The New York Review of Books
David Levine's caricature of John Updike in the November 24, 1983 issue
|Editor||Robert B. Silvers|
|Categories||literature, culture, current affairs|
|Publisher||Rea S. Hederman|
|First issue||February 1, 1963|
|Based in||New York, New York|
The New York Review of Books (or NYREV or NYRB) is a fortnightly magazine with articles on literature, culture and current affairs. Published in New York City, it takes as its point of departure that the discussion of important books is itself an indispensable literary activity. Esquire called it "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language." In 1970 Tom Wolfe described it as "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic".
Robert B. Silvers has edited the paper since its founding in 1963, together with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006. The Review has a book publishing division, established in 1999, called New York Review Books.
History and description
The New York Review was founded by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, together with publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth and writer Elizabeth Hardwick, who were backed and encouraged by Epstein's husband, Jason Epstein, a vice president at Random House and editor of Vintage Books, and Hardwick's husband, poet Robert Lowell. Hardwick had published an essay in Harper's in 1959, edited by Robert Silvers, called "The Decline of Book Reviewing", a scornful look at the failure of criticism in book reviews of the time, that inspired this group. During the New York printers' strike of 1963, when The New York Times and six other newspapers had ceased publication, the founders of The Review seized the opportunity to establish a vigorous book review. They knew that book publishers would advertise their books in the new publication, since they had no other outlet for promoting new books. The group turned to Silvers, a friend of Jason Epstein's, who had been an editor at The Paris Review and was then at Harper's, to edit the publication, and Silvers asked Barbara Epstein to co-edit with him. She had become known as the editor at Doubleday of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, among other books, and then worked at Dutton, McGraw-Hill and The Partisan Review.
The first issue of the Review was published on February 1, 1963 and sold out its printing of 100,000 copies. The New Yorker called it "surely the best first issue of any magazine ever." The list of contributors "represented a shock and awe demonstration of the intellectual firepower available for deployment in mid-century America, and, almost equally impressive, of the art of editorial networking and jawboning. This was the party everyone who was anyone wanted to attend, the Black and White Ball of the critical elite." It "announced the arrival of a particular sensibility ... the engaged, literary, post-war progressive intellectual, who was concerned with civil rights and feminism as well as fiction and poetry and theater. Salon commented that the first issue projected "a confidence in the unquestioned rightness of the liberal consensus, in the centrality of literature and its power to convey meaning, in the solubility of our problems through the application of intelligence and good will, and in the coherence and clear hierarchy of the intellectual world". The Review began regular biweekly publication in November 1963.
Silvers said of the editors' philosophy: "We felt you had to have a political analysis of the nature of power in America – who had it, who was affected". The editors also "had one thing in common, it was this feeling of intense admiration for wonderful writers". Well-known writers were willing to contribute articles for the initial issues of the Review without pay because it offered them a chance to write a new kind of book review: "The essays ... made the book review form not just a report on the book and a judgment of the book, but an essay in itself. And that, I think, startled everyone – that a book review could be exciting in that way, could be provocative in that way." Early issues included articles by such writers as Hardwick, Lowell, Jason Epstein, Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Truman Capote, Paul Goodman, Lillian Hellman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren and Edmund Wilson. The Review pointedly published interviews with political dissidents, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Václav Havel.
During the year-long lock-out at The Times in London in 1979, the Review founded a daughter publication, the London Review of Books. For the first six months, this journal appeared as an insert in the New York Review of Books, but it became an independent publication in 1980.
The Review has been described as a "kind of magazine ... in which the most interesting and qualified minds of our time would discuss current books and issues in depth ... a literary and critical journal based on the assumption that the discussion of important books was itself an indispensable literary activity." Each issue includes a broad range of subject matter, including "articles on art, science, politics and literature." In 2012, editor Bob Silvers told The New York Times, "The great political issues of power and its abuses have always been natural questions for us." Silvers asserted in 2004: "The pieces we have published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American destructiveness, American relations with its allies, American protections of its traditions of liberties.... The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the [Bush] Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the effect of muffling dissent." The Nation gave a brief historical overview of the New York Review of Books in 2004, writing:
- the Review took a vocal role in contesting the Vietnam War. ... Around 1970, a sturdy liberalism began to supplant left-wing radicalism at the paper. As Philip Nobile observed in ... 1974 ... the Review returned to its roots and became "a literary magazine on the British nineteenth-century model, which would mix politics and literature in a tough but gentlemanly fashion." ... The publication has always been erudite and authoritative – and because of its analytical rigor and seriousness, frequently essential – but it hasn't always been lively, pungent and readable. ... But the election of George W. Bush, combined with the furies of 9/11, jolted the editors. Since 2001, the Review's temperature has risen and its political outlook has sharpened. ... Prominent [writers for] the Review ... charged into battle not only against the White House but against the lethargic press corps and the "liberal hawk" intellectuals. ... In stark contrast to The New Yorker ... or The New York Times Magazine ... the Review opposed the Iraq war in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.
