January 8, 2014

New York Review of Books: Never Trust Anyone Under 79

When I was young, books like the 1970 bestseller Future Shock warned/promised that the rapid social change of the 1960s was just a foretaste of the acceleration to come. But then ... Well, it kind of seems like the winners of the Sixties are often still in charge, either in spirit or literally. 

Consider the New York Review of Books, which was started by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein in 1963 during a New York newspaper strike that shut down all the daily book reviews. It quickly came to see itself as the house journal of radical chic, such as this 1967 cover diagramming how to make a Molotov cocktail

Phrases like "Burn bright, burn fast" might come to mind, but the exact opposite has happened. The New York Review of Books is still a pretty good, serious (if dull) magazine. Judging from how stuffed with ads it is, it appears to be, remarkably enough, profitable. It claims to have a circulation of 135,000, which is huge for these days. 

Not only is the New York Review of Books still there, but so is Robert B. Silvers, who continues to edit every line at age 84. The average age of the contributors must be astronomical by now (e.g., here's Malcolm Gladwell's latest book reviewed by 90-year-old Freeman Dyson, and here's Garry Wills, age 79, reviewing Joe Scarborough's political book in the current edition. Wills was a wunderkind, writing for National Review in the 1950s before moving left, so he just seems a lot older than 79).

In a lot of ways, that sums up much of the history of the last half century: the upstarts of the Sixties are still in charge. Back then, they liked Controversy, so everybody liked it. Now they don't like Controversy, so nobody likes it.


Anonymous said...

This applies to economics as well. Back then they were much more pro-labor and union, anti-capital. Now they're neoliberals who support the interests of investment capital over workers.

Anonymous said...

This sort of thing is absolutely infuriating to members of the elite so-called "creative class."

Go to a Brooklyn dinner party and you'll see what I mean. 50% of the discussions revolve around the stagnant hierarchy across the "cultural production" industries - newspapers, television, filmmaking, literature, fine art, etc.

Steve Sailer said...

On the other hand, the only kind of jobs American teenagers seem to be able to get anymore are blogging for The Atlantic or The New Republic as $5 per item.

(Note, puerility and low pay of latest bloggers at ancient magazines may be exaggerated for effect. Or not. I don't know, but I have my suspicions.)

Anonymous said...

I was a regular reader of NYRB from late 80s through the 90s. It didn't have the wild politicking it did in the 60s or since Bush II.

It still has some good reviews but there's so much editorial and opinion pushing.

Same with New Republic. It used to be a sober magazine in the from the mid 80s through the 90s, though Sullivan did gay things up a bit. But now, it's so silly.

Anonymous said...

I must say Slant magazine has some very good film reviews even though I generally don't share the sensibility of those writing them.

Steve Sailer said...

Yeah, I used to read some Spanish-surnamed film critic in Slant. He was clearly smarter than the average reviewer.

Anonymous said...

NYRB mainstay Ronald Dworkin has already had two articles published in the Review after his death (died February 2013 at age 81). You can't trust anyone under 79, but you can trust people underground.

bjdubbs said...

" Go to a Brooklyn dinner party and you'll see what I mean. 50% of the discussions revolve around the stagnant hierarchy across the "cultural production" industries - newspapers, television, filmmaking, literature, fine art, etc. "

Is that true? It's not true on the internet, obviously. It's true that with the latest Deniro/Stallone boxing movie, there doesn't seem to be a new Tarantino on the horizon. Art I believe, the old galleries are probably run by the same mafia as ever. Would like to hear more about this.

Chip said...

They recently put out a commemorative facsimile reprint of the premiere issue and it was fascinating to read in 2013. Mary McCarthy's review of The Naked Lunch (as it was known back then) is so smart and incisive and exciting with nary a lit-crit cliche.

cthulhu said...

Sounds like the NYRB is in need of a new Tom Wolfe to ridicule it the way Wolfe took on The New Yorker in the '60s, with the famous (and hilarious) Tiny Mummies! profile of William Shawn. (It's reprinted in Wolfe's early-21st-century collection Hooking Up.)

Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is not just in "cultural production" industries, but is probably true of all career fields, except technology.

I work in a non-profit and the economy has kept me in the same organization for 6+ years now. I have been able to make lateral moves within the organization, but it is NOT possible to go up. The leadership is a triumvirate of 1950s baby boomers and they are going NOWHERE anytime soon. The whole place is treated as their private club.

As a gross generalization, I am going to guess that if you work in a field that existed pre-1970, you are struggling within an ossified hierarchy. If you work in some newfangled feld, like big data or blogging, you are probably being tormented by some arrogant Millennial!

Anonymous said...


I can understand the need for one child policy but shouldn't China be encouraging its talented and smart folks to have more kids?

Anonymous said...


You're right, this isn't true on the internet. But frankly, among the set I'm talking about (ivy-educated, born UMC and above), the internet doesn't matter. When I say that, I mean the internet doesn't convey the status/seriousness that they're looking for. Sure, these folks could blog about lifestyle topics for the Atlantic or join a twee artisanal book publishing company, but those are widely acknowledged to be unserious, lower-status pursuits.

They want seriousness. They want authority. They want status. Those things, by and large, are still found in great quantities only in old, large institutions. All of which have, in one form or another, a Baby Boomer mafia gumming up the career ladder.

@Anonymous Nonprofit Employee

The pre/post 1970s bifurcation you mention is right on the mark.

how to succeed in polemical publishing said...

I don't think NYRB is a particularly good specimen of the trend Steve's critiquing here. If gay dotcom billionaires aren't offering to buy you, forget about attracting "milennials," just repeat for the old Upper West Siders what they already believe. A more interesting example is Harper's, which was gone from being considered overly precious and snooty in the '80s to eccentric fogeysville today. Of course nobody in publishing is doing that well any more. Aside from Mother Jones I can't think of a single mag that's doing better today (the Businessweek turn-around is a mirage IMHO).

Anonymous said...

Do you sometimes expect that whenever someone finally figures this all out, the adult human pecking order in a society will be found to be surprisingly stable, except for brief unusual periods. During one of these unusual periods most anything can happen, but it's very human for a new pecking order to get established fast (and first) by those, say, under the age of 24.

Whoever grabs the reins of that ugrad generation then controls things for a generation, maybe more, even if they initially don't control everything.