It was 9/11 that revived the Review’s fighting instincts.
Two years ago, a lengthy piece in The Nation heralded “The Rebirth of The NYRB.” Written by a young journalist named Scott Sherman, it argued that the Review had once again become “a powerful and combative actor on the political scene.” Week after week, it carried dispatches from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantánamo Bay. Mark Danner and Orville Schell reported from Iraq. That courageous warhorse Norman Mailer, still contributing to the Review 40 years after his appearance in the first issue, wrote a piece denouncing the United States under Bush as “a monumental banana republic.”
But what is the Review’s place in that republic? Is it read beyond the confines of New York—by which I mean Manhattan and its cosmopolitan outposts Berkeley, Cambridge, and the university-dominated villages of Ann Arbor and Madison, New Haven, and Hyde Park? How much influence does it have in the Real World? Silvers points to the article by Mark Danner on the “dodgy dossier” that justified Tony Blair in joining the invasion of Iraq. “We were the only publication to run the full text of the Downing Street memo!” he says. Elizabeth Drew’s piece on the Bush administration’s pursuit of unchecked executive power “had an amazing effect. People in Congress read it.” Whether this constitutes influence is hard to say. “I have no great confidence that anything is influential,” says Silvers. “If it is, great.” But he values influence far less than independence—both ideological and financial.
It is a sad fact of life in America that the general audience for so-called intellectual publications, both left and right, is so small that most of them require subsidies in order to survive. Rupert Murdoch owns the neocon Weekly Standard; a consortium of prominent liberals, including Paul Newman, owns The Nation; and a consortium of no fixed ideology that includes Harvard associate professor Martin Peretz and Roger Hertog, a major donor to the conservative Manhattan Institute, owns The New Republic. The Review, too, now has a wealthy owner, Rea Hederman, whose family owned the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger.
“We knew each other so well that we could have a kind of shorthand,” says Silvers of Epstein. “We passed things back and forth in the most natural way.”
Hederman was muscled out of the editorship after he transformed the Clarion-Ledger from an openly racist newspaper into a Pulitzer Prize–winning voice of the civil-rights movement. He moved to New York, made a fortune in the cable-TV business, and bought the Review in 1984 for about $5 million. But he’s not a benefactor: Its circulation of 127,000, the modest fees it pays contributors, and its attractiveness to publishers as a venue for book ads have made the paper modestly profitable. “We’ve never had any hesitation about taking any position that we thought was right,” says Silvers. “There is no foundation, government, or other force in the world that can tell us what to do.”
The death of the “public intellectual” has been announced more often than the death of the novel. In Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, University of Chicago law professor Richard Posner spends more than 400 pages anatomizing the disappearance of this type. His book, with its “quantitative analysis of public intellectual activity,” attempts to calculate the relative importance of 727 intellectuals—not 726 or 728—according to such criteria as “media mentions,” “scholarly citations,” and helpful demographics: “Jewish/non-Jewish,” “Right-Leaning/Left-Leaning,” “Black/Nonblack” (a reversal of racial categories meant to show how tolerant the author is). To assess the role of public intellectuals, you have to assess the role of “policy intellectuals”—the neoconservatives who haunt the corridors and cafeterias of the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. One tends to forget, in the cloistered atmosphere of literary New York, that there’s another kind of intellectual who resides in a different city—in not just ideological but geographical proximity to power. The Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol, messengers 30 copies to Dick Cheney’s office every Sunday morning
In the literary world, too, the Review faces competition. Though they can’t begin to challenge the Review’s intellectual hegemony, the journals of Generation X—Open City and The Believer and n+1—now have followings of their own. Keith Gessen and Benjamin Kunkel, two of the editors of n+1, also write for The New York Review of Books, but their real energy goes into the journal they founded two years ago. n+1 looks like the old Partisan Review and sounds like it, too, with its mix of somber symposia on “American Writing Today” and political essays. (“Gut-Level Legislation, Or, Redistribution,” by Mark Greif, makes the case for capping incomes at $100,000. Good luck, Mark.)
Dave Eggers, meanwhile, has created a virtual literary franchise. In addition to publishing a line of books, he presides over two literary journals: McSweeney’s, which features short stories, and The Believer, a monthly with an edgy design—large trim size, odd illustrations—and idiosyncratic features. My own favorite is Nick Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” which is mostly about stuff he hasn’t read. Interestingly, the “Books Bought” list is almost always at variance with the “Books Read” list.