No Argument Here

For a work titled The 50 Year Argument, the film is wrapped in a thick wadding of consensus about the brilliance of the NYRB and its two (and remarkably, only two) editors, Robert Silvers and the late Barbara Epstein, with no real arguments adduced about that or the political, literary or cultural positions it has taken over the past half-century. The lamentable result is reverent to a fault, The Last Waltz for eggheads, with the bite and spark of an hour-and-forty-five-minute infomercial.

For a work titled The 50 Year Argument, the film is wrapped in a thick wadding of consensus about the brilliance of the NYRB.

Courtesy of Gert Berliner. GertBerliner.com.

When I first heard that Martin Scorsese, cinematic poet of male aggression and urban violence, was directing an HBO documentary on the New York Review of Books, America’s highest-browed periodical for general readers, I went around my publishing office asking, “Why don’t they call it Smartfellas?” Maybe a bravura tracking shot could take Robert Silvers through the bowels of the 92d Street Y to a front row seat at a W.H. Auden reading. It would not at all be beyond Scorsese, a man of deep culture, however id-driven his films, to take such a subject as the NYRB on its own lofty terms—and unfortunately that is precisely what his documentary does. For a work titled The 50 Year Argument, the film is wrapped in a thick wadding of consensus about the brilliance of the NYRB and its two (and remarkably, only two) editors, Robert Silvers and the late Barbara Epstein, with no real arguments adduced about that or the political, literary or cultural positions it has taken over the past half-century. The lamentable result is reverent to a fault, The Last Waltz for eggheads, with the bite and spark of an hour-and-forty-five-minute infomercial.

I have subscribed to the Review since awakening intellectually around 1972, and as Zoë Heller, one of the liveliest of the talking heads to populate the film testifies (and you hear a wider variety of English accents than in an average episode of Downton Abbey, some of them emerging from the mouths of Americans), reading it over the decades has been an education, often in areas one barely knew existed, let alone knew that one could be interested in. Ever since its founding in 1963 by the quartet of Barbara Epstein, Jason Epstein, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Hardwick to fill a vacuum left by the Times Book Review during a newspaper printers’ strike, and Robert Silvers’s swift recruitment from Harper’s as co-editor, the NYRB has held steady on an intellectually elitist and resolutely left-liberal course, without a single instance one can recall of political reaction or compromise with popular tastes. Nor can one think of a single intellectual of note from the center leftwards who has not written for it. (From the center to the right is a different story.) One of the intermittent pleasures of the documentary, at least for those who, like me, geek out on styles of editorial blandishment, is to witness Silver’s silky, elegant style on the phone or in correspondence with authors, getting right to the point while deploying just the proper amount of flattery and persuasion. Silvers’s voice—low-pitched, terminally cultured, hovering somewhere over the mid-Atlantic—is an instrument of seduction that few writers could resist, that says in every nuance that you, you lucky writer, are among the elect. Of course, in a real sense they are. I once received a voicemail message from Robert Silvers, offering some suggestions for speakers, when I was trying to set up a memorial service for Gore Vidal. It was so calming and mesmerizing that I have never deleted it. No wonder Silvers’s assistants tiptoe around the Review’s open plan office, taking dictation and correcting galleys (galleys! this is an HBO film with galleys!) with the sacerdotal concentration appropriate to a temple of high intellection. It reminded me of the solemnity with which I used to go about my duties as an altar boy while serving mass. (You’d hardly know, unless you already knew, that those positions have been filled over the years by such interesting figures as Luc Sante, April Bernard, Sigrid Nunez, Prudence Crowther and Shelly Wanger and that the office culture was, and probably still is, lively and offbeat. Why were none of the assistants interviewed?)

Precisely the problem with the film is its muffled and unrelenting piety, such that nowhere in the parade of celebrity intellectuals who step up to the dais at an invitation-only fiftieth anniversary celebration at Town Hall, or address the camera directly to enthusiastically encomiate, is any voice allowed to hint that the NYRB might have made a misstep or two over the past five decades or that its positions are not universally agreed with. The wild intellectual rumpus promised by the title erupts only twice on screen, both times featuring Norman Mailer. Once we see Mailer at bay in his infamous 1971 duel with a passel of angrily amused feminists at Town Hall, and then Mailer’s equally infamous and entertaining bout with Gore Vidal later that same year on the Dick Cavett Show. Riveting in a very different fashion is a spectrally fragile Joan Didion speaking of the piece she wrote on the Central Park jogger case, which coolly and proleptically examined the hysterical rush to judgment against five black youths who were convicted of rape (wrongly, as we learned years later) and sent to prison. Let it also be said that Darryl Pinckney is a very smart hoot, that Michael Greenberg’s acute testimony about his assignment by Silvers to cover the Occupy movement brings the film expertly into the present, and that Susan Sontag, in the footage devoted to her, radiates an overpowering aura of charisma.

But here are just some of the things that the film did not touch on that it should have. It could have told us something usefully informative about Robert Silvers, about whom all anybody seems to know is that he grew up the son of a Long Island sales executive (mention is sometimes made of a farm), was a prodigy who went to the University of Chicago in 1945 at the tender age of 16 and graduated in two and a half years, served in the US Army in intelligence in the fifties and later hung with the Paris Review crowd and lived on a houseboat on the Seine, then worked for Harper’s until the call of destiny came, and at no other job since. We are not told even that biography in the movie, and inquiring minds would love to know more—much more—about what went into the formation of one of the most influential editorial sensibilities of our time.

