Robert B. Silvers, Super Nanny
March 22, 2012 | by Louis Begley
This year our Spring Revel will take place on April 3. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Robert Silvers, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
Writers dream. They dream more than most people. Writers dream of sex, of fat advances and big sales. They dream of fame. When they get serious, they dream of being published by the ideal publisher and being edited by the ideal editor. From 1993, when he bought my first novel, Wartime Lies, until October 2002, when he died, shortly after publishing my sixth novel, Schmidt Delivered, Siegfried Unseld, the head of the German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, was my ideal publisher. A giant of a man, Siegfried loved books passionately and physically, the way other men can love wine. Siegfried didn’t publish books, he published authors. A writer lucky enough to be one of them could feel invulnerable: Siegfried believed in his work, and Siegfried couldn’t be wrong.
I have long been afflicted on and off by “regular contributor” envy, wishing disconsolately that in the list of writers whose names appear in The New York Review of Books my name were followed by that tag. It’s an absurd pretension, since its fulfillment would have meant upending my life and career. I suffer from it only because the ideal editor of my—and I would guess every writer’s—dreams is another giant of a man, Robert B. Silvers, the editor, brain, and heart of the NYRB. When I write a piece for his magazine, of course I have the immeasurable good luck to be edited by him. There is no experience quite like it. Bob knows everything that’s worth knowing, a consequence of his unflagging curiosity. I recall sitting next to him years ago at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting. While the energy minister of an OPEC country, the name of which I have forgotten, droned on, I stole a glance at Bob, who could no doubt recall it instantly. He was busily taking notes, in a tiny but precise scrawl. My mind was in neutral, in fact I was struggling against sleep; his was fully engaged. Later he told me that taking quick and accurate notes was a habit he’d formed soon after college, working for the Connecticut politician and diplomat Chester Bowles. It’s just one of his useful habits, along with reading everything that deserves his attention and deploying, when the occasion presents itself, a powerful crawl stroke.
When Bob asks you to review a book, and you’ve recovered from the shock of having said yes even though you know that because you have no time you should have said no, you find you’ve been connected to a parallel universe ruled by the needs of its demiurge Bob. Unless by rare chance you telephone when he is on his way to the office, you can reach him there day and night, seven days a week, surrounded by a bevy of enthusiastic young assistants whose reverence and affection for him permeate each e-mail and phone message from them transmitting his decrees. Bob doesn’t need to sleep. Whether the assistants have reached that stage of evolution is less clear, but they give every appearance of having done so.
The other side of coin is that you, too, are ouvert jour et nuit, not only to answer questions and read proofs, but also to receive and absorb a cornucopia of books, in addition to the work or works “under review,” that will follow you by messenger or FedEx wherever you happen to be. My dear friend James Chace claimed that the books Bob thought he needed to read in order to complete the review he had undertaken to write arrived at his bedside in an intensive-care unit. James died in 2004, and, if this sounds like a tall story, he is alas in a place where no fact checker can reach him. Not even one working for Bob. Some of the volumes Bob sends you may have asked for as a dare, thinking he’ll never be able to get them, but he always does. Others he sends because there is no limit to the care Bob takes of his writers. Having assigned a subject, he will have thought about it deeply, and his instinctive grasp of issues and erudition combine to provide the writer a safety net. You can count on him not to let you go astray.
And to back you up. The bound galley of a book by a well-liked writer I had agreed to review came festooned with blurbs from authors of great eminence whom I happen to admire. Nevertheless, it turned out to be embarrassingly bad. I told Bob that if I wrote the review it would be a very negative one and argued against publishing such a piece. Bob disagreed. Frustrated and unhappy, I got to work and, after laborious second and third readings, disliked the book even more. The review I produced was commensurately harsh if not scathing, and I told Bob that I wouldn’t be upset if he chose not to run it. To my surprise, he said it was a fine piece, and would definitely be used. Thereupon, after a meticulous process of verification that required no changes, Bob patiently got me to agree to remove the gratuitous digs I now know I shouldn’t have inserted and would have been sorry to have left in. Reflecting on that experience later, I saw it as Kinderstube for reviews and reviewers. And I saw that Bob, with the intensity of his devotion to the Review and to his charges who are its writers, with his ability to coax, encourage, correct, and restrain, is the Mary Poppins we all need and wish for, our own Super Nanny.
Louis Begley is a novelist and retired lawyer. His most recent book is Schmidt Steps Back.