The Backlash to the Backlash at The New York Review of Books
Today The New York Review of Books is going to press with a blockbuster follow-up to its controversial essay by accused sexual abuser Jian Ghomeshi: a letter from 109 contributors to the Review (partially leaked on Tuesday but published here in full) objecting to the “forced resignation” of editor Ian Buruma, and calling it “an abandonment of the central mission of the Review, which is the free exploration of ideas.” Their objections were echoed by PEN America, in a statement to Intelligencer, as well as by the president of the Association of University Presses — the coalition of crucial Review advertisers that was rumored to be a factor in Buruma’s dismissal.
The editor’s departure was confirmed last Wednesday. The proximate cause was clearly his decision to publish the article, in which Ghomeshi minimized the accusations made against him. But in the absence of a full explanation or timeline, theories of what went on among the small editorial staff proliferated online. Maybe it had more do with Buruma’s own tone-deaf and minimizing interview in Slate, saying not only of Ghomeshi’s exact behavior, “I have no idea, nor is it really my concern,” but claiming he’d had the full support of his staff, prompting an open revolt. Owner and publisher Rea Hederman would later confirm both concerns, saying that only one (male) editor was consulted on the piece, in defiance of the Review’s long tradition of careful and collaborative editing. It’s possible that this wasn’t Buruma’s first time breaking with that tradition, and the revolt had been brewing for some time.
Arising from this muddle — or perhaps resulting from it, in the absence of better facts — a groundswell of support has formed for Buruma outside the Review, at least among its older writers and readers, many of whom believe that his dismissal was a panicked and damaging overreaction. Their sense of injustice animates the letter, which suggests that Buruma, personally innocent of #MeToo atrocities if perhaps, at 66, generationally guileless and blithe about them, might be the movement’s first real casualty-by-association, and therefore a complicated sort of martyr.
The day after his departure, a Dutch magazine published an interview with Buruma that had taken place in the uneasy purgatory between a difficult conversation with Hederman and his formal resignation. Buruma spoke with detached fatalism of how he’d been “convicted on Twitter,” a victim of the Review’s “capitulation to social media and university presses.” He said Hederman had told him university press publishers, driven by campus politics, were threatening a boycott.
The suggestion that Buruma had been sandbagged by Twitter and academia drove his defenders to the barricades. The contributors’ letter of protest, which was meant to stay “an internal matter,” per one signer, was drafted last weekend — before being sent out for signatures on Sunday — by a core group of 15 signatories: Edmund White; David Rieff; Janet Malcolm; Ian McEwan; Luc Sante; Tim Weiner; James Fenton; Larry Rohter; Thomas Nagle; Eva Hoffman; Margaret Scott; Ahmed Rashid; Lisa Appignanesi; Aryeh Neier; and John Ryle (with Ryle as the point person for the Review). All are over 60.
No one currently on the staff responded directly to interview requests.* Whatever the dynamics inside the Review’s paper-cluttered downtown headquarters, there could have been no revolt without the older man in charge — Hederman. He released his own statement about the dismissal on Monday afternoon, after most contributors had signed the opposition letter but before it was sent off to the magazine. Hederman acknowledged “failures” in the editing of Ghomeshi’s essay, such as allowing him to say that “several” women had made accusations (there were 20) and more broadly in ignoring their “usual editorial practices.” And so the controversy seems to have unfolded along an existing fault line at the magazine — between the culture as it existed under its legendarily exacting founding editors, Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein, and the one that presided under Buruma.
In his statement, Hederman specified that the piece was not shared with four particular editors who had worked personally with Silvers and Epstein. Silvers died in March 2017 and Buruma succeeded him in the fall of that year. But Silvers’s younger editors had been helping run the magazine for years, and after he died the idea was even floated of having two of them co-edit the Review. The virtues of continuity and heritage remain deeply ingrained.
Following Hederman’s Monday-afternoon note, which went at least some distance toward explaining the in-house thinking, the opposition letter from outside writers was sent around again for reconfirmation — to make sure that those who had signed it still wanted their names attached. Per a source, only one author had their name removed while five more signed on. Yesterday evening the Review emailed the protesting contributors, forwarding Hederman’s statement (in case they missed it), informing them that several more names have dropped out and in, and requesting any last-minute changes before 10 a.m. this morning.
Fear of protest from university presses may have played a part in Hederman’s decision, but it seems unlikely to have been the driving force. When we asked Review publicist Nicholas During whether they had indeed faced a boycott, he relayed some pushback from Hederman: “He told Ian [last] Wednesday morning that he didn’t think a boycott would happen. He said the reason for his departure was not because of any controversy or risk to advertising revenue but because there were serious flaws in the editorial process under Ian.” And Jennifer Crewe, an associate provost at Columbia and the current president of the Association of University Presses, says that there wasn’t even really a threat: While “some presses had expressed concerns about the Ghomeshi piece,” which she had relayed to the Review’s advertising department, only one press brought up the idea of ending its relationship, and it wouldn’t have made much difference to the bottom line. (The Review is rare among publications for being both highly prestigious and profitable, thanks in part to academic publishers less beholden to the profit motive.)
