New York Review of Books Commits Intellectual Suicide

With Ian Buruma’s Resignation NYRB goes where it has never gone before

Daniel T. Weaver

Near the end of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, Noon Wine, the main character, Royal Earle Thompson, recently acquitted of murder, rides around the county attempting to justify his behavior to his neighbors. At his last stop, he says to Mr. McClellan, “Well, as I reckon you happen to know, I’ve had some strange troubles lately, and, as the feller says, it’s not the kind of trouble that happens to a man every day in the year, and there’s some things I don’t want no misunderstanding about in the neighbors’ minds, so—”

Thompson’s words could easily have been the opening sentence of Jian Ghomeshi’s essay, “Reflections from a Hashtag,” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi, who was cleared of sex crime allegations by a Canadian court, attempts to justify himself to his neighbors which, in 2018, are not confined to one county but are global. Like Thompson’s neighbors, Ghomeshi’s do not believe him. Unlike Thompson’s neighbors who reacted with embarrassment, Ghomeshi’s have exploded with anger, and their anger against Ghomeshi has spilled over and engulfed the editor of the NYRB, Ian Buruma.

In his essay, Ghomeshi carefully chooses his words, stating he was acquitted in court but never unequivocally stating he is innocent of the charges against him. He comes across as smarmy, a person, who, if nothing else, used his prestige and power as creator and host of Q, a popular CBC culture show, to have his way with women. In the essay, he admits to being critical and dismissive of women and being demanding of his dates. That Ghomeshi’s essay would repulse many readers is understandable. More difficult to understand is their vitriolic response to Buruma which apparently led to his resignation.

Bad Boys – Good Writing

The NYRB has a history of publishing the work of ‘bad boys.’ In its first issue, February 1, 1963, the magazine published a review by Norman Mailer of Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris. While Mailer’s review has no connection with Ghomeshi’s essay, Mailer’s behavior has a relationship with Ghomeshi’s. In 1960 Mailer stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, seriously injuring her in the process. Morales was forever defined as the wife Mailer stabbed. Even the first sentence of her November 23, 2015 obituary in the New York Times stated, “Adele Mailer, an artist and actress who made headlines in 1960 when her husband, the novelist Norman Mailer, stabbed and seriously wounded her at a drunken party in their apartment, died on Sunday in Manhattan.”

In spite of Mailer’s violence against his wife, the Review continued to publish him over the years. Then they published several letters by Jack Abbot (June 26, 1980), Mailer’s protege, author of Belly of the Beast, and a killer who killed once again after Mailer and his friends helped Abbot get released from prison. And there is V. S. Naipaul, who was allegedly brutal to women, yet who regularly contributed essays and reviews to the NYRB.

This seems different”

In a Slate interview (September 14, 2018) with Buruma following his resignation, Isaac Chotiner acknowledges NYRB’s history of publishing violent men, stating, “…you have published Naipaul and Mailer, who did not behave well with women,” which he (Chotiner) then quickly dismisses by stating “This seems different.” Unfortunately, Buruma did not challenge Chotiner with the question that immediately comes to mind: “In what way is this different?”

If there is a difference between Ghomeshi, Mailer and Naipaul, it is that Mailer and Naipaul behaved much worse than Ghomeshi. The other difference is that Mailer and Naipaul never wrote essays attempting to justify their behavior. They never expressed remorse nor cared to explain themselves. Nor was it necessary. When Mailer stabbed his wife, Lionel Trilling and most of the literary world excused it. Writers like James Baldwin even celebrated it. (New Yorker. October 21, 2013).

Sexual and Textual Assault

Changing sensibilities about violence against women as expressed in the cliched phrase “the #MeToo era” is the obvious explanation for the outcry against Buruma publishing Ghomeshi while there was little protest against publishing Mailer and Naipaul. A less obvious reason, but more important one, is changing ideas about freedom of expression, writing, editing and the role of intellectual journals in an era defined by race, gender and equality.

Several principles of selecting articles for publication emerge from Buruma’s discussion with Chotiner:

  1. “I believe in having things that are of the greatest interest.”
  2. “We are very conscious of having as many women writing in each issue as we can. I don’t believe in quotas.”
  3. “The point being that everyone whose name is above an article at the Review has to be absolutely beyond reproach in their private and public life? I don’t think so.”
  4. “This seemed like a story that was worth hearing…an angle on an issue that is clearly very important and that I felt had not been exposed very much.”
  5. In response to Chotiner, Buruma said that by publishing Ghomeshi and putting him on the cover of NYRB, the journal was not making a statement. “That is his comment. It is a personal account. So he is expressing what it felt like to him. It is not me saying that. It is not me saying that’s good.”

Buruma’s principles for selecting articles for publication have a long tradition among liberal intellectual journals. On the other hand, far left and far right journals often selected articles that hewed to the party line over well written and interesting articles, didn’t care about nuance, cared more about a writer’s moral and ethical life as defined by the journal’s values than the quality of writing and believed the author’s voice and the publication’s voice were one and the same.

The new “fair and balanced” NYRB

The publisher of the NYRB, Rea S. Hederman, in an unsigned statement about Buruma’s decision, posted on Twitter by Cara Buckley of the New York Times on Sept 24, stated, “We surely had a duty to acknowledge the point of view of the women who complained of Mr. Ghomeshi’s behavior. This might have been achieved either by editing the article more thoroughly, commissioning another piece to run alongside, or by framing Mr. Ghomeshi’s article with some form of editorial comment.”

