Literary Voices on the Legendary Brilliance of Robert Silvers
Robert B. Silvers, a founding editor of The New York Review of Books and an absolute giant of the literary world, died yesterday at the age of 87. Devoted, incisive, and endlessly curious, Silvers was an integral figure in shaping the intellectual literary landscape as we know it today—not to mention, by all accounts, a once-in-a-generation mind, a brilliant editor, and a joyful reader. Everyone loved him. He worked with Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion; he helped launch the careers of A.O. Scott, Deborah Eisenberg, Darryl Pinckney and more. Plenty of writers, editors, and readers have already expressed their sadness and condolences on Twitter, including Joyce Carol Oates, Masha Gessen, Philip Gourevitch, Paul Krugman, and Laura Marsh, and more are likely to join them in the coming days, but for now, here is a little more perspective on this great man from some of the many writers and editors who have worked closely with him.
Louis Begley in The Paris Review
I have long been afflicted on and off by “regular contributor” envy, wishing disconsolately that in the list of writers whose names appear in The New York Review of Books my name were followed by that tag. It’s an absurd pretension, since its fulfillment would have meant upending my life and career. I suffer from it only because the ideal editor of my—and I would guess every writer’s—dreams is another giant of a man, Robert B. Silvers, the editor, brain, and heart of the NYRB. When I write a piece for his magazine, of course I have the immeasurable good luck to be edited by him. There is no experience quite like it. Bob knows everything that’s worth knowing, a consequence of his unflagging curiosity.
[T]here is no limit to the care Bob takes of his writers. Having assigned a subject, he will have thought about it deeply, and his instinctive grasp of issues and erudition combine to provide the writer a safety net. You can count on him not to let you go astray. … Bob, with the intensity of his devotion to the Review and to his charges who are its writers, with his ability to coax, encourage, correct, and restrain, is the Mary Poppins we all need and wish for, our own Super Nanny.
Charles Rosen, as quoted in The Guardian:
Bob [has not] sunk his personality into his profession; rather … he has found a means of transforming his profession into a fundamental way of being human. Extracting reviews from writers is not, in his case, a métier, or even a way of life, but a genuine form of self-expression, and he exercises it with dignity, tact and what sometimes feels like excessive sympathy. He has made writers feel that producing articles for him is not a business transaction or even process of communication, but simply a reciprocal act of friendship.
Claire Messud in The Paris Review:
My first encounter with Robert Silvers was with his sonorous and elegant voice, with its precise, slightly British diction. It must be said that most of my encounters over the years have been with the voice rather than the man, as we’ve met in person only a few times.
Now, most of our editorial exchange goes on by e-mail; but even five years ago, we would discuss changes over the telephone, often at 10 P.M. on a Sunday night. It seemed that Bob was never not at his desk. In every experience I’ve had, Bob’s editorial acumen has been confirmed and reconfirmed. But more impressively still, I’ve had him reveal, more than once, that he has himself read the novel at hand, and sometimes with more sensitivity than I have: in one early review I wrote for him, he pointed out, delicately, that I’d attributed a quotation to the wrong character, and upon another occasion, that I’d summarized an event in a misleading way. (If it is indeed true that he isn’t much interested in fiction, then I can only imagine how carefully he has read the nonfiction books.)
You’d think that nothing could be more terrifying than to be rebuked by a man of such eminence; but in fact, Bob is unfailingly generous and kind, someone who carefully suggests rather than commands alteration. He is an extraordinary editor in part because he is always respectful, of even the least of his contributors, or the least contribution.
Janny Scott in the New York Times:
If any publication can be said to reflect the mind of one individual, The New York Review of Books reflects that of Mr. Silvers, the voracious polymath, the obsessive perfectionist, the slightly unknowable bachelor-workaholic with the colossal Rolodexes and faintly British diction.
Like Mr. Silvers, rigorously schooled in the classics of Western civilization, the Review is fascinated by philosophy, political science, music, art. Like him, it is cerebral and a little eccentric. In an era of increasing specialization, both are holdouts, grappling with a huge range of topics, from Darwin to Bosnia, assisted suicide, Beethoven, Ovid and a few longtime interests like human rights, the use and abuse of state power and Freud.
