Engaging With the World: Emily Greenhouse and Gabe Winslow-Yost

NYRB co-editors Emily Greenhouse and Gabe Winslow-Yost reflect on Robert Silvers' legacy and discuss their latest roles as stewards of The Review's traditions.

  • Emily Greenhouse: You and I met ten years ago, almost, when I was interviewing to be one of Bob’s assistants. The interview was quite intimidating: like being interrogated by a panel of experts who also slipped in a warning about how much the office revolved around one singular man’s mind. And then that man appeared...

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: It was a singularly terrifying place to interview (and to start working, for that matter) — this dizzying, dismaying moment where you realized there was a whole world of knowledge and judgment and tacit understanding of which you had only the faintest idea. Bob was in his most courtly and gentle mode during those interviews, generally, but for me at least that became the scariest part: the sudden realization that he had actually read whatever nonsense you had submitted as a writing sample, and wanted to hear more about how you interpreted the late Henry James, or whatever it was.

    I actually ended up interviewing with him twice, and was advised before the second by one of his assistants to, essentially, "stop mumbling like an idiot."

    Emily Greenhouse: I remember how exceedingly charming he was when we met, which was right around Christmas Day — and yes, it was mortifying to speak with one of the greatest minds in American (or European) letters about some dinky college thesis. But he seemed to take our interests seriously. And then working in his office was quite a shock — I think one of the assistants who “trained” me cautioned that Bob nightmares would set in rather fast. There wasn’t much by way of training, actually (not to sound ungracious, since you were one of the three or four guys who did train me). Assistants all were expected to keep a sort of collective record, so that the person looking at books or correspondence with him on Monday at 11 AM would know what pitches were discussed the previous Thursday at 11 PM.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: Yeah, it's one of the things that just sort of peeks in around the edges in the documentary: that there was a whole team of assistants, working overlapping shifts and forming a kind of haphazard hive mind, just to keep up with him.

    Emily Greenhouse: I left [to work at The New Yorker] just before it started filming, as I recall! But you're actually in it — sporting a terrific yellow shirt. I definitely laughed watching our former colleague Andy [Whinery] take dictation from Bob, riding to the office in a yellow cab. I wonder if he ever considered making a typing test part of the assistant interview.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: No, that would have made too much sense.

    Emily Greenhouse: I worked in a number of offices as an editorial assistant. Demanding as it was, there was such a sense of involvement, in Bob's office, with every aspect of his day and work and mind. It was a terrific apprenticeship, I thought, almost in the Renaissance “master artist” way. Plus the amanuensis duties we've described.

    For me, it was the Saturday night-shifts where I felt I got the strongest sense of Bob as a person – his memories of growing up with chickens in Long Island, close to where my father is from. Enrolling at the University of Chicago when he was, I think, fifteen years old. Then doing intelligence work in Paris but also taking classes and bumping elbows with everyone in the Left Bank scene. Meeting with the great Fang Lizhi in China – that was one of his favorite stories, climbing a winding staircase, waiting to meet the astrophysicist who became a pro-democracy activist. Those were electrifying conversations, ones where you could feel how personal it all was for him, the atrocities of human rights violations no matter where in the world. He was of course an extremely sophisticated person, an intellectual, but injustice moved him viscerally, emotionally. I’ll always remember those conversations – how animated he grew. And then I would head out, sometimes at midnight, sometimes two or three in the morning, into the thrum of the West Village, people spilling out of comedy clubs and swish restaurants, and feel that, even though I’d had nothing to drink, I was part of the great New York secret.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: One of the things I remember being shocked by, when I started, was how seriously he took all the supposedly unimportant stuff, too. Not just political dissidents, but sci-fi movies, Tintin comics, sporting events... (I usually worked the Sunday shift, so I watched the Super Bowl with him once or twice — one of my favorite memories of Bob is him looking up from some very urgent piece he was editing to cackle at how terrible the Who's halftime show was.) Everything was fascinating to him, when he turned his eyes to it, in this unbelievably total, even physical way. ​

    Emily Greenhouse: That was one of the most refreshing and — to use a favorite RS word — revealing things about him. Was he ever involved with the [New York Review] Comics series you and Lucas [Adams] started?

