Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The 50 Year Argument

Editor Robert B. Silvers in the offices of The New York Review of Books

For more than fifty years now, The New York Review of Books has had its finger on the zeitgeist of American letters publishing every two weeks to a circulation of 135,000 subscribers.  On the occasion of its fiftieth year, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have put together a riveting documentary entitled, The 50 Year Argument (HBO, 2014) about the life of this enterprise and the editors, writers, and artists who contribute to its pages.  Robert B. Silvers, the journal’s long-serving editor, describes how he edits his writers as well as his method for deciding what are the most important and interesting books of the season.  At one point in the film, Silvers reads from the review’s first and only editorial:  The New York Review of Books does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones.  Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.”  This editorial, in its entirety, is quite a mission statement.

The review started during the New York publishing strike of 1963 when founders Silvers and Barbara Epstein, encouraged by their friends, decided it was the perfect time to publish a new book review.  As Silvers recounts in the film, the publishers were frantic for publicity for their upcoming books, and since newspapers were on strike, no advertisements could run to alert the reading public.  The ad buys alone could cover the start-up costs.  Elizabeth Hardwick, a friend of Silvers and someone he had worked with as an editor at Harper’s Magazine, had recently written about the decline of literary criticism in the newspapers of America, specifically The New York Times Book Review.  Here was an opportunity to really say something about contemporary culture, literature and the life of the mind.  Silvers says in the film that as long as they could pay the publisher, they could publish whatever they wanted.  They were not attempting to be part of that zeitgeist, but that is exactly what happened.

For a book lover, the scenery in the film is delicious, especially the offices where the editorial staff works.  Books line the walls in shelves that go floor to ceiling.  Then, there must be thousands of volumes stacked in every conceivable direction.  The editors and staff do not work in enclosed offices, but at desks surrounded by towers of books and papers.  We see Silvers marking up manuscripts, making calls to publishers and reviewers, and dictating emails and correspondence.  The brief flashes of him marking up the margins of a manuscript made me want to freeze frame and read his words.  He is a man in his element, a man who has been lucky enough to find his passion and his vocation and have them be conjoined in symbiotic bliss.  I wanted to walk into the screen and live in that office and never leave.

Beyond the scenery, and most important, are the people, dead and still living, who have populated the pages of the NYRB.  Craziest among them is Norman Mailer, taking on Susan Sontag, the feminist movement, Gore Vidal, and a swinging light bulb in no particular order of importance.  His wild hair, his extreme views, his casual toss off that he stabbed his wife and that Vidal was trying to paint him with the same brush as Charles Manson for his misogyny, all get ample screen time.  Mailer seems to want to out-Hemingway Hemingway, with his bold bravado and somewhat terrifying personality.  He is a literary pugilist crouched and ready, and when he and Vidal throw down in a clip from the Dick Cavett Show, it is fun to watch.  I do wonder how literary history will judge Mailer’s work.  Nevertheless, the feuds among the writers of the NYRB are legendary, as the film proves in several parts.

Centering on the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary, Scorsese and Tedeschi make use of the public readings and discussions that took place during 2013 and the eighteen months the film was in production.  Archival footage is also included with many of the writers who have passed featured with their words and opinions.  James Baldwin gives a rather potent denigration of the n-word, saying that it is the white man who invented the term, the white man who should fear the word itself because it is he who created the monster.  He says this with his wide, angry eyes, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon.  The history is apparent when Darryl Pinckney, a current NYRB writer, discusses how Baldwin influences his work, and how he once wrote a scathing review of one of the last publications of this most esteemed writer.  Not satisfied with simply publishing the piece in the review’s pages, he approached Baldwin at a party in his honor and asked him if he had read the piece.  Pinckney is astounded himself at his own audacity, and reassures the audience that he managed to take back some of his misperception when he reviewed two posthumous volumes of Baldwin’s collected works on the pages of the NYRB at the behest of Epstein and Silvers.

Joan Didion takes center stage when the discussion shifts to some of the groundbreaking journalism mounted by Silvers and the review.  Specifically, she wrote about the Central Park jogging case, where a band of young black men allegedly rampaged through the park one night and attacked several people, including a white jogger who was beaten and raped nearly to death.  The men’s confessions were coerced and they suffered intimidation and public condemnation before they were exonerated with DNA evidence decades later.  Didion, for her part, smelled a rat in the proceedings, and reported as much in the pages of the review.  One suspect was fourteen years old, his name splashed across the newspapers at the time, although he was never charged.  In the film, Didion is presented in all her eccentric glory, still sharp and intense after years of excellent witnessing, reporting, writing and surviving through several personal tragedies, a true national treasure in American letters.

What is interesting about these writers’ interviews is how many of them talk about the magic of Silvers’ editorial hand.  There is no animosity, none of the “the editor screwed me” charges that writers often make.  In fact, many of them talk of how Silvers shepherded them through the writing process, sending them information and supporting materials, convincing them that they were capable of great art, great writing.  Zoe Heller calls the NYRB an educational force in her life, a light that enhances her intelligence often about subjects in which she thought she had little interest.  Pinckney discusses how he was basically unemployable as someone who preferred books and immersion in words, so his first job was as babysitter for founding editor Barbara Epstein’s children, until the day she pulled him aside and gave him a bound volume of the journal’s first year.  That lit the fire and made him embrace his life as a writer.  Epstein’s presence is felt throughout the film, her essence captured in photographs and memorabilia from the long history of the journal.  She died in 2006.  From its inception, the NYRB has had only two editors:  Epstein and Silvers, and now that she has passed, Silvers continues as the lone guardian of the institution.

The 50 Year Argument is a film that must be celebrated.  The New York Review of Books is a journal that must be revered.  Both are cultural treasures, and the excellent writing and insights gleaned from the pages of the review bi-monthly must be savored and preserved.  America has always been a country of hard work, of people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps (what are those anyway?), although I’m not always sure if this is true now.  We have never been known as an intellectual force.  May be during the time of Emerson and Thoreau, but certainly not consistently down through the ages.  The New York Review of Books flies in the face of that charge.  There is a mind-life in America, and it can be found on the NYRB pages.  There is magic happening there, and for a window into that world, one must see this film.