A dozen years ago, Emily Greenhouse worked as an assistant to Robert Silvers, cofounder and longtime coeditor, with Barbara Epstein, of the Review. After an interregnum working as a reporter and then as The New Yorker’s managing editor, in 2019 she rejoined the Review as our editor. Since then, she has led the magazine through the pandemic, a major redesign of our print edition and website, an attempted presidential coup, our move to a former Tammany Hall clubhouse on East 32nd Street, and now the publication of our ninety-six-page sixtieth anniversary issue.
I chatted with Emily this week—she is in constant conversation with everyone around her—about some of the finer points of editing and writing, and about bringing The New York Review of Books into its seventh decade.
Daniel Drake: How have you approached editing the magazine, and how did you approach editing this issue?
Emily Greenhouse: More than a decade ago, I worked as an assistant to Bob Silvers. I learned from him how to match a writer with a subject, how to edit an essay for structure, and when it is appropriate to use the word “massive” (only when dealing with objects of great mass). As I sharpened Bob’s pencils and tried to access French TV programs during Barack Obama’s first term as president, I would never have expected that I’d be the youngest person ever to edit the Review, and the first woman to do so alone. It has been one of the great honors and surprises of my life to stand at the helm of this magazine, and I could never do it without our brilliant, close-knit circus of colleagues.
With the Anniversary Issue, we set out to present classic elements of the Review alongside fresh voices. The issue is a showcase of original, erudite, and searching reviews and essays by Lucy Sante, Hermione Lee, Pankaj Mishra, Susan Faludi, Alma Guillermoprieto, Marilynne Robinson, Simon Callow, Namwali Serpell, Timothy Garton Ash, Jed Perl, Stacy Schiff, Mark Danner…the list goes on. I find these pieces, on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Harald Voetmann and whales to the gender of literary style, nothing short of dazzling.
Bob was known as an exacting editor. We have an internal document called “Words to Eschew,” which collects the solecisms and infelicities of twentieth- and twenty-first-century English that he wished to keep out of our pages. Are there any words, clichés, or stylistic tics that you’d like to retire? Put another way, what kind of language are you most drawn to, or would you most like to enrich the magazine with?
I am not a dogmatist or an absolutist by nature. I am simply a stickler for clarity, so “eschewing” appeals far more to me than outright banning. I tend to agree with Bob about words that have become so overused that they are imprecise, their meaning diluted or washed away. (That said, certain words are easier to strike than others: replacing “narrative” with “story” is simple enough; finding a pithy synonym for “neoliberal” not so much.) The Review is unusual in deferring to writers, rather than giving the last word to a rigid style guide.
We do, of course, have our standards; a lot of the words on our list spring from a kind of classical or Orwellian, in the nondystopian sense, wish to make language clear and elegant. (Every day I axe many a “framework” and “context.”) The challenge for an editor now might be a bit different than it was in Bob and Barbara’s day, because the lingua franca of the Internet—texting, tweeting—has done something more verbal to the language we all use, made it relentlessly more colloquial, while making some older rules seem stuffy. Our priority is to balance clarity with vitality, the sense of an individual’s voice.
There are words I consider grievously overused among my generation: liminal, generative, traumatic, bespoke, constellate, gifted as a verb for giving or receiving, inspirational when inspiring is meant, inspiring, for that matter, when nothing has been impelled. I try to avoid those. I am also allergic to the expression “lived experience.” Do I believe in the expertise earned by someone who has lived through certain experiences; do I believe that painful experiences often deepen us as thinkers and writers? Absolutely. I am, after all, a millennial. But writing of moral weight and beauty is, I think, trustworthy on its own. This expression seems designed to undercut that.
Because a good number of our writers and readers work in academia, a lot of people expect the magazine to be pretentious, fussy, fancy. No! Language that obfuscates or excludes is exactly our enemy.
What do you take to be the paper’s mission? What about that mission do you think has changed since 1963? What else has changed about the magazine?
My reflexive response is that speaking truth to power is the aim of any paper. But the kind of truth that we at the Review fight for is the truth about ideas. This is a publication that seeks to understand the world—and I do mean the whole world, especially areas that rarely receive attention—with nuance and honesty. In that sense we are the same paper we were in 1963. We are not completists. We are not trend forecasters. We are not—we should not be—mean-spirited. We follow the passions and enthusiasms and sometimes outrages of our writers. That is the project, and that is the job: to reach out to writers whose minds seem acutely alive to the world around us, to ask them to examine, ransack, and record. To find people who understand something that I do not, and then to ask them to explain it, to teach me.
The magazine was clubbier in the Sixties and Seventies, more explicitly the organ of a particular kind of “intellectual skywriter.” I’ve seen my task as changing not only who edits and welcomes in new writers, but basically how we run our magazine. Bob never used a computer or word processor of any kind. I was one of five assistants in his office, the sole woman, and we all took dictation constantly. We called him first thing in the morning, before he arrived at the office, and stayed with him until he left, often well after midnight, seven days a week, in order to maximize his astonishing intellectual output. He was, for the most part, the only person who interacted with writers—who edited, really. I’ve tried to open up the place—glasnost and perestroika, you might say—to take the keys in order to copy and distribute them. The collection of minds on our editorial staff is truly remarkable. I don’t know that any person dreams of being a manager, but as the child of a labor reporter who was himself a red diaper baby, I believe strongly in a fair workplace, and that aspect of the job has come more naturally to me. Really it’s about listening to people.
Before I returned to the Review in 2019, I served very happily for some years as the managing editor at The New Yorker and learned a tremendous amount under the editor-in-chief, David Remnick, the living rebbe of our profession. Deciding what to cover, gaining the confidence to make swift decisions, that’s something I’ve been growing into. What a pleasure and privilege it is, to find my own mind while stewarding a magazine with this spectacular heritage. To publish writers in their twenties alongside writers in their nineties. To help a progressive institution progress.
In the last few years, we have updated the design of the paper, online and in print, including with delicately redrawn typefaces. We hired our first art editor, the extraordinary Leanne Shapton, who has brought a dynamism and effervescence to our covers and pages with sprightly and surprising paintings, drawings, and photographs by working artists. (The fashion designer Rachel Comey so admired our new covers that she used several in a clothing line.) This year, we won our first-ever National Magazine Award, for Namwali Serpell’s glittering, sprawling review-essay on the film Zola, the writer Émile Zola, and the tweets of the sex worker Zola. And this month, we are moving offices.
Will the Review ever have a crossword?
I am terrible at crosswords. I shrugged away from games early because my younger brother is a games genius who, from a preposterously young age, could beat me at anything—embarrassing. (He went on to become a professional baseball sabermetrician, with a World Series ring from the Chicago Cubs to prove it, so over time I’ve come to feel a little less dunderheaded.) But I would never say never! The backbone of our magazine is thoughtful analysis and unexpected insight, but a magazine must be always evolving. There used to be a notion among editors that to entertain or gratify the reader was kowtowing—that the editors themselves should set the agenda, not clamor like mercenaries to meet some assumed desire. Maybe it’s because I’m a reasonably young woman, maybe it’s a changing of the guards and of style, but I’m not afraid to say I want to delight our readers. Still, there probably won’t be a crossword.