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: Not really — though the long essay on Chris Ware that he had let me write (an absolutely insane thing to entrust to a twenty-something) helped set that sub-imprint in motion.​

    Emily Greenhouse: Which was wonderful! (Also I'm forever grateful for the time Bob put your video-game piece on the cover, headline in yellow before a big black computer monitor, under the cover-line “The Weird New World.”) And now Chris Ware is writing for you.

    Neither of us had the chance to work with Barbara Epstein, something I regret each day, especially when I stop to look at the bookshelf she kept, fully intact in the space where we meet with publishers and writers – all the international editions of Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl, which Barbara herself edited and published when she was in her mid-twenties. It would be hard to overstate how much that connection means to me.

    I love in the film when Darryl Pinckney describes “her girls.” I think in our generation maybe we don’t feel that we should bring friendships to the office in quite the same way – but perhaps we shall. These can certainly be intimate relationships.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: And the whole thing was started at a dinner party! A reminder never to be too businesslike, I suppose.

    Emily Greenhouse: I often reread what Darryl wrote after her death, in 2006: “Her sense of the language, her love of literature and of good writing, went with a faultless moral refinement that guided her philosophy and conduct in all things, big and small. The shits are killing us, she sometimes remembered Paul Goodman saying, and as the political and cultural situation in the US continued to deteriorate, the Review’s purpose became a form of witnessing, though Barbara would not have put it that way.”

    It was clearly a clan or a cabal, a sort of family.​

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: As much as my mom is pleased that I make a couple half-second background appearances in a Scorsese film, I wish this had been filmed a few years earlier, so I could have seen the Review in the Bob-and-Barbara years, which I've only heard stories about: How warm and mischievous and fun she was, how she and Bob would hash out disagreements at the top of their lungs... (I guess this is how the current assistants experience Bob.)

    Emily Greenhouse: I'm waiting for us to have those disagreements! We're still pretty new in the job – only started as co-editors in March of last year, 2019, and then I went into labor on my seventh day in (but still didn’t want you to cancel our lunch with Rea [Hederman, the publisher]). I think I feel newer in it than you– plus you know the joint so much better. But it gives us something to look forward to, when we really get comfortable.

    The letters at the end of the Review have become especially famous for a lively sense of verbal sparring, almost intellectual jousting – but that spirit was there in the founding of the thing: Elizabeth Hardwick’s indictment of the “light little article,” and the entire magazine spun out to show how it could be done better.

    This is a different age, obviously. I’m not sure that the most prominent writers engage in the same disputation with the same glee and vigor, or at least on primetime TV in the Gore Vidal/William F. Buckley model – or with Norman Mailer, as we see, memorably, in the documentary (Susan Sontag’s question about Diana Trilling is one that will stay in my mind). But we're certainly seeing public reckoning with questions of history – slavery, race, the founding of the country. I know we both hope to continue that sense of interrogation and engagement.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: I think a lot of that particular kind of energy gets funneled into Twitter now, which is a shame — it's more fun when people do it in person, and more useful when they have to integrate it into a 4000 word essay.

    It still happens, though. Colm Toíbín's point that we can't expect "blood on the floor" in every issue reminded me of Patricia Lockwood's hilarious, brilliant essay on John Updike in the LRB recently — which she bins by promising "blood on the ceiling." I think Bob would have gotten a kick out of that one (and it's pretty high up on my personal list of Things I Wish We Had Gotten to Publish).​

    Emily Greenhouse: There's something to be said for the openness of Twitter, but of course in practice the lack of moderation (I mean this in the sense of having a moderator, first) makes it pretty noxious. Maybe people will read this interview and watch this documentary and write to us.

    The “paper,” as they called it, has always been associated with a radical commitment to truth, and sometimes, therefore, with dissidents, and that really shows through here. Yasmine El Rashidi speaks really powerfully to this: Bob and Barbara asked their reporters to write what they were seeing, not confirm what the big papers claimed on A1. Of course Joan Didion’s piece on the Central Park Five is a kind of master class on this.

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: The deep satisfaction of being right — it's striking, then and now, that of all the wonderful, powerful things she has written, Didion chose to read from that piece at the 50th anniversary event. 

    The biggest example for me, though, was the invasion of Iraq: almost every other publication got that wrong, and the Review didn't. That was one of the reasons I wanted to work here in the first place, in fact. And it's one of the greatest demonstrations of the advantages the Review has: because it is smaller, and independent, and because everyone involved shares that moral commitment (including, crucially, the owner), it was able to avoid a trap that caught almost everyone else, and to warn of the disaster as it was happening.

