Jane Vandenburgh

An Exchange with Robert Silvers of the NYRB

Never Satisfied, Are You?

On August 11, 2013, I published an Open Letter to the New York Review of Books on Huffington Post commenting on the Table of Contents of the NYRB’s most recent issue, pictured above, essentially challenging the obvious gender disparity. (My original letter follows at the end of our exchange and is linked at the right.)

My posting prompted this exchange with Robert Silvers, who is its founding editor:

Dear Jane Vandenburgh,

In response to recent comments about contributions by women to the New York Review, I want to say that we certainly hope to publish more women writers. But I wonder if our critics have fairly considered the many reviews, essays, and poems by women that have appeared in the Review and on the Review’s blog. A list of their contributions just during our last year of publication follows:

Print Edition

Zoë Heller on Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf; Joyce Carol Oates on NW by Zadie Smith; Sue Halpern on four books about cyber hackers; Jenny Uglow on A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel; Helen Vendler on What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass; Cathleen Schine on Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon; Jana Prikryl on Pauline Kael and the movies; Ingrid D. Rowland on Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities; Marcia Angell on the Death with Dignity Act; Lovisa Stannow (with David Kaiser): “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”; Anne Applebaum on four books on Soviet spies; Elisabeth Sifton (with Fritz Stern): “The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi”; Francine Prose on This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz; Elizabeth Drew on the presidential election; Diane Johnson on How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti; Rachel Polonsky on Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov; Mary Beard on How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero; Alma Guillermoprieto on mexican journalists risking life for truth; Jean Strouse on Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra; Anne Applebaum: “How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life”; Claire Messud on Astray by Emma Donoghue; Amy Knight on The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule by John B. Dunlop.

Janet Malcolm: “What Happened to Michelle Malakova in Forest Hills?”; Elaine Blair on Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max; Joyce Carol Oates on Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski; Janet Malcolm: “The Fate of Michelle Malakova”; Zoë Heller on Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie; Elizabeth Drew on voter rights; Janet Malcolm: “Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World”; Zadie Smith: “Joy”; Ingrid D. Rowland on the exhibition Late Raphael; Cathleen Schine on Blown Away and Dear Life by Alice Munro; Hermione Lee on two books by Colm Tóibín; Nomika Zion on Siderot and Gaza; Rosanna Warren: “Toward High Point” (poem); Yasmine El Rashidi: “Egypt: The Rule of the Brotherhood”; Lorrie Moore on Homeland; Marcia Angell: “How to Die in Massachusetts”; Claire Messud on The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore; Joyce Carol Oates on The Round House by Louise Erdrich; Helen Vendler on Now All Roads Lead to France: A Life of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis; Sue Halpern on two books about dogs; Helen Epstein on Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner; Elizabeth Drew: “Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?”; Fiona MacCarthy on The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary by Jenny Uglow; Cathleen Schine on Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich.

Francine Prose on The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; Florence Williams on Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen; Diane Johnson on two books about Scientology; Alison Lurie on The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud; Anka Muhlstein on the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity; Mary Beard on Spartacus by Aldo Schiavone; Marcia Angell on Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant; Joan Acocella on Isadora Duncan; Elizabeth Hardwick on Sylvia Plath (reprint); Anne Applebaum on Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell and The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin; Jenny Uglow on Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson; Susan Sontag on Simone Weil (reprint); Zoë Heller on Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm; Anna Somers Cocks: ”The Coming Death of Venice?”; Joyce Carol Oates on two books by Derek Raymond; Aileen Kelly on Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal by Arie M. Dubnov; Elaine Blair on Sontag: Reborn; Terry Castle on two biographies of Sylvia Plath; Hermione Lee on The Selected Letters of Willa Cather; Paula Bohince: “Carousel” (poem); Hannah Arendt: “Reflections on Violence” (reprint); April Bernard on Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart; Joan Didion on Bob Woodward (reprint).


Foreign affairs (Alma Guillermoprieto on Venezuela, Stephanie Giry on Cambodia, Amy Knight on Russia, Haleh Esfandiari on Iran, Yasmine el Rashidi on Egypt, Sarah Birke on Syria, Ingrid Rowland on Italy);

Philosophy (Agata Sagan);
Politics (Elizabeth Drew);
History (Natalie Zemon Davis);
Human rights (Helen Epstein, Xiaorong Li);
Film (Francine Prose, Emily Eakin);
Television (Elaine Blair);
Poetry (April Bernard);
Art (Negar Azimi)

Yours sincerely,
Robert Silvers

I read through this list and realized that the Table of Contents I’d reacted to was, in fact, something of an anomaly. I noticed, too, that it was possible that I was simply missing particular individuals, that the hollow absences created by the deaths of Elizabeth Hardwick, Barbara Epstein, and Susan Sontag do not feel entirely filled. In both the NYRB editorial board and in the writing of its female contributors, I seemed to be missing something, not just in the sense of the number of writers but in the strength and originality of their voices.

