at The Town Hall, New York, on February 5;

EN Japanese

435 Hudson Street, New York

Black cod lunch set $19.00

Shira Ae $6.00

Miso soup $3.00

Oolong tea x2 $12.00

Total (incl service) $53.55

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