Robert Silvers Reminisces About the Early Days of “The Paris Review” and “The New York Review of Books”
You had full control.
Silvers: Full control. That was a very special thing in publishing, maybe historic, because most magazines are owned by somebody, a publisher, who ultimately has say—it’s his view of the world that can’t be contradicted too much. He might, for example, think, I’m a patriot, and I don’t want to challenge the American Vietnam War. And therefore the paper would support the troops. We, in our little group, knew people in the world of Vietnam and the world of international politics. We had a sense of Vietnam, and we asked a great French journalist, Jean Lacouture, whether he would write a series of articles about the history and current struggle there. That was 1964, 1965—we were just getting into it. Lacouture, in his history of Vietnam, showed that it was probably futile, given the weight of Vietnamese history, culture, and of the power of the Viet Minh—that these foreigners being sent over to try to intervene in this country were probably doomed. It caused a great fuss, because we were challenging—with real expertise—the prevailing approach. I think that was part of the history of our paper that helped us become better known.
It’s striking the approach that the Review took in the sixties, and how, later on, under Bush with the Iraq wars, a similar approach was taken.
Silvers: I think it’s something that seemed to us the most natural thing in the world. If you’re getting into a war in Iraq, shouldn’t you find somebody who is a great expert on Iraq, who knows it well, and who has some sense of the Shias, the Sunnis, and the past, and the history, and the Iranian influence, and the Turkish influence? Isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to find the best-informed people? The fact is that, contrary to the ideas of many people in Washington —neoconservatives—these writers didn’t think it was a good idea at all. They thought it was an intervention that would cause a great deal of destruction, a great deal of horror, and would not really achieve the ideal democratic society that people talked about. We didn’t set out with some huge ideology at all—we saw these historical events coming at us, and we wanted to get the best and most informed, the most incisive, the most helpful articles we could.
What was the work that came out of Iraq that you feel best met those expectations?
Silvers: We had some terrific articles. There was one reporter who was immensely brilliant and who has written on a number of these issues for us—Mark Danner. He wrote very acutely about some of the deceptions of the war, and about deceptions in Downing Street—the Downing Street memorandum, drawn up for Tony Blair, in which one of the highest officials in the British government said, The intelligence is being shaped to fit the strategy, not the strategy to fit the intelligence. That’s the Downing Street memorandum, and somehow we got a hold of it and published it.
You broke the news.
“I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”
INTERVIEWER: All novelists seem to have at least one in the drawer that’s just garbage.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I have three. Until I started writing Midnight’s Children, which would probably have been about late ’75, early ’76, there was this period of flailing about. It was more than a technical problem. Until you know who you are you can’t write. Because my life had been jumbled up between India and England and Pakistan, I really didn’t have a good handle on myself. As a result the writing was garbage—sometimes clever garbage, but garbage nonetheless.
Thessaly La Force visits Leanne Shapton’s studio. You’ve likely seen Shapton’s work before: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, her own book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, or, for the very observant, in Michael Cunningham’s apartment.
“Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling a memory is part of the same process. This is very clear in Proust: For him there is no difference between lived experience—his relationship with his mother, and so forth—and his characters. Exactly the same type of truth is involved.”
From The Paris Review:
“The questions I wanted to answer with a ‘yes’ as I wrote were, Is this surprising? Does it make me laugh? Does it submit totally to the horny madness? Is it strange? I like strangeness. When something feels strange but doesn’t feel off-putting or unpleasant, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. So I was hoping for a certain amount of that. I thought the part where she ends up in the guy’s urethra was good and weird.”
“Writing novels is not a profession. One is not paid by the month or year by a boss. A professional is someone who has acquired a certain number of skills by which he can be assured of a calculable return. The butcher has learned how to cut meat, the doctor to diagnose illnesses, the mason to build a wall—all according to various rules. In art, there are no rules. To the contrary, often it’s a question of breaking them. With no guarantees. I am, therefore, always an amateur on whom, miraculously, money is bestowed from time to time.”
-Claude Simon, The Paris Review
“It is indeed difficult to make a living as a writer and my advice to anyone contemplating a literary career is to have some other trade. My own choice would be plumb ing, but I suppose they have a tight union to keep this twenty dollar an hour with two lazy worthless assistants to hand the head man his tools good thing from being swamped.”
From The Paris Review:
“My twenties weren’t terribly productive. I wasted a lot of time. I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline. I had a job doing technical writing, which was really consuming me. I wasn’t sleeping. So my wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written. I would get up at eight in the morning and write until seven at night.
“My wife was working two days a week, so I would take care of our daughter, Alice, on those days, and she took care of Alice on the other days. When you have a child, you get a surge of ambition, or a surge of hormonal urgency, to get something done, something worthy of your new station in life. I gave myself a new deadline: Finish the novel while you’re still thirty. Do something your child might be able to read when she grows up.
“My code name for the book was ‘Desperation.’”
“The text to which green refers, Fire the Bastards!, an excoriation of the Recognitions’ original reviewers, came out in the pages of a paper called newspaper, typewritten, mimeographed, and stapled on beige, legal-size paper beginning in 1957. At the beginning of February Fire the Bastards! will be reissued in book form by Dalkey Archive Press, which first collected it (against green’s express wishes) in 1992. As interesting as itis on its own merits, as both a kind of literary performance art and as a commentary on Gaddis’s work and the state of literary reviewing in general, this strange document is eclipsed by the even stranger events that followed its mysterious publication. It spurred several decades of lively literary conspiracy theories—theories so rich with questions of mistaken identity that they could have emerged from Gaddis’s own pen.”