«All writing is political. » Susan Sontag’s words from an interview scene in the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), could describe the very publication where she, for years, was one of its most prominent contributors. The New York Review of Books was from the outset more than a mere literary publication – despite what its moniker may indicate to the uninitiated; always with a critical gaze, above the written work itself, it saw its position as an alternative to society as a whole. This way it also distanced itself from the perception of literary review as pure consumer guidance.
Its creation was also borne out of cultural-political motivation. It began in 1959, when the critic Elizabeth Hardwick published the benchmark essay «The Decline of Book Reviewing» in Harper’s Magazine, where Robert Silvers was co-editor. Hardwick put into words the general dissatisfaction with contemporary literary critique, resulting in Silvers, Hardwick and a group of friends meeting to discuss its future and potential. In 1963, as the four-month long newspaper strike hit, circumstances seemed right for Silvers, along with co-editor Barbara Epstein, to introduce The New York Review of Books to an audience starved of any publications.
Earthy and mystic. Martin Scorcese is among those who have been vocal in their support for The New York Review of Books. When the publication celebrated its 50th anniversary, Scorcese was asked by editor Silvers to make a documentary about this cultural institution. Together with creative partner David Tedeschi he created a film which bears witness of his own – and most others’ – enthusiasm for the publication. By combining footage from the busy office – all book-covered walls and desks filled with mountains of paper – with historical archive images together with audio extracts of the essays, Tedeschi and Scorcese portray the publication as an institution of both earthy and mystic qualities.
These aspects are unified in the presentation of the actual main character in the documentary; founder and editor Robert Silvers – or Bob as he is consistently called, who thanks to his clear intentions and friendly guidance, is still able to squeeze the material he wants out of his writers.
The power of language. The enthusiasm is not hard to fathom either. Some of the biggest philosophers and authors of our time have at some point contributed to the publication: Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, to name but a handful. The documentary’s frequent use of archive photos of these writers further strengthen the film’s near-mythological admiration for its subject. This is particularly apparent in the scenes where the participants debate one another, giving the impression of a kind of intellectual clash of the titans, providing the film with some very entertaining sequences.
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