The Ideological Stink of Literary Journalism: The New York (and London) Review of Books

When every writer feels it's their obligation to state unflinchingly that they hate Trump more than the reader.

Martin Scorses’s “The 50 Year Argument,” a 2014 documentary film on the history and influence of The New York Review of Books, opens, as one critic put it, “with a tender and hard-hitting monologue about the subjectivity of journalistic stories due to the impossibility of the human mind being able to objectively record and store memories from our lives.”

Scorses’s film is far more exciting than the above sentence may indicate. It captures a time in New York when left wing radical chic was practically the whole of intellectual life. The so-called New York ‘right’ at the time (as represented by William F. Buckley’s Firing Line or Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary magazine) was in a droll state of lack by comparison.

Scorses’ film chronicles (and romanticizes) the founding of the magazine by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein in 1979 after a long New York City newspaper strike. Poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick added their support to the project and on February 1, 1963      the first issue of the NYRB appeared. Its sixty pages included articles by Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag, with each contributor agreeing to write for free (at least for the first issue) in order to help the publication go on to become one of the bedrocks of urban intellectual life.

The NYRB stamp was soon everywhere. It even cast its intellectual canopy over the infamous 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and 4 feminist writers, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling and Village Voice dance critic and Lesbian Nation author, Jill Johnston. A documentary film of the debate, Town Bloody Hall, shows a young Susan Sontag during the audience Q and A (she was not yet famous enough to be on the panel), confronting Norman Mailer by suggesting that he not call women writers ‘lady writers.’  Her comment and tone is unbelievably polite (one can clearly see that she admires Mailer) but it was no match for Jill Johnston’s antics when Johnston, when it was her turn to speak, opted instead to make love with two of her girlfriends onstage while shouting triumphantly. “All women are lesbians!”

The on-stage fully clothed orgy caused quite a commotion among the largely liberal left audience, with some showing expressions of disgust you’d expect to see among Pat Robertson 700 Club fans. Many feminists in 1971 thought of lesbians as being a threat to the mainstreaming of feminism.  

During a 1997 C-Span About Books interview, Silvers said that one of the reasons for finding NYRB was “to go behind the particular propaganda of the day….We feel that we have an extremely independent review.” Much of the early popularity of the magazine can be attributed to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War; this unpopularity certainly fueled the magazine forward long after the war protests had subsided. Silvers also told C-Span that the magazine didn’t have a particular political line and that it did not identify with any political party.

Silvers’ observation was still mostly true in 1997. Susan Sontag, for instance, authored a defense of Salman Rushdie in NYRB’s April 1990 issue when Rushdie was put under a fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini for “insulting” Mohammed in his novel “Satanic Verses.” Sontag’s work on Rushdie’s defense, both as a writer for NYRB and as president of Pen at the time, was a remarkably brave thing to do, and yet it is highly unlikely that in 2021 any writer from NYRB would take a similar position when it comes to Islam. What is far more likely is that any novel perceived as insulting Mohammad would simply not be reviewed or discussed within its pages, or if discussed it would be from a detached analytical point of view in which the author’s premise was condemned or questioned.   

Sontag also signed an Open Letter to Fidel Castro in NYRB pages in February 1989, urging the dictator to adopt Russia’s liberalizing free speech stance. “On January 1, 1989, you will have been in power for thirty years without having, so far, celebrated elections to determine if the Cuban people do wish you to continue as President of the Republic, President of the Council of Ministers, President of the Council of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces,” the letter stated.

In 1982 after decades of supporting various Marxist causes, Sontag enraged the Left when she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.”

Robert Silvers died at age 87 in 2017. With his death, the Review’s streak of independent thinking, or what was left of it, disappeared altogether when Silvers’ replacement, Ian Buruma, published an essay by Canadian broadcaster, Jian Ghomeshi, accused (but freed by the courts) of sexually assaulting women. That essay, “Reflections From a Hashtag,” was a first-person account by Ghomeshi of being fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct and then acquitted of the charges by a Canadian court.

Ghomeshi’s essay appeared during the height of the #METoo movement. Buruma, who assumed the editorship of the magazine with a promise to make it more “democratic,” was forced to resign as a result of the essay.   

“I made a themed issue about #MeToo perpetrators who were not convicted by the judiciary but by social media,” Buruma told The New York Times in 2018. “And now I am on the pillory myself.” Buruma explained that he expected that there would be strong reactions but that his hope “was that it would open up the discussion about what to do with people who have misbehaved, but have been acquitted by a court. Throughout the ordeal, The Times reported that he maintained his cool and called the attacks against him “ironic.”

While many NYRB staffers called for Buruma’s resignation, many did not. One contributor noted that NYRB “had a history of publishing tough, controversial pieces that did not kowtow to public opinion,” and regretted that sticking to this ideal had cost Mr. Buruma his job. “Providing a platform for people in Ghomeshi’s position in no way exonerates them,” the staffer stated. “It’s important to hear what somebody has to say in the position of suddenly being exiled from social life, and sentenced to a nonexistence.”

