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In Conversation: Robert Silvers

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Soon the Review will be publishing a piece on video games and on the experience and allure of playing them, among them the games played by the Columbine killers. These games together have sales of $25 billion, much more than the movies.

From books to texts to video games. What comes next?
The other night, I sat next to a woman who said, well, my children now only send Instagrams.

Instagrams! I don’t even know what those are.
You keep in touch with your friends by sending them one picture after another, from your phone.

Don’t you find this development rather worrying?
Years ago my friend John Gross did many anthologies for the Oxford publishing company—the Oxford Book of Essays, the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, and so on. Now I might imagine an Oxford Book of Tweets! That is to say, witty, aphoristic, almost Oscar Wildean remarks, drawn from the millions and millions of tweets. Or from comments that follow on blogs. But I doubt it will ever be done. A great many tweets and follow-on comments are really rather lame or cheap wisecracks, in which you feel behind the tweet the compulsion, simply, to … tweet. To get in on it.

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Are you concerned that younger readers form a generation obsessed not with long form but with these very short prose forms?
I don’t know. The phrase long form has come in in the last twenty years or so. I’d never heard it before. I’d thought of reports and essays and criticism of different lengths—lengths that the subject seemed to warrant. Long form as opposed to what?

To, I suppose, reading on the screen, which is generally thought to limit the length of what can be read.
But is that necessarily true? Much of the material on the Internet can be long, very long. And should be.

Which brings us to books themselves: Are you concerned about their future?
In one way or another, if you include e-books and self-published books, more books are being published than ever. Most people don’t seem to understand that. And there is no falling off, in my view, of very serious books. A major problem for us remains, as I see it, the flood of books that do require consideration for review. That should be reviewed. We’re constantly struggling to master the flood. If you look over the lists of just the university-press publishers, you’ll find literally hundreds of books worthy of review.

Until she died in 2006, you and Barbara Epstein co-edited the Review in one of the most fruitful, and certainly the most enduring, partnerships in literary history. How did you do it?
Barbara and I had an understanding right at the beginning that we would collaborate on everything. We published nothing that each of us had not read and gone over. We shared every piece, every assignment. We had no division of labor. We both dealt with reviewers of fiction, poetry, science, history, and art. We were extremely close partners.

She had a marvelous sense of humor, and one reason I looked forward every day to going to the Review was that Barbara and I saw a lot of what we were doing and a lot of the people we were dealing with as, however admirable and serious, also absurd and funny. It was a kind of weird gamble in which we had quite astonishing freedom, and our general approach, if someone had an idea for something interesting but quite different from anything we’d ever done, was, why not?


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