“The New York Review of Books is an emanation of Bob Silvers,” the historian Theodore Draper wrote when Mr. Silvers turned 60. “Like all great editors, he expresses himself wholly through it. I have known editors who competed with their writers. Bob competes only with himself.”
John Banville in The Paris Review:
Bob’s edits are scrupulous, comprehensive, and precise. They are frequently aimed at saving the reviewer’s face. I recall, through a pink mist of embarrassment, a notice I wrote some years ago of a book on Nietzsche. I had been reading Nietzsche since I was an adolescent, and here at last was my chance to say about him everything that was in my heart. However, the heart, as we know, is an undependable organ, and the ten-thousand-word dithyramb I dashed off was as overblown and self-contradictory as anything old Zarathustra himself ever wrote.
In his first response, a note that was the written equivalent of a tactful clearing of the throat, Bob pointed out that the Review really could not accommodate a piece of that magnitude; and besides … After much to-ing and fro-ing the review appeared at one third its original length, but even that was enough to bring down upon my head a snowstorm of letters from irate Nietzsche specialists, all of whom said, more or less, that they and not I should have been commissioned to write the review; had Bob not been the editor he is, and had the piece appeared in anything like the form I’d written it in, I would surely have perished in the blizzard.
Oliver Sacks, answering the question “Who’s your favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional?” in New York Magazine:
Bob Silvers, founder and editor of The New York Review of Books, one of the great institutions of intellectual life here or anywhere.
Shelley Wanger in the NYR Daily:
In the new, spacious, light-filled rooms on the thirteenth floor—Suite 1321—there was the addition of some industrial carpeting in the main offices, which nonetheless retained a comforting air of disheveled, bohemian mess. Bob’s habit of chain-smoking long, thin, dark brown Nat Sherman cigarettes created a thick cloud of smoke that made his office look like a bad day in Beijing, only compounded by the occasional fire that started in the large, boxlike brass floor ashtray with lions’ feet to the left of his desk and the smoke from just outside where Luc Sante, one of Barbara’s assistants, sat and exquisitely rolled and smoked his own cigarettes.
In the morning, it was usually rather quiet until Bob dashed in—a tornado of energy—around 10 or 10:30, having already been up at dawn calling Europe from home or pulling an all-nighter on some review not in good shape. He, of course, had a thousand ideas and out of his suit pockets fished a matchbook cover or some other scrap with the crucial contact, writer’s name, or the title of a book—little leads from the day before at the Council on Foreign Relations or maybe a dinner party that night—which we were meant to pursue immediately. “Immediately” being the favored mode of operation—how else could he get that story, or that writer? This involved a lot of phone calls and then whatever letter with a bound galley did not go by express mail left the office with Christopher Burke, our in-house messenger, who flew around the city delivering and picking up packages often until nine o’clock.
Bob’s great curiosity, his phenomenal powers of concentration, his ability to work up a difficult subject in no time, to clarify language and totally rewrite a review if it was a piece he cared deeply about is known, but to observe it was daunting, not to mention his routine of devouring all printed matter—there was hardly a paper or literary journal we did not get. The brilliant and original matching of writer to subject with the expectation of an important in-depth discussion—often more interesting than the book being written about—still puts the Review in a league of its own and as Scott Sherman has written in The Nation, the Review has also always published political pieces that “took up the slack and presented viewpoints which were extremely hard to get into the established media.”
Jonathan Miller, as quoted in The Guardian:
He isn’t just conscientious beyond the call of duty. He defines what duty is. You will often find him working until two in the morning in the office, with his little assistants from Harvard around him. He never stops. He’s always meeting people, and talking … he has a wonderful capacity just to gossip endlessly—a sort of Viennese café chat (not to be confused with the chatter of café society). And then out come these wonderful ideas.
Joan Didion, as quoted in New York Magazine:
It’s just that he’s a marvelous, wonderful editor. It’s a responsiveness that you don’t usually find. Everyone who works with him marvels at it, I think.