Editor Not Ready to Write an Ending

CHARLES McGRATH
The New York Times

Robert Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books, received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle last week, and next month he will get another, from The Paris Review.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times – Robert Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books in the West Village. He says he has no plans to step down from editing the publication.

Neither award is likely to stop the kind of speculation that invariably takes place whenever too many New York intellectuals remain too long in one room: Mr. Silvers can’t stay on forever, presumably, so who is going to succeed him?

Rea Hederman, the tall, courtly Southerner who owns The New York Review, says that he has been asked the succession question practically every day since he bought the publication in 1984, and he still has no answer.

“Bob is the editor,” he said recently. “When he’s not the editor, then we’ll look for one. It’s not something we discuss or plan for.”

Joe Tabacca – At least at dinner parties, names suggested to succeed Robert Silvers include Louis Menand.

Mr. Silvers, who turned 82 last New Year’s Eve, likes to say, in typically formal syntax, that the question of who will succeed him at the “paper,” as he calls The Review, is “not one that is presenting itself.” Despite having a pacemaker installed in the past year, he said he felt as energetic as ever.

“I think about concentrating on doing our issues and making them as interesting as possible,” he went on. “Really, that’s what’s on my mind. If I had some reason to think that I ought to slow down or do something else, I would probably feel differently, but I don’t.”

The disinclination of Mr. Silvers and Mr. Hederman to identify a successor has not stopped others from doing it for them, or from studying The Review like Kremlinologists looking for fissures in the Politburo.

In truth, the publication has altered very little since its founding during the New York City newspaper strike of 1963, though its circulation crept to a high of 130,000 at the end of last year. It maintains a lively and opinionated blog these days, overseen by a young editor, Hugh Eakin, and there has even been an occasional podcast. Guided by his assistants, Mr. Silvers now prowls the Internet — something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. But many of same people still write for The Review, and the same person is still in charge, editing in pencil.

If there were a succession plan, Review watchers like to point out, the logical moment to put it in motion would have been in 2006, when Mr. Silvers’s co-editor, Barbara Epstein, died. That would have been the moment to bring in an heir apparent and turn over some of Ms. Epstein’s duties, which were said to be supervising the fiction reviews, bringing in new talent and overseeing the publication’s layout.

Instead, Mr. Silvers simply took over all her jobs and added them to his own immense workload. The Review continues to pay attention to fiction, has recently brought in younger writers like Zadie Smith and Nathaniel Rich, and looks as crisp as ever, though sorely missing its once familiar caricatures by David Levine, who died in 2009.

About a decade ago, when the succession question came up, the name most often mentioned was that of Louis Menand, then a contributing editor at The Review and all but wearing the mantle, or so rumor had it. Mr. Menand, now a New Yorker contributor and a professor at Harvard, said recently that he and Mr. Silvers never discussed succession, but that every now and then he found himself wondering what he would say if the call ever came.

“I realized I couldn’t imagine doing it,” he said. “Not only is Bob more in touch with intellectual life than I am, but he also knows everything that’s going on in Afghanistan and Haiti. I just don’t have that range.”

Other names that have come up at literary cocktail parties over the years are those of Ian Buruma, a frequent contributor; Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar with wide interests who is personally close to Mr. Silvers; Mark Danner, another frequent contributor and also a former Review employee; Michael Shae, who has been a senior editor at The Review for years; and Alex Star, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review who recently moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

They all have their virtues, though none, it goes without saying, exactly fits the Silvers profile. Possibly a clue to Mr. Silvers’s own thinking was his role in choosing a new editor for The Paris Review after the 2003 death of George Plimpton, who was as closely identified with that publication as Mr. Silvers is with his.

There was powerful in-house sentiment in favor of Brigid Hughes, The Paris Review’s executive editor, who had been Mr. Plimpton’s right hand and knew his intentions probably better than anyone, but the search committee, headed by Mr. Silvers, instead hired an outsider, Philip Gourevitch, a gifted but un-Plimptonian writer who had never been an editor and who quickly set about redesigning and rethinking the publication. What if Mr. Silvers were hit by a bus? He laughed and said: “I can think of several people who would be marvelous editors. Some of them work here, some used to work here, and some are just people we know. I think they would put out a terrific paper, but it would be different. It would be crazy to try to continue what I do, because what I do is idiosyncratic.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 17, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Editor Not Ready to Write an Ending.