Some mention could have been made of two rather notorious episodes in the history of the NYRB, about which the film is entirely silent. One was the infamous cover on the April 20th, 1967 issue featuring an instructional diagram for assembling a Molotov cocktail, which heralded pieces by Tom Hayden on the Newark riots and Andrew Kopkind on the Black Power movement. It was taken in those Days of Rage as an endorsement of the turn towards violence by the student left and an indication that the Review had lost its bearings and become what Tom Wolfe tagged it as, “the chief theoretical organ of radical chic.” It was at this point or thereabouts that the Old Left, in the persons of Dissent founders Irving Howe and Lewis Coser and the sociologist Dennis Wrong in particular, decisively broke with the Review’s politics. The documentary only hints at something like this development when it features footage of Mary McCarthy’s reportage from her 1968 trip South Vietnam and Hanoi, during which she let loose with some anti-American rhetoric and fell rather too hard for the North Vietnamese.

The other distressing episode was its direct involvement in the release on parole of the prison writer and convicted murderer Jack Abbott, which led to the slaying of a waiter in New York’s East Village in 1981 and Abbot’s second murder conviction. Norman Mailer first convinced the NYRB to publish Abbott’s letters from prison, and the great prestige such a publication lent him weighed heavily in the campaign to secure Abbott’s parole. No one involved in this episode emerged with their honor unscathed. (And it should not have escaped Scorsese’s notice either—talk about a subject up his mean street . . . .)

And while we hear from Avishai Margalit, in fuzzy terms, that the pieces that he and others on the Israeli left write in the Review have an even greater impact in Israel than they do in this country, we don’t learn any useful detail about the paper’s position on the subject of Israel (including its famous publication a decade ago of Tony Judt’s advocacy for a “one state solution”) nor that these positions were vehemently opposed by many on the right and in the center. I would have paid double our household’s somewhat painful monthly tariff for Home Box Office to hear Leon Wieseltier or Norman Podhoretz tee off on that subject—now then we’d have an argument!—just as it would have made for livelier television to see Tom Wolfe enunciate his satire of radical chic on camera.

I don’t raise these matters in the least spirit of hostility. The NYRB has been an indispensable resource in American intellectual life from the moment it first came off press, and often in political life, too. Its steadfast opposition to the Iraq War when other organs of the center-left, most notably the New York Times, were cheerleading the invasion was probably its finest hour. But the bland tele-tribute that Martin Scorsese has crafted does the paper and Robert Silvers a disservice in eliding so many things that are truly interesting and vital about them and about the stormy times they have navigated, for the most part splendidly.

One final lacuna to be regretted is the relative absence in the film of Silvers’ symbiotic editorial partner of 43 years, Barbara Epstein, who died in 2006. I have heard direct testimony of her great gift for friendship and her particular knack for encouragement of younger writers. Admittedly magazine editors who are not Graydon Carter or Anna Wintour don’t generate much in the way of archival film footage, but more evidence of her editorial prowess and her openness to the new, particularly in fiction, would have been welcome. She remains, of course, irreplaceable.

As to the question of what is to happen to the New York Review of Books once Robert Silvers is gone, Scorsese and the editor are silent. At one point Silvers says to a questioner, “Well, I’m just working away, really,” and that dogged level of activity is likely to obtain as long as he lives. The NYRB seemed for decades unimaginable without Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein and, now, seems even more unimaginable without Robert Silvers. Although he may not have been the only original choice for the job; intellectual history might have gone quite differently. A few years back I edited Norman Podhoretz—yeah, that guy—for a book entitled Why Are Jews Liberals? While my politics and Norman’s are hardly congruent, to say the least, I found that he wrote with uncommon vigor and, contrary to his pugnacious public profile in person he was and is a man of great charm. I understood how that charm and energy enabled him to make Commentary a publication of widespread influence that, not unlike the NYRB, punched well above its circulation and fighting weight. Norman told me that back in the days when he and Jason Epstein were the best of friends and Podhoretz was the rising editor of Commentary, Epstein had offered the job of editing the nascent New York Review of Books to him first. Norman, thinking he had a good thing going at Commentary not worth trading in for this risky new venture, declined, and the rest is history.  (A somewhat different but corroborating version of this story is told in Philip Nobile’s controversial 1974 history of the NYRB, Intellectual Skywriting: “Podhoretz was never offered the post exactly, nor did he ask for it, but he is to be believed when he says, ‘I could have been the editor if I wanted to.’”)

Shortly before Norman’s book was released, I squired him to an event for BookExpo in New York, introducing the year’s lineup to booksellers and critics. Norman and I worked the room for an hour or so, warily navigating around Jason Epstein who, awkwardly enough, was also there to flog his book on food for Knopf, and then we decided to blow the joint. And just as Norman and I were leaving, who should walk in but Robert Silvers. These two aging but still dangerous literary lions, who really have had a fifty-year argument, greeted each other warily but cordially. “Hello, Norman.” “Hello, Bob.” “And are you still editing Commentary, Norman?” “No, I’ve retired although I still do the occasional piece, and my son now has the job. And how about you, Bob? Any plans to retire any time soon?” At this Silvers smiled and shook his head in mild amusement. “Oh no, no plans like that.” Goodbyes were said and off Norman and I went to dinner.

I observed this outwardly polite exchange with wonder, my mind racing with delight at the endless undercurrents of intellectual conflict and ambition coursing beneath the surface. Oh, Scorsese, that you had been with us then! Alternatively: Oh, that Dawn Powell or Wilfrid Sheed had been there to make abundant fictional hay out of the found novel transpiring at that moment. It is the infinite treasures of this sort of richness, that of a life of bookish happy warriors at intellectual combat, that Martin Scorsese’s documentary could easily have reproduced and sadly fails to communicate or exploit. The life of the mind may be outwardly quiet, but it is nowhere near as dull as the film inadvertently makes it out to be.

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