The Wizard of West Fifty-seventh Street
March 29, 2012 | by Claire Messud
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.
My first encounter with Robert Silvers was with his sonorous and elegant voice, with its precise, slightly British diction. It must be said that most of my encounters over the years have been with the voice rather than the man, as we’ve met in person only a few times.
I first heard the voice in the summer of 1988. Back in the States after my first year of graduate school at Cambridge University, I somehow landed a job in the advertising department at The New York Review of Books. I can’t imagine I came by it entirely honestly, but I have no recollection of whose kindness may have opened the door. This was at the old address, 250 West Fifty-seventh Street, where entering the offices felt somehow like slipping in a back door, because you were immediately dwarfed by books. Mountainous, heavily laden shelves overhung the narrow, dark corridors, and people scurried quietly among them as if in fear—fear, I always thought, that like Leonard Bast they would be crushed by knowledge.
In the several months I worked in those offices—in the domain of Catherine Tice, at the elbow of a brassily confident assistant named Kim—I never laid eyes on either Bob or Barbara. (I had, on the other hand, many mad and wonderful conversations with the late Bob Tashman, who roved the office with apparently much time on his hands and who, although balding, had an impressive corona of hair emerging from his shirt collar. His long-worked-upon American Decameron, alas, we will never now see.) Bob and Barbara’s offices were down long tributaries of the book-lined hallways, unenterable by the likes of me. But I did, upon occasion, hear the magical voice. It was like hearing the Wizard of Oz. Whether he was speaking on the telephone or to an assistant, his interlocutors were inaudible, the authority of his inflections absolute, and his physical presence purely notional.
A little less than twenty years later, I wrote my first review for Bob. I’d written a couple of times for Barbara and was happily surprised when Bob asked me to write again for the magazine (the query that arrives in the still-thrilling form of an unanticipated Fed-Ex package containing a book and a letter). I think the first review I wrote for him was of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. I was inevitably daunted, especially as I’d heard that Bob wasn’t much interested in fiction. I read and reread almost every word Ford had ever written in preparation for the piece, and took copious notes from the novel. When we came to discuss Ford’s characters, Bob knew not only the details of The Lay of the Land, but also what Frank Bascombe had been up to in the earlier novels (this was the third of a trilogy): it was as if he’d done his homework, too.
Now, most of our editorial exchange goes on by e-mail; but even five years ago, we would discuss changes over the telephone, often at 10 P.M. on a Sunday night. It seemed that Bob was never not at his desk. In every experience I’ve had, Bob’s editorial acumen has been confirmed and reconfirmed. But more impressively still, I’ve had him reveal, more than once, that he has himself read the novel at hand, and sometimes with more sensitivity than I have: in one early review I wrote for him, he pointed out, delicately, that I’d attributed a quotation to the wrong character, and upon another occasion, that I’d summarized an event in a misleading way. (If it is indeed true that he isn’t much interested in fiction, then I can only imagine how carefully he has read the nonfiction books.)
You’d think that nothing could be more terrifying than to be rebuked by a man of such eminence; but in fact, Bob is unfailingly generous and kind, someone who carefully suggests rather than commands alteration. He is an extraordinary editor in part because he is always respectful, of even the least of his contributors, or the least contribution.
It is curious, but somehow apt, that I still know Bob Silvers above all aurally. As I recall the timorous twenty-one-year-old I was when I worked in that office (who was for years thereafter able to cite demographic statistics about the Review’s readers, of which my favorite was that a New York Review reader publishes, on average, 0.5 books a year), that person could never have imagined the privilege of speaking to, let alone working with, the editor himself. And yet, if she were going to, never having seen the man himself, she could only have imagined his voice: that rich, distinctive, Anglicized bass that floated along the book-lined corridors, evoking awe and respect and, all these years later, much gratitude and pleasure also.
Claire Messud’s most recent novel is The Emperor’s Children.