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China Writers Remember Robert Silvers

A ChinaFile Conversation

Robert Silvers died on Monday, March 20, after serving as The New York Review of Books Editor since 1963. Over almost six decades, Silvers cultivated one of the most interesting, reflective, and lustrous stables of China writers in the world, some of whom offer their remembrances below.

ChinaFile has collaborated with the New York Review of Books to archive all the pieces written on China since the publication’s inception. The archive can be found on ChinaFile here. —Orville Schell, ChinaFile Publisher

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A few years ago, Bob got a call from a young woman representing the Shanghai Review of Books. She came by to interview him and also to float an idea: China had a burgeoning middle class and many were eager for the sort of broad-ranging intellectual discussions that had made The New York Review of Books famous. Her publication had even named itself after his. Wouldn’t it be great if the two publications cooperated? How about it?

Bob recounted this story to me several times, always fascinated by the meeting. He thought the interviewer was sharp and incisive and he was flattered that a publication would name itself after the magazine that he and Barbara Epstein had founded half a century earlier. But he didn’t need to consider his answer. It was obviously no; the Shanghai publication, however good, had too many limitations. How could he be loyal to his writers and their memory—especially to Fang Lizhi, Liu Xiaobo, and the others influenced by the Tiananmen Massacre—if he cooperated with a publication that couldn’t mention their names?

Few publications have had such clarity in dealing with China. I remember helping out one that wanted to publish there. A consultant gave me what turned out to be prescient advice: You can self-censor and publish quite lucratively, or you can not self-censor, be banned, remain a beacon on the hill, and one day, when China opens up as it might or might not, you will be the most respected publication in the country. Bob didn’t need a consultant to tell him the right answer. The Review’s principles were his principles. Bankruptcy was worth more than self-censorship. The Review was the beacon.

At times, I’ll admit that his fixation on human rights irked me. I understood why he couldn’t cooperate with the Shanghai publication. But I wondered why he always saw China through the lens of human rights. The country was dynamic and had changed in many ways since Tiananmen. Couldn’t we put aside those horrific events for a few moments and consider China without this bloody backdrop? This was certainly a widespread view in the 1990s and 2000s: China is changing and so should our view of it.

And yet with time I began to see that Bob wasn’t a throwback. After moving back to China in 2009, I found that many Chinese saw their country’s main problem as a lack of a moral foundation. It wasn’t necessarily about Tiananmen, but it was the same issue: a missing moral compass.

I realized this also when talking to some of China’s most courageous people. For an essay I did on a newly translated book of poetry by the writer Liu Xia, the wife of China’s imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, I interviewed her friends. They told me that the fact that the Review would publish something on her was a great comfort—proof that the outside world hadn’t forgotten her. The article was typically Bob: I had vaguely mentioned the idea to him while we were at a conference in Hong Kong and he immediately wanted it, following up with emails until he got it, and then putting it in the next issue of the magazine while another essay of mine languished. In the past this would have irritated me, but by then I understood. People say that Bob was loyal to his writers, and he was, but he was mostly loyal to the ideals for which they stood. If Liu Xia’s friends had somehow managed to smuggle her poems out of China and they were now in print, how could we review another book first?

I’ll miss visualizing Bob’s double-breasted suits, his starched white shirts, and his bright ties when receiving the edits in my smoggy Beijing apartment. The notes were always hand-written in the margins of laid-out galleys and scanned into PDFs by his assistants. I loved each one: the A edit, the B edit, the C edit, and so on as we made the articles better and better. I wanted a Z edit.

I think of the writer Wang Xiaobo, whose novel The Golden Age I always wanted to review for Bob. Like Wang’s characters in the Cultural Revolution, in a time they know will end and which isn’t perfect but somehow still is, I wanted life to be like this forever, not just the edits, but the letters saying “we think you might enjoy these books” or “I hope something could be done on this book”—marching orders so archaically polite that I always laughed and think he did too. From the beginning, I knew that all of this might seem old-fashioned, but it was not. It was the twilight of a golden age and when it ended, we would immediately miss it. But we would also realize that it wasn’t passé, the concerns of an old man near the end, but the start of the future, of China’s future and our own.

In every world of endeavor there are those few people who so fully occupy their first names that there is never any question who is being referred to when that name is lofted. For writers who cared about literature and politics the name “Bob” meant only one person, Robert Silvers, who served as Editor of The New York Review of Books for over half a century, since its inception in 1963.

I first began writing for Bob myself from Tiananmen Square in 1989, just as tectonic demonstrations were engulfing Beijing, and I vividly recall my first Bob sighting when I finally returned to New York. It was at the Review’s West 57th Street office where, from his throne (cum desk) behind the piles of books that surrounded him like a Great Wall, he seemed not so much to preside as editor but to reign.