Over the years, the Review has featured reviews and articles by such writers and thinkers as Timothy Garton Ash, Margaret Atwood, Russell Baker, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Harold Bloom, Joseph Brodsky, Noam Chomsky, J. M. Coetzee, Frederick Crews, Ronald Dworkin, John Kenneth Galbraith, Nadine Gordimer, Stephen Jay Gould, Christopher Hitchens, Murray Kempton, Richard Lewontin, Alison Lurie, Peter Medawar, Daniel Mendelsohn, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, Peter G. Peterson, Nathaniel Rich, John Searle, Zadie Smith, Timothy Snyder, I. F. Stone, Desmond Tutu, John Updike, Derek Walcott, Steven Weinberg, Garry Wills and Tony Judt. According to the National Book Foundation: "From Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson to Gore Vidal and Joan Didion, The New York Review of Books has consistently employed the liveliest minds in America to think about, write about, and debate books and the issues they raise." The Review also devotes space in most issues to poetry and has featured the work of such poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Ted Hughes, John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur. In addition to domestic matters, the Review covers issues of international concern."
Caricaturist David Levine illustrated The New York Review of Books from 1963 to 2007, providing a distinctive visual image to the paper. During that time, he contributed more than 3,800 pen-and-ink caricatures of famous writers, artists and politicians for the publication. The New York Times described Levine's illustrations as "macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates" that were "replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o'clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles ... to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg". John Updike, whom Levine drew many times, wrote in the 1970s: "Besides offering us the delight of recognition, his drawings comfort us, in an exacerbated and potentially desperate age, with the sense of a watching presence, an eye informed by an intelligence that has not panicked, a comic art ready to encapsulate the latest apparitions of publicity as well as those historical devils who haunt our unease." Levine died in 2009.
In addition to reviews, interviews and articles, the Review features extensive advertising from publishers promoting newly published books. The Washington Post described the "lively literary disputes" conducted in its letters to the editor columns as "the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing". It also includes a popular "personals" section that "share[s] a cultivated writing style" with its articles. Several of the magazine's editorial assistants have become prominent in journalism, academia and literature, including Jean Strouse, Deborah Eisenberg, Mark Danner and A. O. Scott.
For over 40 years, Silvers and Epstein edited the Review together. In 1984, Silvers, Epstein and their partners sold the Review to publisher Rea S. Hederman, who still owns the paper, but the two continued as its editors. In 2006, Epstein died of cancer at the age of 77. In awarding to Epstein and Silvers its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2006, the National Book Foundation stated: "With The New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein raised book reviewing to an art and made the discussion of books a lively, provocative and intellectual activity."
On November 10, 2008, the Review celebrated its 45th anniversary with a panel discussion at the New York Public Library, moderated by Silvers, discussing "What Happens Now" in America after the 2008 presidential election. Panelists included Review contributors such as Didion, Wills, novelist and literary critic Darryl Pinckney, political commentator Michael Tomasky and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco. The 45th anniversary edition of the Review (November 20, 2008) began with a posthumous piece by Edmund Wilson, who wrote for the paper's first issue in 1963.
In 2008, the paper moved its headquarters from Midtown Manhattan to 435 Hudson Street, located in the West Village. In 2010, it launched a blog section of its website that The New York Times calls "lively and opinionated", and it hosts podcasts. Since Epstein's death, Silvers has been the sole editor. Asked in December 2007 about who might succeed him as editor, Silvers demurred, "It's not a question that's posing itself". When The New York Times renewed the question in 2012, Silvers said, "I can think of several people who would be marvelous editors. Some of them work here, some used to work here, and some are just people we know. I think they would put out a terrific paper, but it would be different."
The Review began its year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation by Silvers and contributors at The Town Hall in New York City on February 5, 2013. Other events scheduled include a program at the New York Public Library on April 3, 2013, an October symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a special 50th anniversary issue dated November 7, 2013. Silvers said: "An independent, critical voice on politics, literature, science, and the arts seems as much needed today as it was when Barbara Epstein and I put out the first edition of the New York Review fifty years ago – perhaps even more so. Electronic forms of communication grow rapidly in every field of life but many of their effects on culture remain obscure and in need of new kinds of critical scrutiny. That will be a central concern of the Review for the years to come."