Some NYRB writers worried about coming to Buruma’s defense because in that toxic #MeToo climate any defense might be perceived as not caring about sexual assault, which in the mind of many leftists can be as serious as actually committing an assault.  Even soft- left Atlantic Magazine jumped into the fray when it stated, “It is unusual for a well-regarded editor at a prestigious intellectual journal to lose a leadership position over just one article. What are the larger implications for American journalism?”

The London Review of Books (LBR), founded in October 1979, once boasted that it championed independent thought although that reality came to an end with the election of Donald Trump.

The Trump presidency quadrupled LBR’s and NYRB’s leftist identification so that one could not even read an article on an English poet or a Bulgarian scientist without seeing cryptic references to The Orange. The Trump obsession was unrelenting, as if every LBR/NYRB writer felt it was his/her obligation to state unflinchingly that he hated Trump more than the reader.  

The same might be said for NYRB. All during the presidential campaign, Trump references were as common as commas, even in articles about Monet, Van Gogh or obscure 19th century American poets.  NYRB’s latest edition, for instance, contains an essay on “All-American Vigilantes,” an inventory of right wing vigilante groups going back to the Civil War up to and including “the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters.”

“Right wing vigilantes have long been with us. Never did they loom larger than in the strife-torn United States of a hundred years ago.” Of course, the writer avoids any mention of Antifa and BLM and the weeks of burning and rioting those groups subjected American citizens to during the summer of 2020. The article ends in an ‘Iwo Jima’ explosion of Trump bashing: “The Klan’s members and sympathizers ranged from senators, governors, and Supreme Court justices to a youthful New York real estate developer named Fred Trump—who was arrested, wearing a hood, when a 1927 march of some one thousand Klansmen through Queens turned violent. Ninety-four years later, his son would launch the crowd of vigilantes who invaded the Capitol.”    

Many of LRB’s writers-- Susan Sontag, Julian Barnes, Penelope Fitzgerald,Terry Castle, Seymour Hersh, Christopher Hitchens and Bruce Chatwin—also wrote for NYRB.  Published twice a month, LRB is known for its extraordinarily long essays. In 2014, The Guardian posed the question: “Is the LRB the best magazine in the world?” The magazine has spawned a LRB bookshop and a popular cake shop famous for its pistachio cakes. Mary Beard, the popular classical historian, is also a frequent contributor.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Beard wrote an essay “that America had it coming.” That essay did not seem to hurt Beard’s career as Sontag’s career, at least temporarily, was damaged by her New Yorker essay on 9/11 in which she stated that,

"If the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage [a morally neutral virtue]: Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Sept. 11's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Sontag received death threats for her words while Beard went on to become even more of a historian-celebrity. (Finding Beard’s 9/11 essay on 9/11 is a next to impossible task.)

In 2018, The Guardian published, ‘The Cult of Mary Beard.’

 One of her former students, Emily Kneebone, remembers supervisions – one-to-one or two-to-one teaching sessions – at Newnham, the women-only Cambridge college to which Beard has been attached for most of her adult life, first as a student, then as a don. She would teach from a chaise longue: “At first she’d be in a normal position, but as the hour progressed she would gradually slide further and further down so you could only see her feet.”

Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB from 1992 to 2021, is quick to point out that what Mary Beard really said in her 9/11 essay is, "'People will say America had it coming.” Regarding fallout regarding the piece, Wilmers added, "Well, everybody said we would have bombs put through our letterbox….. It just caught on and it obviously touched a nerve because there were people who presumably did think that." The Guardian, notes that on Wilmers’ mother’s side there was “a Stalinist agent responsible for masterminding the assassination of Leon Trotsky.”

 Ironically, Wilmers notes in The Guardian interview that she sees LRB as an antidote to the sameness of opinion in the rest of the media: "Newspapers say the same thing over and over again and we're all horrified and collectively up in arms and there's normally more than one side to something.” Wilmers said this before the woke revolution imploded in the legacy left-leaning media, resulting in a situation where every publication winds up saying “the same thing over and over again.”  

Aside from the predictable political rhetoric, the biggest drawback in reading NYRB or LRB are the books that these publications choose to review or have their writers write essays about.

Generally, the books chosen for review, sans biographies of great artists or writers (even here you’re likely to find a Trump reference), tend to have a similar bias. The classic definition of true literary and journalistic independence would suggest a diversity of books and ideas. After all, there’s no reason to suppose why a curious reader can’t jump from the latest biography of Gore Vidal to the latest book by Walter E. Williams, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Bruce Bawer, Jonah Goldberg or Andrew Klavan. Isn’t this the true definition of intellectual independence?

But the narrow book terrain of these journals makes it impossible to get a sense of what’s really being published in the wider world. To discover this one must go to their nearest big bookstore and get the unadulterated truth by scanning the shelves.  

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism.  He is the author of fifteen books, including Philadelphia Architecture and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. 

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