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In Conversation: Robert Silvers

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Has the Review always been profitable?
No. We had a second round of fund-raising after two or three years. That was around ’65. As of ’66 we were in the black.

And you’ve been in the black ever since. This is nearly unheard of. Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, National Review, even Commentary—none of those has been consistently profitable.
I’ve never figured out just why. We used cheap newsprint and had very low costs, including low salaries, and no staff writers. And perhaps most important, once people subscribed, they resubscribed year after year at a very high rate. And publishers, including a good many university presses, decided it was a place to advertise, and they stayed with us. And when he became publisher, Rea improved everything to do with publishing the paper, and he set up New York Review Books, which flourishes.

I’m holding here the first issue, which declares, in a statement on the second page: “This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.” This is the only editorial statement that you’ve ever made.
That’s it! And that’s still what we try to do. We shouldn’t pretend to be comprehensive. There’s no point in reviewing a book if you can’t find someone whose mind you particularly respect. And even so, we have to turn down every month or so a piece we’d asked for. But I left one thing out of that editorial statement: the freedom of those people to reply at length, to make their case.

Many of them have.
Of course.

How did the famous debate between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson come about?
What happened was this: Nabokov, after many years, published his translation of Eugene Onegin—that masterpiece of Russian literature that had long resisted translation. He decided that it was impossible to versify in any form that would be faithful to the Russian, so he would do an unrhymed translation with a huge apparatus of explanation—the famous notes, which took up an entire volume.

I recall in particular a long note about the history of foot fetishes in literature.
They’re marvelous to read.

Unrhymed or not, his translation is rather beautiful. I love it.
Most of the Russians hated it. And Edmund Wilson sent us a long essay attacking it and contrasting “the Nabokov we know” with the one who “bores and fatigues.”

They had been friends.
Wilson thought “Volodya” was obviously a man of some Russian genius, and published his reviews in The New Republic when he was literary editor there. But his Review article was a big attack on Nabokov’s very idiosyncratic language, such as “rememorating” or “sapajous” (for monkeys). The next big article was by Vladimir, defending it, in the Review. And then came Edmund’s reply.

How had you met Wilson?
I went to visit Barbara and Jason in their house in Wellfleet in 1959. The plane arrived, and we were about to go to the car and I said, “Oh, I have to get my suitcase.” And Jason said, “No, I saw a New Statesman sticking out of it, so I knew it would be you.” He had it already in the back of the car. At Wellfleet, the high point was when we went around to Wilson’s house.

The most distinguished literary critic of the time.
Well, he was a great friend of Jason and Barbara, and I saw him only rarely. But in the second issue of the Review, he did something marvelous. Interviews were appearing in every magazine at the time, and he decided to conduct an interview with himself. And he gave his many views on what was happening, some of them deeply unfashionable. For example, he had no use for the Abstract Expressionists, who at that moment were seen as kings of New York.

He hated them.
He was a man who wanted to see a clear delineation of reality, however various.

Some might say that’s a fair description of the Review’s cultural stance, which they see as conservative.
I would say “critical.” Examining things closely.

Is conservative not a fair word to use to describe the approach to, say, deconstruction in literary theory?
That’s a very interesting question. There were writers called “postmodern,” some of them very interesting and original—in the novel, for example, William Gass and other writers of fiction. We were certainly not hostile to such fiction. We published criticism of some of these tendencies and we also published articles making a case for them, for example by Michael Wood. But the Berkeley philosopher John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of Jacques Derrida’s very influential theories he called “The Word Turned Upside Down,” exposing what he called their “obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses.” Neither Derrida nor anyone else convincingly replied to that criticism so far as I can see.


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