I was also keenly aware that each of these women had no doubt spent her lifetime avoiding being captured by the butterfly net of gender or dodging anyone eager to pin her on the board and count her as a “woman” anything. It is, of course, exactly those writers who transcend the limitations and easy expectations of their own categories who’ll end up mattering.

And I then realized I feel pretty much the same way about the loss of Gore Vidal as NYRB contributor. Where is MY Gore, who used to publish a review so dead-on bitchy vicious — by simply quoting the terrible writing line-by-line  — that tears of laughter ran down my face. 

Gore, too, gone to walk the Star Path! Maybe what I was actually missing was a time when the NYRB seemed to be speaking more directly to me?

So I wrote Robert Silvers on 20 August 2013 to say I had put his letter up on the Huffington Post and called it An Exchange, as they do in the NYRB. You’ll notice I’ve used the Future Perfect  — what I think of as The Novelist’s Tense — phrasing this in my letter to him as if the HuffPost publication had already happened: 

Dear Robert Silvers,

Thanks very much for your letter, which I found both thoughtful and thorough. I have just published it in its entirety on my blog on Huffington Post and am very glad to hear the New York Review plans on publishing more women writers in the years to come.

Robert Silvers then wrote me:

Dear Jane,
Thanks for your letter. I’m glad to have our list published on the Huffington Post.


It was only then I got this email from the Huffington Post, saying they’d declined the piece and giving no reason.

Dear Jane Vandenburgh,We appreciate you taking the time to submit your most recent post. Unfortunately, we are going to pass on it for publication at this time, and will look forward to your next submission.

When I wrote to recount this, Robert Silvers replied:

Dear Jane,
Many thanks for your email. I’m glad you’re posting my letter on your website.
About HuffPost, it did seem odd that they would publish your letter but not my response to it. Once a challenging letter is published, it would seem fair to publish the response–if they care about fairness.
And I wrote him saying I didn’t think this had much to do with journalistic fairness and was rather a question of what was hot and would garner a bunch of Likes and that what people really Like is thinking there’s an easy enemy and that the NYRB is certainly not that and that in the admix of gender and excellence it’s almost infinitely complicated.

What I didn’t say was that I’m slightly amazed to find someone at HuffPost actually reads these posts of mine before they’re put up but you must remember that anymore I’m a little startled to think that any of us is sitting still long enough to read anything, how can we read when something as fascinating as this TLC Unveil’s ‘The Man With The 132 Pound Scrotum flickers invitingly at the bottom of the screen?  

With love and thanks for your patient attention as I work on what I really think, I remain, most sincerely,


What follows is a copy of my original letter:

On Aug 11, 2013, at 10:46 AM, Jane Vandenburgh wrote:

Dear Robert Silvers,

I’m a well-published novelist, college professor, writer and reader of serious nonfiction. I mention this because it might be natural for you to assume that a person such I be counted among your most loyal subscribers and you wouldn’t be mistaken. I’ve subscribed to the NYRB for more than 30 years, have regularly given subscriptions family and friends, my daughter and daughters-in-law, included.


Because — to paraphrase Tom Stoppard — life is short but the march is long and the march itself is what’s important.

You’ll remember that that speech from “Arcadia” is being delivered to a 13 year old girl. It’s my passionate wish that all young women of intellectual promise understand their place in this march.My work — that is, my part in the greater conversation — is being addressed to them every bit as much as it’s being addressed to anyone.

I also need for you to know that I have never allowed my own work to appear in a collection where it was chosen solely on basis of gender, caste, class, “race,” or ethnicity, as these matters — as important as the are in telling the larger story — are never reliable predictors of who’s doing the best and most interesting writing, as you and I surely must agree.

None of us is race blind, gender neutral, nor is our work.

So to seek solace from the discouraging idiocy of a nation where the rights and dignity of women and girls across this country are being assailed by fundamentalists, where an archaic and terrifying misogyny is again on the rise, I will open a publication such as yours to find thoughtful people carrying on the important conversations about art and life in the largest sense.

You can imagine my shock, therefore, when I read down the Table of Contents of the New York Review of Books’s most recent issue, thinking, Really?

Really? the only woman contributor among the 25 is April Bernard, reviewing Frank Bidart’s new book of poems? Really? the only female “author” the NYRB exhibits any interest in this time is the unfortunate Amanda Knox, where the theme of the review seems to be which lines are this poor girl’s and which belong to her work-for-hire co-author?

From your archives you have managed to find a Joan Didion piece to reprint from long ago. I’m sad, angered, missing Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler. I am missing them, but wondering too what have you become.


Jane Vandenburgh

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