Indeed, in writing about China it is hard to think of the Review in other than dynastic terms, with Bob as its grand progenitor. However, his was a curious reign, for he viewed his job as editor not to impose himself on his subjects (his writers), over whom he held undeniable sway, but to help us say what we meant in the sharpest, clearest, and most direct way. And in writing about China, there were always so many minefields and different interlocking fields of gravity exerting confusing political pressure on us as writers, especially when writing for other publications. So it was always with a sense of relief that I returned to the Review. There, one always knew where true north was on its compass. Being an unrepentant believer in free expression, Bob imbued the craft of writing about this contradictory and elusive country with a deep sense of moral purpose. Even through China’s many developmental twists and turns, he never lost his strong conviction that Chinese people were as deserving of freedom and liberty as human beings anywhere else in world. This gave writers permission not to just be enthralled or fascinated by China’s always surprising odyssey into the modern world, but also to be reflective and critical.

After writing for Bob, I always came away feeling both proud and clean, as if I had been helped by his editorial oversight to say what I had meant to say, as well as to say it in a way that did not compromise my own sense of right and wrong.

In good writing, the line between advocacy and moral truthfulness is always as perilous as finding that course between Scylla and Charybdis those of us writing about China have always tried to navigate. Here, Bob was the best of pilots and The New York Review of Books the most welcome harbor of refuge.

As a boy I had a New York Times paper route. The wholesaler sold me papers for 1½¢ and I sold them for 3¢. (It was a special rate for schools.) Five years later, when I was a freshman in college, a typographers’ strike in New York closed the Times down for nearly four months. How could that be? Like others, I turned to The New York Review of Books, edited by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein. The Times eventually returned, but the Review now had an exalted place in my mind.

In late fall of 1988, I was working in Beijing for the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China. Imagine my excitement when I heard from Orville Schell that Bob Silvers was coming to China and needed my help. He wanted to meet Fang Lizhi, the brilliant astrophysicist who had begun speaking out for human rights and democracy, and requested my introduction. The great Robert Silvers asking my help? I felt as if the Buddha were asking a favor of Sun Wukong. But of course I complied. The two extraordinary men met and I translated. In passing, Bob took note of me, too, and four months later asked me to write a piece about the 1989 student demonstrations. It turned out to be the first of more than two dozen requests over nearly three decades. It was one of the luckiest turns my life has ever taken.

Only two of the pieces I wrote for Bob were proposed by me. We both knew he was in charge. His normal pattern was to send me a book, or a few books, along with a stimulating thought or two, asking for a review within a few months. He was always extremely gracious, writing sentences like “It would be a great help to us if you could keep it under 4,000 words.” He did not always enforce his guidelines, though; he is the only editor I have ever had who sometimes asked for expansions. Sometimes he sent me books with no particular instructions, just a note that “these look interesting; see what you can make of them.” He was immaculately free of faddish academic jargon. No phrases like “imbrication of (dis)affective subaltern positionality” ever got anywhere near the Review. Two decades ago, Bob once chided me for using the word “hegemonic.”

The range of his intellect was stupefying. Aware of China, he was equally aware of nearly every other place in the world—as well as of art, fiction, psychology, history, politics. The Review is the only journal I have ever wanted to read cover-to-cover. Marcia Angel and Jerome Groopman on medicine, David Cole on law, Frederick Crews on Freud, John Searle on consciousness, Ian Buruma on anything. Endlessly more. I shouldn’t name names because the ones I omit are as good as the ones I cite. My goodness. What wealth.

Bob’s iron devotion to human rights and opposition to oppressive government lay deep in his character. The people in my generation who wrote about China for him (Jonathan Mirsky, Andrew Nathan, Orville Schell, Richard Bernstein) all began, more or less, in the liberal-left movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. We were friendly to Chinese socialism until facts of Chinese life forced us to see things differently. But Bob, although rooted in the same left-liberalism, did not need the empirical lesson that we needed. He somehow knew it from first principles. There, too, he was exceptional.

My cellphone rings. A courteous and somewhat formal voice asks, “Can you speak with Robert Silvers?” There was only ever one right answer to that question.

In 2002, my coauthor Bruce Gilley and I published two articles in the New York Review of Books excerpted from our book, China’s New Rulers, published by New York Review Books. Years later, I saw Bob at an event and went to introduce myself to him, but before I could say who I was he greeted me warmly by name. More time passed, and in January 2016 we renewed our acquaintance at a conference in Hong Kong organized by his New York Review Foundation.

Now the phone call and his dry, somewhat hesitant voice. “Hello, Andy. This is Bob.” I pick up my pencil to take notes. “Don’t you think the Review should publish an article on Xi Jinping?” I say yes. Bob continues in his deferential, tentative-sounding way. “I should think such an article might discuss what motivates Xi, do you think?” Yes. “I would wonder what his relations might be with the rest of the elite.” Yes.

