The 50 Year Argument: The Daring Journey of The NY Rev. of Books

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Robert Silvers is an audacious man. It took a certain kind of boldness to start a competitor to The New York Times book-review section in 1963. And to ask Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Robert Penn Warren, William Styron, Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden to write reviews for that issue. And, 50 years later, when the idea of a documentary on The New York Book Review arises, to ask Martin Scorsese to direct it.

Audacity has its merits.

Silvers insists his pluckiest move, though, was even earlier when he was an editor at Harper’s Magazine in 1959, when he put out a special issue on American literature and asked Elizabeth Hardwick to to write an essay on the state of literary criticism. In “Decline of Book Reviewing,” Hardwick wrote, “The worst result of its decline is that it acts as a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally. The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity—the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself—have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal.”

Righting that decline would be the mission of The New York Book Review when Silvers, Harwick, co-editor Barbara Epstein and publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth launched it in 1963.

Born and raised on Long Island, Silvers served as a press officer at NATO headquarters during the Korean War. It was at a kiosk in Paris that he came across George Plimpton’s new Paris Review. Silvers had friends at Noonday Press and was helping them find writers so he decided to stop by the Paris Review headquarters.

“We sat down around two in the afternoon and started talking about writers and about the Review and what might happen with it,” Silvers says. “It was only at the very end of its first year of The Paris Review, and suddenly we looked up and the street lights were coming on; it was about six o’clock. And he said, ‘Look, I’m going over to see some friends, come along with me.’ The upside of this was that he and John Train, who were both working at the Review said, ‘When you get out of the army, why not join us as managing editor?’”

He stayed at the Review until someone at Harper’s came to Paris and offered pay his way back home if he’d become an editor at the magazine. And then Hardwick’s essay planted a seed in the mind of Barbara’s husband Jason Epstein. During the newspaper strike in 1962-63, he’d realized there was an opportunity to start a competing paper without a huge financial investment.

“The publishers were going crazy,” Silvers recalls. “Books were coming out expertly from the presses with no place to advertise. So if we started a new paper, at that moment, all the publishers would have to take a page. And [Jason] called me at Harper’s Magazine the next morning and said, ‘Would I leave and edit this new book review.’ And I told the editor Jack Fisher that I had this offer and I wanted to try it. And he said, ‘Great, you’ll get great, marvelous experience, and you’ll be back in a month.’”

Silvers laughs at that last remark. A half-century later, the paper is still going strong. “So the three of us,” he continues, “Elizabeth and Barbara—who I immediately asked to be co-editor—we went to Harper’s office at night when it was darkened and we looked at the books of the month, and we sent them to the writers we thought were the literally the best in the world we could think of. And we said, ‘Could they please try to do a book review in three weeks for a new journal.’ And what was terrific, was practically everyone we asked came through in three weeks. We a found a printer up in Connecticut, and we had contracts from some of the publishers, since Barbara and I had been going around selling advertise and [designing] layout. So we put out this issue, and 100,000 copies sold out.”

They raised money to keep the paper going, but they made sure that only the A shareholders—Hardwick, her husband Robert Lowell, Silvers, the Epsteins and Ellsworth—would be able to appoint editors. The B shareholders—the financial backers—would have rights to financial returns but wouldn’t be able to meddle in the editorial vision of the Review.

“No one could tell us what to do,” Silvers says with a certain impish glee all these years later. “No foundation, no owner, no publisher, no tycoon. We owned it. And as long as we could pay the printer, we could print anything we wanted, and that was the central freedom we had. We saw several things very quickly. One, there were books on every possible subject including politics, including physics, including international relations, including human rights—we could deal with any subjects we wanted really through books. And secondly, because we could do what we wanted, we sometimes had articles that weren’t book reviews. And many of them were on the human rights on the situation in Russia, for example. And the situation in Czechoslovakia where we published 27 articles by Václav Havel. And in Poland, where we published articles by Adam Michnik. And in China, where we published articles by Simon Leys, who was a Belgian writer who exposed, before hardly anyone, the enormous amount of famine, death, torture, starvation in China at a time where people were enthusiastic about [the nation]. So we had that freedom, and therefore we published just an extraordinary range of things that interested us.”