The publisher’s statement would be understandable if the NYRB were a news organization, but it is not. It is a literary and opinion journal, which has always had a left of center perspective. It has never been objective or sought to balance one piece with another.

Hederman ends his statement with “The New York Review has a long history of publishing controversial and unpopular pieces and will continue to do so. However, in the future, we expect the editing to live up to the standards to which the Review aspires.” The Review does indeed have a history of publishing controversial pieces, including a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail on the cover of its August 24, 1967 issue, but does it have a history of commissioning other pieces to give controversial pieces balance? Does it have a history of framing essays with some form of editorial comment? And how much framing or editing can you do before a personal essay, like the one Ghomeshi wrote, is no longer a personal essay?

The MEmoir in the #MeToo era

Personal essays, as Phillip Lopate states in his introduction to the Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1995), can be disturbing. “If some readers are repelled by a writer’s behavioral contradictions, this is quite all right, because the personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.”

The NYRB rarely publishes personal essays. Ghomeshi’s essay is unrelated to reviewing books. It is not an opinion piece per se. Political and social issues in the essay are subsumed by the personal approach. As Lopate, who has been published in the NYRB a number of times, says, “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.”

Ghomeshi is better known for talking than writing. His one book, 1982, is a memoir, a book length personal essay. Like all personal essayists and memoir writers, Ghomeshi is the focus of his writing. Like most personal essayists and memoir writers, he has been criticized for focusing to much on “me,” but it is difficult to write a personal essay without focusing on oneself. The personal essay and the memoir are not for everyone. But it is helpful when reading a personal essay to approach it as such, not as a formal essay as many of Ghomeshi’s and Buruma’s critics unfortunately have done.

Hederman’s statement about Buruma’s exit from the Review and statements by some of Ghomeshi’s critics, reveal confusion about the nature of a personal essay. Their criticisms apply to book reviews, opinion pieces and formal essays but not to personal essays.

If you want to argue with Ghomeshi’s essay or with Buruma’s decision to publish it, then approach it as a personal essay. “The struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay,” says Lopate. “So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.” Here are grounds for attacking Reflections from a Hashtag, and some critics of Ghomeshi have argued that in his essay Ghomeshi is not honest.

Attacking Ghomeshi’s honesty, however, is not without its problems. The number of women who have accused Ghomeshi of abuse varies. Chotiner at Slate puts it at 20 and appears to believe all the accusations. Of the four cases that went to court, Christie Blatchford writing for Canada’s conservative National Post (September 14, 2018) presents another viewpoint:

“But when the trial itself began, it became clear very quickly that the prosecution had real problems, chiefly that two of the three complainants (the fourth had been severed off and was settled with a peace bond) were outright liars and the third was at best unreliable.

Two of them appeared to have colluded with one another before the trial, exchanging more than 5,000 messages, the most notorious of which said, “It’s time to sink the prick (Ghomeshi)” and “The guy’s a shit show, time to flush.”

In the lovely understated language of the judge, they showed “extreme dedication to bringing down Mr. Ghomeshi.”

Blatchford argues that Ghomeshi should have been published because he was acquitted. I disagree. I believe Ghomeshi should have been published regardless of whether or not he was acquitted. In spite of my negative reaction to Ghomeshi as a person, I believe he should have been published because he wrote a compelling personal essay that is of no less quality than other essays published by the Review. The NYRB already has venues for people who wish to respond to Ghomeshi, one of which is a letter to the editor. Additionally, Ghomeshi’s alleged victims and their supporters can submit essays to the Review. Not that the Review is obligated to publish their essays or letters, anymore than it was obligated to publish Ghomeshi. Letters and essays have to meet a certain qualitative threshold before they deserve publication.

If Buruma did anything wrong in publishing Ghomeshi’s essay, it was not consulting other staff members about the piece, which Hederman alleges is traditional practice and says Buruma only consulted one male but no females. Buruma denies this. (Before Buruma’s resignation, the NYRB editorial staff was made up of eight women and four men, with the top two positions held by men). But even that is insufficient wrongdoing to compel Buruma to resign. As 109 contributors to the NYRB wrote in response to Buruma’s resignation:

“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.”

Sentences in Absentia – the next Issue of the NYRB on Ian and Jian

The NYRB plans to address issues surrounding Ghomeshi’s essay and Buruma’s decision to publish it. According to Ed Pilkington in the Guardian (September 25, 2018), “The magazine has confirmed to the Guardian that the issue will include essays by some of the women who have accused Ghomeshi of acts of violence that included slaps, bites, choking and being punched on the head.” (Responses to the essay were published in the October 25, 2018 issue.)

What remains to be seen is whether or not the NYRB will recognize that Hederman’s principles of editing, as espoused in his statement to the press, are the polar opposite of Buruma’s. And will the Review acknowledge that if Hederman’s principles are to become the norm at the Review, then the flagship of literary and cultural journals has turned tail and retreated into the perceived safe harbor of identity politics where in twenty years people will look at its rusted and barnacle clad hull and try to conjure up a picture of what a magnificent ship it used to be.

Note: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of Antium, an independent journal of ideas and opinion. To receive a free copy of Antium, write to Antium c/o L. D. Davidson, Editor 148 Simcer Rd. Amsterdam, NY 12010)

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