Bob was curious about everything, as is clear from the pages of what he called his “paper.” He was an amateur in the serious meaning of that word. What a blessing for a writer, who has too many questions, to be directed at precisely the right questions. I took good notes. Only at the end of the call did he ask, “Would you write it? We would need 3,500 words by March 11.” All I had to do was fill in the blanks.

Meanwhile, however, a stream of packages arrived in the mail: potentially relevant books, each with a typed and signed note, with remarks like, “Perhaps the point this author makes on p. 127 may be relevant to your article.”

After the submission, the edits: several turnarounds, scrupulous revisions for clarity and diction, and queries seeking the highest standard of precision, in an almost illegible handwriting, his own and only his. Did he do the same editing on essays on art, literature, history, archeology, politics?

Recently, Bob asked for another piece. I submitted it, but there was no response. After a while I wrote to inquire. His answer: “I long to publish the piece as soon as we can but there were some questions and scholarly references that needed some explanation, and I’ve been simply knocked out by pneumonia and will hope to get you some remarks, some of them for shortening the piece, by the end of the week.”

And the usual close, “My best, Bob.”

Bob was famous, among other things, for his phone calls at unexpected times, even on Christmas Eve, or, more commonly, late on Sunday night, when he would be putting a piece to bed and had just “one or two questions.” The Sunday night call that I remember most vividly involved a correction he made to what would otherwise have been a mistake by me. It would have been a small one, but there were no small mistakes as far as Robert Silvers was concerned.

This one involved a reference to a certain matter in a certain book. It would be tedious to describe this in detail, so suffice it to say that I’d written there was one such reference. Bob called to tell me that, no, actually there was a second such reference, and I could find it on the page preceding the one I’d specified.

Foolishly I never asked him how he’d found that second reference in a book of several hundred pages. It would not have been an item in the book’s index, so he had to have read at least the full passage in the book where the two mentions could be found, or asked one of the very bright assistants he had at the New York Review of Books to do that. It doesn’t really matter. What’s stuck in my mind all these years later—and this episode was 25 years ago—was Bob’s veritably fanatical devotion to getting things right, his indefatigable attention to detail. I’ve worked with quite a few good editors over the years, and I don’t think any of them, beside Bob, would have caught that mistake.

There are, of course, other, bigger matters to appreciate about Bob. On China in particular, there was his consistent attention to human rights. Only Bob would have thought to assign Fang Lizhi to review Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping.

The other thing for me was the heightened expectation that I as a writer put on myself when Bob gave me an assignment. As a reader, I always felt that every essay I might read in the NYRB was likely to be the best essay I would read on any particular subject. That’s what Bob demanded, and that’s what made the NYRB so good. As a writer, I felt the pressure to come up to the standard that I knew Bob would hold me to. In that sense, to deal with him and his many questions, to get one of those phone calls, was intimidating, even despite Bob’s very gentlemanly way. But Bob also helped all of his writers to be the best of themselves, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

John Fairbank introduced me to Bob Silvers, which I think was like being born with a silver spoon in my mouth, because Bob turned out to be the most polite, even respectful, editor I had ever dealt with. If he had ever been a slash and burn editor, by the time I had the privilege of writing for him he had left those days behind. He was soon after me for a review, but at that time in the mid-1980s, I was a reluctant reviewer: the China field was still relatively small, and reviewing colleagues’ books felt vaguely incestuous. Bob seemed to have no such worries; either he trusted his authors to be objective or he welcomed the idea of disputation among experts in the letters columns. But he humored me and allowed me to write mainly straight analyses of Chinese developments. From time to time, he would write saying he knew I didn’t like reviewing, but could he tempt me with the following book, and in recent years his kindly but relentless persuasion took effect and I began to do some reviews. In fact, I am currently writing what will be my last review commissioned by him. I shall miss his quiet queries and suggestions in the margins of the proofs.

But what most impressed me about Bob was the disconnect between what seemed like an old-fashioned editorial persona and his enormously dynamic attitude towards ensuring his writers got every last scrap of material which he thought might be helpful in shaping the final product. Each of us has a story to tell about this. Mine was the coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. I was holidaying in France and I have no idea how he tracked me down to my remote hotel, but he did. I had already submitted an article for him on the Chinese situation in the light of the disappearance of communism in Eastern Europe. Bob wanted me to inject the anti-Gorby coup into the analysis, and he would supply me with whatever materials I needed. I told him the hotel where we would be staying in Paris, our next stop, and one of Bob’s indefatigable aides duly found the nearest post office and the material was delivered. The legwork seemed to be normally assigned to an aide, but it was Bob who was relentless in his oversight of such difficult assignments. In this case, I had no excuse not to deliver too.