    I don't know if you remember this, but the assistants had a little stash in the back of the office of books and materials that we always needed to have extra copies of on hand, because Bob was constantly pressing them on people. One of the main items in there was Hans Blix's report on the lack of WMDs in Iraq — Bob gave someone a copy of that practically once a week, even years later. The point was that it hadn't taken some great stroke of genius to be against starting that war: all the information you needed was right there, publicly available and absolutely clear, if you were willing to see it. (Another mainstay in the stash was The New Jim Crow.)

    Emily Greenhouse: I do remember, absolutely. (And each time we reach out to Michelle Alexander, we tell her.) Bob and Barbara started this magazine in their thirties, with a sense of youth and even danger — I think there was real courage in the gesture, and you see it in that extraordinary first issue. I find it remarkable that that endured until their seventies and eighties, until they died. There was always an engagement with the world - and whatever new thing was at hand. I love when our former colleague Hugh Eakin describes the concert pianist and critic Charles Rosen faxing in one of the first blog posts published on the Daily, the Review's blog. Didn’t Larry McMurtry do that, too? You'd know better, since you worked as a Daily editor. Hugh describes it as “very new media from a very old tradition of writing about the world.”

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: I think so? And we still use it occasionally — we had a magazine piece that went through editing by fax just a year or so ago. I loathed that machine, as an assistant. But of course, these days, it seems far from the worst thing!

    Emily Greenhouse: Yes, now we’re putting out issues in the age of Covid, more dependent on machines than ever. Coming back to the Review, I found it charming and sort of hard to believe, the continued reliance on pencil and paper and “typesetters” — which probably have made the transition to working remotely steeper here than in most publications. I’ve been super impressed with and proud of our colleagues for taking so well to it, but there’s a spirit of conviviality, including the spirited argument, that can be hard to replicate via electronic chatroom. It’s much more sterile this way, and misunderstandings are easier. I think that may be even harder for you, because of how long you've been here?

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: It's horrible, frankly. This made the documentary a little depressing to rewatch, for me, as it turned out: all those shots of the office, with the desks covered in books and papers, Bob scrawling in pen onto a piece and explaining what he's doing to the editor looking over his shoulder. There's even a brief shot of me and Hugh arguing (in the most sedate and soft-spoken way) over what a blog post should be titled. All that has to happen remotely now, with each of us tapping away alone in our various makeshift home offices, or via glitchy video meetings, or shuttling PDFs and Word docs around. It works, and we're incredibly lucky that the magazine is still going — and what we do seems more urgent than ever, really. But it isn't nearly as fun, or as intimate and human, as it should be. The Review as an ongoing conversation, with ideas and edits and assignments emerging organically from it, and shaped by it — that's been so much harder to maintain, and I miss it. (And let's not even talk about how much it grieves me not to be able to edit things on paper, with a pencil — which I'm fully aware makes me a dinosaur.) 

    Emily Greenhouse: Toíbín says at one point that, although reading and writing are necessarily done in silence, writers and readers must feel each other’s presence — must believe in one another — and “join forces” somehow. He connects this, of course, to the mission of the Review, and magazines like it. But thinking on it from my living-room couch, where I now spend the day sitting and editing, with my almost-toddler stacking plastic blocks and biting my toes, I feel that this is true of working together under these circumstances. Forgive me if I sound preposterous or romantic here! It can feel dispiriting, untenable. And yet so many of our editorial relationships are conducted in the epistolary fashion — that has become all the more true. I'm probably chatting by phone with more writers now than I would have otherwise, which a year ago would have seemed vestigial.

    Speaking of, you are a dinosaur, a beautiful trace. But how many people our age want to be an assistant to an octogenarian? Which I think hits on how we're approaching our time in these jobs. You and I speak often about ourselves as stewards — adapting the template that Barbara and Bob set. We're lucky not to have to reinvent this magazine, but rather refresh it. And I think they were committed to refreshing it, too, always finding new writers, always keeping an ear to the ground. I love what Bob said in the movie about editors being supplicants — asking for things, hoping. Never demanding. That's certainly the principle: finding people we admire, asking them what they are thinking. Which will not change.​

    Gabe Winslow-Yost: "What does not change / is the will to change."