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A Bittersweet New Era in the Penny Press!

By (March 27, 2017) No Comment


The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived on my doorstep last week, and it quickly became the saddest issue of the NYRB I’ve ever read – because this was the first nyrb040617-600x0-c-defaultissue I read after the death of the journal’s legendary editor, Bob Silvers. He’d been there from the beginning, and he was there for this issue too … but it had already crossed the shadow-line: I read it knowing that after he’d talked about all these pieces with his editors and writers, after (sometimes long after) he’d decided which ideas were worth shaping into publication, and I finished the issue not thinking “he must be proud of an issue that good” but rather “he’ll never see this issue, nor any other.” The New York Review of Books will go on – but the Silvers era, the only era it’s ever known, is now over.

The writers and editors of the NYRB will, I trust, do the very thing Silvers would have railed against and devote the bulk of an entire issue to remembering and honoring him. But in the meantime, reading this issue, I couldn’t help but think of it in a sudden terminal sense, looking back at half a century.

The Silvers era defined the journal with its shopping-around ethos of eclectically trying to match the perfect reviewer with the perfect book. Over the years, Silvers assembled one of the greatest stables of perfect reviewers in the history of literary journalism, and half the fun of every new issue was the anticipation of how these big guns would be deployed – and which puny little pop-guns would get a chance to fire off not because they knew anything about anything but rather because Silvers liked them enough to keep going back to them.

This issue is, of course, a perfect illustration. Its roster of writers contains some mighty talents – Christopher Benfrey, Geoffrey O’Brien, Fintan O’Toole, Vivian Gornick, Michael Tomasky – and some decidedly less-than-mighty talents, like the omnipresent Nathaniel Rich, here offering some deftly-worded platitudes about Paul Auster’s deftly-worded platitudinous novel 4 3 2 1:

One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.

The NYRB this time around got the worst novelist currently working in English, Cathleen Schine, to review the worst English-language novel of the season, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and this, too, was a magical pairing in its own dark, ominous way, with Schine barking up the wrong tree right from her first paragraph. “Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny,” she writes. “It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.”

Not a word of that is true – Batuman’s novel is wretchedly boring and narcissistic – but there’s an NYRB-specific horror of fascination in reading Schine lurch and fumble her way all around it. And on half a dozen levels, that horror of fascination always hovered over every Bob Silvers issue of the NYRB, that feeling of not quite knowing when the sharp elbows would be thrown, of never quite guessing when the tacit nod of permission had been given for a hatchet-job, or worse, a principled, convincing take-down.

A heated disagreement has been unfolding in the letters page, for instance, between Edward Jay Epstein and Charlie Savage about the reliability of Epstein’s book How America Lost Its Secrets (long-time NYRB readers will each have their own favorite such protracted exchange) is a good example of the kind of scholarly infighting Silvers seemed to encourage as part of a healthy intellectual exchange, and the excitement of the spectacle arose from the fact that the participants were always evenly matched. The intellectual evisceration Michael Ignatieff performs in this issue on Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, for instance, was riveting to me not only because I liked Mishra’s book but also because I like Robert-Silvers-at-the-New-009Ignatieff’s attacks:

Mishra doesn’t bother with such distinctions, it seems, because he sympathizes with the anger of the jihadists and believes it has some justification. At one point, for example, he says of the ISIS terrorists that they have “aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.” Never, so far as I know, has a free and freedom-loving intellectual handed a gang of killers such a lofty worldview. Mishra would not justify terrorist acts – he would recoil at the very idea – yet in seeing its perpetrators as holy warriors against “modernity” he justifies their arguments.

Right from its beginning, The New York Review of Books was meant to provide just this sense of the sheer high-stakes excitement of reading, and this latest issue conveys that excitement as well as every issue before it. And the NYRB’s offices are still crammed with some of the smartest, most passionate people in the business of literary journalism, so that quality of every issue likely won’t disappear now that its architect has died. But it will certainly change – how could it not? – and although I wouldn’t miss those changes for all the mud in Egypt, it’s a new era with a mighty sad beginning.