I knew Bob mainly across a printed proof, but that was how to get the measure of this brilliant editor. I do regret, however, that unlike some of my China colleagues, we seldom met face to face. We had a good chat at a Review party a couple of years ago, but I envy those who had more chances to sample his wide knowledge and his insights. Let’s hope his successor has some of the same qualities.

The toughest challenge to an editor’s integrity is not bribes, or the prospect of reader outrage. Rather, the most painful decision for an editor of a financially struggling publication is to run an important, lengthy essay about a topic that the editor knows readers don’t much care about—so as to make them care.

That was Bob Silvers’ genius as an editor, for he always encouraged us writers to respect our readers’ intellects, to speak up to them rather than down. His aim wasn’t to cater to audience desires so much as to feed appetites that readers didn’t know they had. And he was always perfectly willing to inflict on readers, in a way few other editors would, a lengthy analysis by Sir Isaiah Berlin of “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism,” with an opening quote untranslated from the French. Or an exploration of recent human rights abuses in China, or a study of women’s rights in the developing world.

Yet it worked! Any editor can inflict important but boring essays on readers—for about two issues! Bob pulled this off for half a century and made the Review essential reading. He mastered the alchemy, in a way very few editors ever have, of making the important sparkle. He made journalistic spinach taste like cherry pie.

I knew Bob for many years, and we shared passions for human rights, for current events, for the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin. I wrote for him periodically about issues I cared deeply about—Darfur, China, global and domestic poverty. And of course about Isaiah Berlin! I found it hugely appealing to craft a serious 2,500-word essay that Bob would lovingly edit (and sometimes brutally cut!) for smart readers to wrestle with. And long after my Times columns were at the bottom of the bird cage, I’d hear back from readers about my essays in the Review.

What I admired about Bob was not just his intellect and talent, but also his enormous decency. Invariably, my essays for him would antagonize some of his friends, or others in his huge stable of writers. He was fine with that, but he also wanted to be sure to give them a fair chance to respond at considerable length, and then invite me to respond as well. The back of the Review, with these exchanges, had some of the most robust and thoughtful exchanges in American journalism.

We’re facing a crisis in journalism, not just in America but around the world. Our traditional business model has collapsed, and we’re groping toward new platforms. It’s not clear how we will pay to sustain great reporting, especially at the local level, and there is a consequent push to pander in a rush for clicks and eyeballs. As we cross this minefield ahead, let’s keep in mind not just Snapchat but also Silvers.

Robert Silvers was he best editor and publisher of articles on China—and Vietnam and Tibet—inside or outside academia. “Writing for Bob,” we lucky ones called it.

I began writing for him in 1969, and I owe to Bob whatever skills I have in composition and thinking, and for the sneaking pleasure when someone I have just met says, “Oh, I know who you are, you write for the New York Review.”

In my first anxious phone call, almost fifty years ago, I begged Bob to give me a chance to write on China. After he said, “No thanks, we have John Fairbank,” he gave me a book on Vietnam, where he knew I had been. I hear today Bob’s urgings over the many years and still have his spidery notes he in the margins of my first drafts: “That’s just jargon.” “Do you mean this or that?” “If you mean this, don’t say that.” He saw at once what was new and insightful, and instead of waiting for months, like academic publishers whose outside experts took their time considering, Bob trusted his writers and often published in a week or two.

Bob knew which actors were important in East Asia, and for some years the "paper" was called—sometimes scornfully by the pro-war —“The New York Review of Vietnam.” Sometimes I heard, “The New York Review of Noam Chomsky,” when Noam was hammering away on Cambodia.

On China Bob always made sure that he had a reliable writer on the ground, and his final find was Ian Johnson, who joined the column of the great Sino-mavens, beginning with Fairbank followed by Jonathan Spence, Orville Schell, Rod MacFarquhar, Perry Link, and Andy Nathan. What a parade! And what a drum major!

It would be difficult to imagine the history of modern China in the Western mind without the support and bibliography of Robert Silvers’ reviews. Book reviews on his watch offered an unending series of delights for his own pursuit and for his audience, and with playful energy he built up the available resources. From the mid-1970s onward, his China reviews had developed potential for a Chinese history readership that took up the whole historical span from the twelfth century to the early twentieth century and on to the present. There was a consistent stream of insight and illumination.

It was never possible to know what would come next under Bob’s imaginative leadership. The story continued in all forms as long as Bob chose to make it alive and vibrant —from Confucius via the early Chinese novels to the pungent details of Shanghai in the rain. All those working with Bob on a review grew accustomed to receiving express delivery packages with at most a single correction (with an apology) written if one was needed. They left legions of long eight-inch galley proofs, and each one seemed to offer insights, deftly linking China back to its historical and aesthetic roots, yet it could never have grown so freshly nor so comprehensively without Bob. And one would never have guessed that a little bit of China held such a universe for him.