“He Couldn’t Conceive of a Life Without Being the Editor of the NYRB

Ian Buruma on the genius of Bob Silvers, the Review’s cultural influence, and the art of wrangling writerly egos.

Bob Silvers.
Bob Silvers.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Shankbone.

Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, died this week at the age of 87. While the NYRB developed a reputation as arguably the preeminent English-language literary journal, Silvers himself became known as one of the most legendary editors of his era, famous for his care with individual sentences, his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, and his ability to convince first-rate writers to become—and usually remain—part of the Review’s stable. (Barbara Epstein, with whom he shared editorial duties from the NYRB’s founding in 1963, died in 2006.)

During the course of the NYRB’s long run, few writers became more associated with its pages than Ian Buruma, who has written extensively about everything from East Asia to the Cambridge Spies. (Buruma’s most recent book, now out in paperback, is This Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War.) I spoke by phone with Buruma a day after Silvers’ passing. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Silvers’ greatest strength as an editor, the NYRB’s influence on American culture, and how to get the best work out of writers with big egos.

Isaac Chotiner: I’m very sorry for your loss.

Ian Buruma: Everybody’s loss, I’m afraid. It’s terrible.

How did you meet Bob Silvers and start writing for the NYRB?

It was around 1983, and I’d written a book about Japanese popular culture and how the Japanese imagine themselves and so on, and he had it for review. I called him when I was visiting New York, and he asked me to come and see him. He then said to me, “So what can you write about for us?” And that was a question I hadn’t anticipated. So my eyes swiveled around the desk in a panic and I mentioned some book that I had absolutely no authority to review at all. Then I remembered that Donald Keene was publishing an enormous volume on modern Japanese literature, and I said, “Well, what about Donald Keene?”, and he said, “Yes, yes, that sounds very interesting, let’s think about it.”

And I didn’t think about it at all and went back to Hong Kong where I was living and forgot about it really, and thought, well, it’s good to have met the great man and so on. And suddenly a Telex appeared two months later saying, “When can we expect the Keene?” That’s really how it started, then I really was in a panic and had to read two volumes of more than 1,000 pages and produce a piece, and that’s how it began. Then we didn’t look back.

What made him unique as an editor?

I think the great thing about him as an editor is that he had no ambition to be a writer himself. He really was an editor. He had great respect for writers. Once he made up his mind to ask a particular writer to write something, he had confidence in their style and didn’t see it as kind of raw material to get his teeth in and start to rewrite himself and so on. He then helped you to clarify your thoughts and to get rid of the fuzziness. But he didn’t interfere in the way that so many editors do. Except in the case where he wasn’t dealing with a writer, but he was dealing with a very interesting scientist or political figure, and then he was known to completely rewrite things.

But when he was dealing with writers he showed the respect that he would ask you about every comma that he was going to change. That really is very different from a lot of editors who are used to getting lots of researched stuff, and then they whip it into shape. That’s not how he worked. He made up his mind that somebody was a good writer, and then he respected that, if you see what I mean.

What made him unique as an editor in the broader sense, in terms of what role he wanted the NYRB to play in the culture?

Although he was very different in almost every way as a person, in some respects he was a bit like Susan Sontag who, of course, he nurtured. He was very American in the sense that he, of course, grew up and was educated in America and totally felt involved in American affairs. Yes, he was also very clued into European culture, and he was an Anglophile and a Francophile. So in some ways I think he felt that he stood for a certain idea of European culture that included the United States and that had strong links with the Enlightenment.

But it wasn’t for nothing that his great intellectual idol was Isaiah Berlin, and that’s I think where one should place him. He had a deep feeling for a sort of enlightened humanist European tradition in an American context. I think that’s where he placed his magazine. Some people made fun of him because he had a kind of mid-Atlantic accent, but I don’t think that was snobbery; I think he really did fit into a particular concept of civilization.

Now that you brought it up, and since you wrote a book called Anglomania, what do you think of the critique of the NYRB that it became too Anglophilic?

There may have been times where that was a little bit true. I don’t think snobbery is the main reason for it. I think he felt that British journalists were often trained to write in a better style than many Americans were. I think that attracted him to correspondents of the Economist and so on, simply because they could write well. And of course this is generational, but I think he did feel, again, like Susan Sontag, that the heart of Western civilization lay in Europe more than the United States, and that’s a little old-fashioned. But at the same time, I think he also felt deeply involved in American affairs and never ceased to be American. Probably at times it was a little overheavy on Oxbridge. But I think he admired the style. I think that’s an important thing to remember.

Are there particular ways in which you think the NYRB changed over time, either in terms of its politics or its approach to literature and literary culture?

Don’t forget that Barbara Epstein was very influential on the strictly literary side. He was very keen for more pieces on fiction, but I don’t think it’s where his heart lay. I think he was very much a political animal, as well as somebody who was fascinated by science and history and so on. I don’t think he was as literary in that sense as Barbara.

I’m not sure it changed so much after she died, although I think that they were probably more leftist in the late ’60s and ’70s than they were later. On the other hand, I think his heart was always on the left of center, more than the right of center, and that became a great asset in the days of the second Bush administration when the Review and the Nation were among the very few publications from the beginning to take a very principled stand on the Iraq war and everything that was going on.

Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma.

Penguin Random House

Also, I think it’s an unfair criticism to say that the NYRB got old and that he was out of touch with young writers, and that the average age of writers was old. I think, on the contrary, that when I first started writing for him in the ’80s, there were a lot of quite old people then, in their 70s and 80s, and he had a nose for interesting young journalists and kept it to the end. The readership may have got older, but that’s a universal problem in newspapers and serious journalism and so on that demands a certain depth of knowledge of history. It’s harder and harder to find young readership for that. So the readership of all serious newspapers has crept up as well. So I’m not sure that was really his fault.

Do you think over the past half century, the Review made any big errors? Were there any lacunae, or important cultural trends it missed?

I think there were lacunae even though he was a tremendous polymath. Again, to quote Susan Sontag, an intellectual is somebody who’s interested in everything. If that’s the definition of an intellectual, he certainly was it. He was interested in everything, but he was more interested in some things than in other things. I think perhaps contemporary art would be one. I don’t think that interested him particularly. I think he was interested in Modernism, so you’d have very good pieces on Picasso and Matisse and that generation. But it was not the place to find a cutting-edge piece on Jeff Koons.

Didn’t Robert Hughes do a bunch of famous pieces for the Review on contemporary art?

Yeah, but Robert Hughes is a case in point. Robert Hughes was hostile to contemporary art. When he did [write about it,] it would usually be to dismiss it as something sort of pretentious and rubbishy. Again, it wasn’t an area I think that Bob was deeply interested in, so he wouldn’t have looked for somebody who had a really fresh view on, say, conceptual art. If that’s a lacuna, well, then so be it.

You know the old joke referring to the publication as “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” To what degree you think Silvers was aware of this criticism, and did he mind it, or actually cultivate it?

Well, I think it was probably truer in some periods than in other periods. He did not take a sort of principled stand in the way that the New York Times does. He didn’t feel it was necessary that somebody, in order to review a book, should not have known the author personally. He felt that even if you did know the author personally, it was perfectly legitimate to write on the person’s work. So that did happen. But I don’t think that he went out of his way to get friends to review other friends’ books. He had a very good instinct, and that, obviously, can sometimes misfire, but very good instincts for finding the right person to have a particular take, an interesting take on a particular book.

And where I think he was especially good is getting people to write about their private passions, which may not have been their academic specialty, for example. I remember, for example, he got Eric Hobsbawm to write very good pieces on jazz. I think there he had a very good eye.

How did he deal with big egos among writers he edited?

I think he was good with them because, again, it comes back to the first question. The most egotistical monsters could often work with him, even though he could sometimes be quite tough. I know that he was quite tough editorially with, for example, Susan Sontag and some of Joan Didion’s pieces I think took quite a long time to get into print, because there were differences of opinion and so on. But I think people put up with whatever discomfort that may have caused, because they knew he respected them. I think the worst thing for a writer is to have to second-guess editors, in the sense that you’ve been rewritten ham-fistedly too many times. So that before you start writing a sentence you think, well this is the way I would structure the piece, but I bet they’re going to tell me to put the beginning at the end and so on and so forth.

That you never felt with Bob, and I think that kind of basic respect for the writing was very important and allowed him to be tough when it was necessary editorially. I also know that sometimes he would stand no nonsense from people who were very grand. One example, I believe, was with Joseph Brodsky, whom I think he admired and liked personally and so on. But Joseph Brodsky probably misguidedly thought that he could be a perfectly good English prose stylist, as good as he was in Russian.

Not everyone’s a Nabokov.

That’s right. Not having been educated in English, he had a tin ear, for example, for clichés. Bob, I think, told him to take them out and Joseph Brodsky was too grand and wouldn’t listen to him, and that’s why at some point he disappeared from the New York Review and appeared in other places where editors thought, well, Joseph Brodsky is Joseph Brodsky, so why change a word.

You were rumored for a long time to be the next in line to take over the Review. Was that ever true? Did you ever talk to people about it?

Well, I don’t think it was ever true, but I know where the rumor came from, and it was when I was still living in Hong Kong in the ’80s. He asked me to come to New York to talk about what he called, literally, he said it in those terms, “long-term plans.” I was then working as an editor for a magazine in Hong Kong, and he said would I be interested in working in the office and perhaps taking some of the weight off Barbara Epstein’s shoulders and so on. Instead of jumping up and down saying, “That’s a chance I’ve always been waiting for,” I said, “Well, of course, that would be a wonderful thing and a great honor, but there’s still a lot I want to write.” I never heard about it since. He put out his feelers, and that was the last I ever heard of this. I think that’s where the rumor began, because I probably told somebody and that got around.

Do you have any guess of what’s going to happen now?

No idea whatsoever, because I think it was something that was very difficult to discuss while he was still alive. Bob couldn’t conceive of a life without being the editor of the New York Review.

Over the past 24 hours, have any stories about him particularly stuck in your mind?

Not really, except the usual ones, the call on Christmas Eve to change a comma and all that.

I’d like to emphasize that I do feel very strongly that I owe pretty much everything that happened in my writing life to Bob. He put me on the map, and I’ve never felt as comfortable with any other editor. Bob really was one’s home editorially, and so I owe a huge debt to him.