In fact, far from being satisfied with the outcome, Crewe was personally dismayed by Buruma’s departure. “I thought it was a really unfortunate end to this,” she says. “I was pleased with the direction he was taking [the Review]. He was bringing in more writers, he was covering more areas, more topics. It was being enlivened, and so it was kind of a shock that he was out.” Other readers privately say they’ve been less impressed with Buruma’s tenure — a perception which may also have played some role in the staff resistance.
One of the signers whose mind wasn’t changed at all by the statement was Laura Kipnis, who decried the firing in an op-ed for the New York Times on Tuesday. Another was Andrew Solomon, the author and former president of PEN America. He felt it was unfortunate that Buruma had been made to resign, even if he also found the essay itself objectionable: “I didn’t agree with the decision that Ian made” to publish Ghomeshi’s essay without adequate scrutiny. (The letter to the Review notes that many signers found the piece “repellent.”) “I thought, ‘Do I really want to get in the middle of all this?’ But the honorable thing to do to was to question the way he had left.”
Back at PEN, Solomon was once on the receiving end of a protest petition, when 35 writers objected to the free-speech organization’s decision to honor the often-offensive French magazine Charlie Hebdo (even after most of its staff was murdered). But this time he sided with petitioners. “I’m concerned in general that publications are so frightened of being tried in the court of public opinion,” he says. “I think it’s important for there to be freedom to publish things that provoke angry responses — and freedom to publish angry responses too.”
PEN America, now led by Jennifer Egan, also worries about the firing. They offered Intelligencer a statement acknowledging that there may have been other concerns with Buruma’s leadership, “but these have not been thoroughly elucidated.” Instead, the timing of his resignation “left the impression that the publication was bending to pressure in pushing out an editor based on a single editorial call that attracted a lot of opposition.” PEN requested a more thorough explanation, without which other editors might “conclude that risky or hotly debated editorial choices may put their jobs in imminent jeopardy, narrowing the range of ideas that can be explored in our discourse.”
The relative stability of The New York Review of Books, which has 150,000 subscribers and a 55-year history, belies its precarious place in that publishing universe. Buruma was brought in to chart a course honoring the Review’s legacy of both meticulous editing and righteous flame-throwing. But how does that volatile mix work in a marketplace that pits the two against each other, and a cultural environment that pits free-speech crusaders against campus protesters? Buruma talked excitedly about the Ghomeshi piece in the months leading up to it. Perhaps he thought he was carrying on a noble tradition and reviving its contrarian roots at the same time. Some (particularly older) contributors seemed to agree. Others evidently thought he was betraying both impulses. But the idea of firing an editor over one misfire felt to many observers like an unprecedented shot across the bow of all such publications.
As in other times of civil conflict, the divide has even split families. Ben Moser, who signed the protest letter, was surprised to find himself disagreeing about the issue with his sister, Laura Moser, who recently ran for a House seat in Texas. “She and I never ever disagree about anything politically,” he said. But he has long admired Buruma, whom he considers a friend, and was dismayed to see his name appear in the same sentence as Brett Kavanaugh on social media. He also noted that Buruma’s disastrous Slate interview seemed to be a case of a writer expressing himself infelicitously about a many-sided question: “Writers often think out loud, and that sometimes doesn’t translate well into print.”
Moser adds that the Review has always been incendiary, as when Silvers and Epstein published Molotov-cocktail instructions on the cover in 1967. “As fuddy-duddy as people like to pretend it is,” he says the Review “has always been very political and unafraid of open debates on controversial issues and unafraid to be wrong about things.” In 2018, it’s just as easy to get it wrong, and maybe harder to survive it.
Below, the statement the Review will publish, followed by the current list of signatories:
As contributors to the New York Review of Books we are writing to express our dismay at the departure of Ian Buruma from the editorship of the Review.
Ian Buruma has proved to be an outstanding editor—as accomplished in this role as he was as a writer for the Review. Under his guidance the NYRB has maintained the highest intellectual standards, extended its range, and expanded its body of contributors. We find it very troubling that the public reaction to a single article, “Reflections from a Hashtag”—repellent though some of us may have found this article—should have been the occasion for Ian Buruma’s forced resignation. Given the principles of open intellectual debate on which the NYRB was founded, his dismissal in these circumstances strikes us as an abandonment of the central mission of the Review, which is the free exploration of ideas.
Joel E. Cohen
Janine di Giovanni
Arlie Russell Hochschild
Andrew J. Nathan
Joyce Carol Oates