It’s been a remarkable half-century for the paper, which has added a robust online presence to go along with its semi-monthly schedule. Silvers has continued on editing every single article the paper publishes after the death of Barbara Epstein in 2006. Silvers edited a 50th anniversary issue last year, which The Washington Post rightly called “gaudy with intellectual firepower. Contributors included Chief Justice Stephen Breyer; novelists J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon; economists Paul Krugman and Benjamin M. Friedman; physicist Steven Weinberg; and countless other experts in their given fields.

The paper was also celebrated with an HBO documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi called The 50 Year Argument.

“A couple of documentary filmmakers—actually more than two—had got in touch with us and said they would like to make a documentary about The New York Review,” Silvers says. “And we met with some of these people. They were quite well-known and we saw their work and we talked to them, and one thing that was clear is they were all very talented but they had very little idea of The New York Review of Books. It hadn’t been much in their world. And someone said, ‘One person who would appreciate The New York Review because he reads it is Marty Scorsese. So I wrote him a letter and asked if he’d be interested in a documentary film about the paper on its 50th year, and he immediately responded that he was interested.”

Scorsese had began reading the paper back in 1963 as a student at NYU. Silvers had never met the director, but he wrote him a letter asking if he’d be interested in filming a documentary on their first 50 years. He immediately responded and the two men met to discuss the possibility.

“I have learned so much over the years from The New York Review of Books,” he told HBO, who just released the documentary. “It’s given me so much that I jumped at the chance to make this film. And David [Tedeschi] and I both welcomed the challenge of making a film that reflected what is so unique about the Review, really, a film about the adventure of thought, and, as Colm Toibin puts it, the sensuality of ideas.”

“I saw immediately that he really did know a lot about the paper and was really interested in it,” Silvers recalls. “And I saw his documentary on Bob Dylan, and I saw what a terrific documentary filmmaker he was, as well as his other famous films. And so we were just again immensely lucky that he was interested. And he picked David Tedeschi, who he made a number of films with, to be his co-director.”

Tedeschi had served as Scorsese’s editor on several music documentaries, including No Direction Home and Shine a Light. But this was his first time getting involved on the production side.

“It was all a new experience for me,” Tedeschi says. “For the reading at Town Hall with Joan Didion—that was a 50th anniversary event—I went and I scouted with the director of photography. Marty came in a half-hour after we were there, and of course it was a masterclass in camera placement. A great learning experience for me, the whole thing was. As an editor you can always blame whoever was involved in production for why you don’t have everything you need to make a scene work, but as a director you can’t.”

For Scorsese, documentaries are a way to explore subjects he loves in a much freer fashion than his narrative films.

“He made an early documentary called Italian-American,” Tedeschi says. “He talks about how the editing style and the whole experience was very liberating. He’d been working within the Hollywood system, and he wanted to break out of that. He wanted to make a film where he could do whatever he wanted to do. And I think with his documentary work that holds true. There’s less pressure. There’s certainly less commercial pressure. And we can have fun with it. I think that’s why we started with rock ’n’ roll. He can really translate what he’s feeling or what he’s interested in in the moment, and you can use that visceral sense in a movie on any given subject.”

For The 50 Year Argument, the challenge was capturing both the process of creating an issue and the enormity of what the paper has accomplished over time into a two-hour film.

“I think the relationship between an editor and a writer is a very special and a very private relationship,” Tedeschi says. “And Bob wouldn’t really talk about it because he didn’t want to betray that relationship. But he felt and we felt that maybe writers would be willing to open up. And talking to [Didion] about her relationship with Bob within the context of this piece about the Central Park Five, where she appears to have been the only person writing in the moment to have an understanding of what was going on—that there was a presumed guilt by the media by these five young guys, but also how this woman who was raped and who was the victim of a terrible crime wasn’t necessarily being treated fairly.”

Didion is just one of the countless writers whose special relationship with the paper gets told in the film, which covers Mary McCarthy’s early anti-war opinions stemming from her travels in Saigon, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer’s battle over feminism, Michael Greenberg capturing the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Darryl Pickney recalling the impact of James Baldwin on his own life.

“We went through months of him filming and arriving at different versions of the documentary film,” Silvers says. “And [Scorsese] finally came up with what he wanted. And we thought that he got the idea of the paper brilliantly. You know, we published 15,000 articles, and no film could cover so many of the things we’ve done. We felt he at least suggested an awful lot about what we’re doing. I thought it was extraordinarily accurate in representing what we were up to.”

The 50 Year Argument is now available on HBO and HBO Go.

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