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In Conversation: Robert Silvers

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Is that how the personal ads came about?
Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher after the first issue, came to us one day with some ads that subscribers had sent in: “Beautiful Jewish writer seeks sexual partner who can dance,” and so on. And Whitney said, “Well, is this the sort of thing we want to do?” And Barbara and I said, “Why not!” Other papers of course did this later, the London Review and others, but nothing quite as, shall we say, elaborate and bold as many of these ads came to be. People competed for the most colorful description of their fantasies about themselves and their ideal partner.

The ads have attained a kind of celebrity.
And some rather famous people we knew actually met people through them. And about once a year, a couple would appear and say, “We met through the New York Review, and we’re just married.”

When I came to the Review in 1981, just out of college, one of my jobs was to retype manuscripts after you’d edited them. I’d sit at my little desk, and you’d sit at your big desk behind this towering phalanx of books, and every once in a while a piece of paper would come sailing over the parapet, a typewritten manuscript page now completely covered with your penciled changes. Many of these pages, of course, were the work of writers I’d come to greatly admire for their wonderful published prose, and I found myself shocked to discover that you did a great deal of work on it. But I was also fascinated to see that a lot of the work you did with your pencil seemed to be uniquely in the service of making these writers sound—how I should I put this?—like … themselves.
Sometimes, of course, they would get very angry and want to restore everything. And often those people who want to restore everything are not very good writers.

And yet I recall writers whose pieces had been heavily edited—rewritten, really—receiving the galley, in which all the changes had been seamlessly incorporated, and responding: Well, but you didn’t change anything at all!
The fundamental point is that if a writer has something interesting to say, you have to ask, sentence by sentence, if it is clear as it should be or could it be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point.

You are famous also for these late-night telephone calls in which you track down a writer in some exotic land to ask about changing a word. Or a comma.
When I worked for Jack Fischer at Harper’s, he would look at the final galleys. He would take his pencil and he would go through and make changes—cross things out, put things in—and it would go right off to the press. I was appalled. Writers deserve the final word about their prose.

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

Although often you will scrawl a note in the margins saying, “It might be helpful here to have a word or a line about X.”
Yes! We do often in the galley.

Even though it may be Christmas Eve, as it often was.
That has to do with the schedule of the press.

But it also amounts to a kind of sign, whether the intention is there or not, a signal to the writer that absolutely everything is being done, no matter what the time, to care for this prose.
Well, I hope it makes people feel that each word counts. It’s going to be read by a lot of people. It’s going to have an effect. It means everything.

When I began working for you, there were two shifts for editorial assistants working in your office: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then a later one.
Two-thirty to 10:30 p.m.

Which I learned often went on to midnight or later. How is it after 50 years you are able to maintain that level of meticulousness and determination?
I don’t feel that that kind of work is a matter of decision. There’s simply no alternative to reading every piece attentively and very critically. It would be unthinkable not to. I work my way through several reviews a day. If I’m at home I’ll simply try to stay up until I do it. If I’m here at the office I’ll try to stay until I finish it.

Did you always work such hours?
I was an editor at Harper’s, a monthly magazine with several editors, and we worked under a number of unstated assumptions—that the readers could take only so much; that radical writers and ideas were taboo. That what Lizzie called the “light little article” was indispensable. No doubt it has changed in many ways. But the New York Review was and is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to do what one wants on anything in the world. Now, that is given to hardly any editor, anywhere, anytime. There are no strictures, no limits. Nobody saying you can’t do something. No subject, no theme, no idea that can’t be addressed in-depth. There’s an infinity of possibilities. Whatever work is involved is minor compared to the opportunity. That is the essence. That is the nature of the magazine.


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