The Washington Post calls the Review "a journal of ideas that has helped define intellectual discourse in the English-speaking world for the past four decades.... By publishing long, thoughtful articles on politics, books and culture, [the editors] defied trends toward glibness, superficiality and the cult of celebrity". In a 2006 New York magazine feature, James Atlas stated: "It's an eclectic but impressive mix [of articles] that has made The New York Review of Books the premier journal of the American intellectual elite". The Atlantic commented in 2011 that the Review is written with "a freshness of perspective", and "much of it shapes our most sophisticated public discourse." In celebrating the 35th birthday of the Review in 1998, The New York Times commented, "The N.Y.R. gives off rogue intimations of being fun to put out. It hasn't lost its sneaky nip of mischief".
In 2008, Britain's The Guardian deemed the Review "scholarly without being pedantic, scrupulous without being dry". The same newspaper wrote in 2004, "The ... issues of the Review to date provide a history of the cultural life of the east coast since 1963. It manages to be ... serious with a fierce democratic edge. ... It is one of the last places in the English-speaking world that will publish long essays ... and possibly the very last to combine academic rigour – even the letters to the editor are footnoted – with great clarity of language." In New York magazine, in February 2011, Oliver Sacks stated that the Review is "one of the great institutions of intellectual life here or anywhere." In 2012, The New York Times described the Review as "elegant, well mannered, immensely learned, a little formal at times, obsessive about clarity and factual correctness and passionately interested in human rights and the way governments violate them."
Known throughout its history as a left-liberal journal, what Tom Wolfe called "the chief theoretical organ of radical chic", the Review has, perhaps, had its most effective voice in wartime. According to a 2004 feature in The Nation,
- "One suspects they yearn for the day when they can return to their normal publishing routine – that gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art, classical music, photography, German and Russian history, East European politics, literary fiction – unencumbered by political duties of a confrontational or oppositional nature. That day has not yet arrived. If and when it does, let it be said that the editors met the challenges of the post-9/11 era in a way that most other leading American publications did not, and that The New York Review of Books ... was there when we needed it most."
Sometimes accused of insularity, the Review has been called "The New York Review of Each Other's Books". Philip Nobile voiced a mordant criticism along these lines in his book Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books. The Guardian called these accusations "sour grapes". In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "the pages of the 45th anniversary issue, in fact, reveal the actuality of [the paper's] willfully panoramic view".
The book publishing arm of the Review, established in 1999, is New York Review Books, which has three imprints, "NYRB Classics", "NYRB Collections" and "NYR Children's Collection". The NYRB Classics imprint reissues books that have gone out of print in the United States and translations of classics. NYRB Collections publishes collections of articles from frequent Review contributors. The Review also published an Italian edition, la Rivista dei Libri, for two decades until 2010.
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- Jason Epstein recounts the story of the initial meeting of the Epsteins, Hardwick and Lowell in ["http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/mar/16/strike-start-founding-new-york-review/ "A Strike and a Start: Founding The New York Review"], NYR Blog, The New York Review of Books, March 16, 2013
- Harvey, Matt. Brawls and books: Skepticism lives on as New York Review of Books ages but thrives", The Villager, vol. 78, no. 24, November 12–18, 2008, reprinted in Downtown Express, Vol. 21, No. 28, November 21, 2008.
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- The British newspaper The Independent has described the Review as "the only mainstream American publication to speak out consistently against the war in Iraq." See: O'Hagan, Andrew. "Barbara Epstein – Obituaries", The Independent, June 20, 2006, accessed March 13, 2012. Another British commentator noted in the 1980s, "In the 1960s [the Review] opposed American involvement in Vietnam; more recently it has taken a line mildly Keynesian in economics, pro-Israeli but Anti-Zionist, sceptical of Reagan's Latin-American policy". See: Fender, Stephen. "The New York Review of Books", The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 16, Literary Periodicals Special Number (1986), p. 189 (subscription required)
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- Feature on the Review in the September 25, 2006 issue of New York Magazine
- Mark Danner: Extensive interview with Silvers
- Atlas, James. 2004 "The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia", The Nation, September 18, 2006
- New Yorker: Barbara Epstein (posthumous appreciation)
- The New York Review of Books official site
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- 2008 Thoughtcast interview of Silvers for NRB's 45th anniversary
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