Earlier this year Robert Silvers passed away. He was a founding editor of the New York Review of Books, which began in 1963, and he continued working at the magazine to the end of his life. Nineteen of his writers penned encomia to him for the Review’s May 11, 2017 issue.
I’ve had lots of editors, but I’ve cared for only one: John Bergez, editor of my third book, The Giants and the Dodgers: Four Cities, Two Teams, One Rivalry. I’d already published books with big New York houses and was shocked by the poor quality of their line editors. One of my manuscripts was so amateurishly altered that I erased as many of the editor’s marks as I could without making it obvious. The fact that they didn’t notice would have struck me as equally appalling had I not been so relieved.
My experience with John was completely different. He was a brilliant manuscript reader who suggested deft changes consonant with my style, which made my book better. More important, he was a gentle, erudite teacher whose intellectual rigor, spiritual depth, and sense of wonder made my life better. When he passed away a couple of years ago, my depression lasted weeks.
John may have orbited at a lower altitude than Robert Silvers, but going by the testimony of those 19 writers, he and Silvers had a lot in common. They both viewed editing as something more than assuring the words on the page held together. The words also had to accomplish something. The Irish critic Fintan O’Toole’s description of Silvers’ mission merits quotation at length:
What he was doing . . . was holding a crucial middle ground. He understood better than anyone else that the public realm has to fight for its existence against two equally great dangers. One is the culture of self-enclosed, technocratic expertise, the hiving off of intellectual life into increasingly minute specializations and increasingly impenetrable professional dialects. The other is the insistence — so much in the ascendant now — that there is no expertise at all, that scholarship and rigor and evidence are the mere playthings of elitist eggheads. Bob’s great gift to civic life was the living demonstration in every issue of the Review that these impostors could be treated with equal — and magnificent — contempt. He held open the space for that great republican virtue: common curiosity. He made this fierce effort seem so natural that it is only in his absence that we realize how hard it is to do and how much it counts.
John was equally dedicated to that middle ground. I was writing a book about baseball, for chrissake, yet he wanted me to make it as smart as possible without sounding pedantic. He once sent me a link to an Onion-worthy webpage created by the University of Chicago called “Write Your Own Academic Sentence.” It was a dead-on piece of mockery, probably too dead-on because Chicago has since taken it down. The sentence I created through it was “The reification of history as such functions as the conceptual frame for the engendering of the specular economy.” The closest comparable existing site I’ve found is this one, and it’s not nearly as good. My guess is it doesn’t even contain the word specular.
And John had equal contempt for anti-intellectualism. I remember us going to dinner and talking about Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of the movie 300 in the May 31, 2007 New York Review of Books. The review turned into a lament for the devolution of narrative. From Herodotus’s account of the Battle of Thermopylae we had sunk to a video game narrative where, instead of a story with subplots, rising and falling action, and a climax, we got a series of escalating assaults, including one with implausible “bald giants, their teeth filed into points, who were kept in chains by their Persian masters until released,” until the Spartans died — game over. John was fascinated and disgusted by the possibility that we were on the brink of an epic (if you could call it that) change in popular storytelling, one so lacking in imagination that the only avenue for surprise was the hideousness of the monsters.
Editors like that are a vanishing species. One of many reasons is that they’re no longer necessary. Anyone can become an author now — just start blogging on Medium! You won’t encounter a single editor. You can puke words on the page, call yourself a writer, and there will be no one to politely contradict you. (Because great editors are unfailingly polite.) Lots of so-called writers welcome that. They regard editors as elitists with antiquated notions of good prose, and are glad self publishing and internet publishing have given people with something to say (if not the wit or skill to say it) direct access to an audience.
But I’m hoping the New York Review of Books and similar publications continue to maintain high standards and hold that middle ground between solipsistic scholarship and anti-intellectualism. With or without an editor, I intend to walk that ground myself. So if you ever catch me using the word specular without irony, you have permission to mock me without mercy.