Over 100 contributors to the New York Review of Books, including such intellectual heavyweights as Ian McEwan, Darryl Pinckney, Michael Walzer, and Joyce Carol Oates, have signed a letter (I did as well) that is being released today to protest the ouster of Ian Buruma as editor for publishing a controversial essay by the former CBC radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. In triggering an international debate over editorial freedom and the #MeToo movement, Buruma has been more successful than he could ever have imagined. To some extent that success is, of course, inadvertent, a consequence of his being fired, or pressured to resign, from his post as editor.
Initially, Buruma’s detractors, who celebrated his ouster, had the upper hand. But since then, Buruma has become a kind of lightning rod in the Trump era about editorial independence and daring. It hardly seems to need saying that Buruma is a brilliantly talented writer and reporter who had helped to re-energise the magazine. Whether it was Ian Bostridge on German lieder or James Mann on Trump foreign policy, he published a number of impressive essays, while retaining the lapidary quality that Silvers had instilled into the Review. Now, a flurry of op-eds has appeared to defend Buruma and express concern, to use Senator Susan Collins’s favourite word, about the consequences of his precipitous departure. Writing in the New York Times, Laura Kipnis, who wrote several essays during Buruma’s tenure for the Review, observed, ‘One consequence of Mr. Buruma’s departure will be a new layer of safeguards we won’t even know are in place, including safeguards from the sort of intellectual risks The New York Review of Books always stood for.’ Then there was Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times: ‘The collective imperative is to navigate a way through straits that have not yet been fully charted and that are therefore treacherous. If all those who take wrong turnings are instantly thrown overboard, the whole ship will be sunk.’
Yesterday, the publisher of the Review, Rea Hederman, issued a proleptic statement in which he pointed to lapses in the editorial process as conducted by Buruma: ‘The failures began with the decision to not follow the Review’s usual editorial practices set up by Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein, founding editors of the New York Review. This article was shown to only one male editor during the editing process. Most members of the editorial staff (including six female members of staff, four of whom worked with Bob and Barbara), were excluded from the substantive editorial process.’ Hederman concludes, ‘The New York Review has a long history of publishing controversial and unpopular pieces and will continue to do so. However, in the future, we expect the editing to live up to the standards to which the Review aspires.’ The importance Hederman, who has been a faithful and careful steward of the magazine, attaches to the fact that four of the editors worked for Silvers and Epstein seems misplaced. Surely these issues could have been addressed without taking the step of dismissing Buruma.
If you care about the Review — and I imagine that the next wave of essays will come from the right either dismissing it all as a parochial brouhaha or suggesting that the magazine was hoist by its own petard — then the stakes are high. Much will depend on Hederman’s selection of the next editor. There are plenty of good candidates, including the New Republic’s Laura Marsh, who runs the magazine’s book review section, or Sam Tanenhaus, who recently demonstrated his impressive versatility with a lengthy reported piece in Vanity Fair on the Devos clan and an essay on the influence of Russian novelists in America in the Times. But whoever is chosen, the scrutiny will be intense. The Review, you could say, is now coming under review.
But it won’t be the first time. The Review has made missteps before and recovered. The biggest was probably Silvers’s decision to publish a diagram of a Molotov cocktail on the cover in 1967. James Wolcott noted that it created ‘a rift in the New York intellectual scene that earned The N.Y.R. the title of “chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic” (Tom Wolfe’s phrase), had longtime friends giving each other the evil eye and spurred the formation of the neoconservative movement.’ Philip Nobile, author of a nifty history of the magazine called Intellectual Skywriting (1974), observed that in subsequent years, particularly after a critique published in Commentary in 1970 by Dennis Wrong, the magazine became much more of an establishment organ. But Nobile also quoted from graffiti at a Dublin pub to describe it: ‘“When sex is good, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. But when sex is bad, it’s still pretty good.” That’s how good is The New York Review of Books.’ True, then as now.