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In Conversation: Robert Silvers


The New York Review of Books' office.  

In the early days, and especially notable for the time, there were a number of quite strong and distinguished women—not just Barbara Epstein but Susan Sontag and, of course, Elizabeth Hardwick.
Aside from Barbara, Lizzie was the major influence. I would send her reviews and she would say, “Oh, yes, this piece is very good. It just needs a little work.” And then she would send it back half as long, with paragraph after paragraph cut or compressed. She had no patience at all for what you would call tired language. One day she called up and said, “Area? Practically everything’s an area now.” And I said, “Well, Lizzie. I’m looking out the window, and there’s Broadway.” And she said, “Oh yes, that’s an area, but the word is used for everything else. It’s simply a vague way of saying nothing.”

I know from sometimes-painful experience how particular you are about certain tired words. Massive, for example, is strictly forbidden. Or framework.
Framework could rightly refer to the supporting structure of a house, or a wooden construction for holding roses or hollyhocks in a garden, but now the word is used to refer to any system of thought, or any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid context. Context has an original, useful meaning, now generally lost: the actual language surrounding a particular text—con, meaning “with,” and text—and now it’s used for every set of surrounding circumstances or state of things, and it gets worse with contextualize, sometimes used to mean some sort of justification.

Even more insidious and common is in terms of, a fine phrase if you are talking about mathematical equations or economic functions in which specific “terms” are defined, but it is just loose and woolly when you say things like “in terms of culture,” for which there are simply no clear terms.

Then there is the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, or political feud—on or off “the table.” The question of an independent Palestinian state is on the table! Or is it off the table? It’s become a way of avoiding a more precise account of just what’s happening.

You also avoid left and right as descriptions of political positions. Do you no longer see a coherent left?
There are people who are more interested in liberties than others; there are people who are more interested in a fair distribution of goods and wealth, especially for the poor, and especially the black and Hispanic poor; there are people interested in protection of human rights internationally; there are people interested in control of pollution and climate domestically. You could list dozens of other causes. But lumping all these people into “the left” seems to me incoherent and lazy.

Of course, the early years of the Review saw the rise of a so-called new left in opposition to the Vietnam War, and in 1967, you sent Mary McCarthy to report from Saigon and Hanoi. When did you get the idea, as editor of a book review, of sending writers into war zones?
We felt we could do anything we wanted—we always thought we had control. The first issue came out of a very small group, to whom it was absolutely unthinkable that anyone would tell any of us what to do. We could do anything we wanted as long as we could pay the printer. From the first we had articles and political commentaries either on the Kennedy administration, say, or on totalitarianism in Cuba.

One night at the Lowells’ we tried to think of who would be the best person to write on the American presence in Saigon. Mary had certainly resented Norman’s review, but when I sent her a telegram, she said she would go next week.

She was intensely critical of the American presence in Vietnam. What gave you the confidence to do such pieces? Did it have to do with the way you had structured the control of the Review?
Jason Epstein brilliantly set it up. There would be two groups of shareholders. The “A” shareholders had control of the appointment of the editor and of editorial matters, and the “B” shareholders would benefit only financially. The A shareholders were the Epsteins, the Lowells, myself, and Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher with the second issue. When Rea Hederman took over as publisher in the mid-eighties he guaranteed we’d have the same editorial freedom we always had, and we have.

So six people in control of editorial—but how much in control? Was there ever a question from that group of six?
They never tried to exercise any control. Oh, sometimes, after the fact, Lizzie would say, “Honey, you’ve simply got to do better than that.”

And the B shareholders had no say at all.
Brooke Astor was one of the leading B shareholders. A friend had shown her the paper. She said, would we come around to her flat? Whitney and I went. She was there reading the paper. She said, “Boys, I like this, and I’ll put some of my own money into it.”


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