‘The greatest literary editor there has ever been’ – John Banville remembers Robert Silvers

The death this week of the New York Review of Books editor marks the loss of one of publishing’s most brilliant minds

Robert Silvers was one of the most significant cultural figures of our time. This will seem a large claim to make about the editor of a twice-monthly literary magazine, but then the New York Review of Books – or “the paper”, as Silvers always called it – was more than your usual lit mag. There had been great journals before it, of course, notably the Times Literary Supplement and the Paris Review – which Silvers edited for a time. But the NYRB was a unique phenomenon: unapologetically intellectual, politically radical, distinctive in its high-toned New York fashion and wholly committed to civilised values. And from the outset Silvers was its heart and, more importantly, its brain.

He was surely the greatest literary editor there has ever been – brilliant, autocratic, endlessly curious and possessed of an extraordinary fund of knowledge about a vast range of subjects. True, he was not always easy to deal with, but when has the best ever been easy? His gift for matching books to reviewers was uncanny; the FedEx package would arrive, containing a volume I could not imagine wanting to read, much less review. Yet a few weeks later I would find myself writing three or four thousand enthusiastic words on it, and wondering why I had not taken notice of this author, or that subject, before.

How did he do it? He just knew, by a kind of sympathetic magic, that the unlikeliest-seeming book would be to a reviewer’s taste. He or she would not know it until one of Bob’s typed notes – his handwriting was terrible – issued a courtly invitation to “see if something might be done” on yet another weighty biography of Kafka, or a satisfyingly nasty late novel by Kingsley Amis.

He was born and brought up in New York and its environs, and was entirely a product of the exciting and intellectually stimulating east coast milieu. The NYRB began life in 1963, during a newspaper printers’ strike in the city. In at the birth with Silvers were editors Barbara Epstein and her husband Jason Epstein, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick and the poet Robert Lowell, and the publisher A Whitney Ellsworth. The first issue, on 1 February 1963, was astonishing, with pieces by WH Auden, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and many others, all of whom wrote essay-length reviews for no fee. Autres temps, autre moeurs

Silvers seemed to work all hours of the day, and all days of the week, including holidays – yes, I had a Christmas morning call from him, asking if I would care to reply to a letter from an academic in Nebraska commenting adversely on one of my pieces. His enthusiasm for literature and ideas – the NYRB was more concerned with the life of the mind than it was with the world of books – stamped itself on every page he published. At this perilous time, political and cultural, for America and the west in general, his death is our great loss. The king is dead; long live “the paper”.


John Banville

The GuardianTramp

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