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Friday, October 10, 2014

Endangered Species

From the Vault Dept.: I’ve already posted my review of the event referenced at the end of the piece below – “The Writer and the Public.” Here’s my account of a visit by the legendary Ted Solotaroff, as famous an editor as he was a writer, who spoke at Skidmore in 1987.


“MORE AND MORE, LITERATURE IN THIS COUNTRY is going to have to depend upon its own resources,” said Ted Solotaroff, senior editor at Harper & Row.

Ted Solotaroff
Speaking at the New York State Writers Institute summer program at Skdmore College yesterday, Solotaroff echoed an opinion shared by many who work in the “literary” end of the business – and many who have been dressing the writers-in-training during the past three weeks in Saratoga Springs.

“Writers can’t just concern themselves with their own careers,” Solotaroff observed. “They are an endangered species. They have to do something for the hive.”

His own background demonstrates just such a concern – he was founder and editor of the New American Review in 1967, a paperback quarterly that presented emerging authors in a setting relatively free from editorial intrusion.

“I had worked for Commentary,’”he explained, “which was a heavily-edited magazine. I was ready to work for something that was lightly edited. Too much editing moves across not only the prose but also the spirit the authors being edited.”

Solotaroff credited much of his magazine’s success with the era in which it was founded. “It was the most interesting era in American literature since World War II, and we needed a magazine that was open to the variety of discourses going on.”

Among the early contributors were Philip Roth, Stanley Kauffman and Robert Coover, and New American Review maintained a high standard of quality throughout its few years of existence.

Enough so, said Solotaroff, that he didn’t have to “win his spurs” when he went to work for Harper & Row. “I lead a kind of charmed life there. I don’t have the same kinds of pressures on me as other editors do, who are required to publish money-makers like self-help books, diet books, cookbooks, combination diet and cookbooks. The only time I tried to sell a so-called commercial book I fell flat on my face.”

When compared with the literary culture of other countries, that of the U.S. is much less cohesive, he believes, and stressed the importance of writers working in unity. A poet who works a poetry-reading circuit will sell considerably more than one who doesn’t, and Solotaroff likened them to troubadors. “Instead of a guitar slung on their backs, they have vans filled with copies of their books following them around. I see no reason why there couldn’t be a fiction-reading circuit as well.”

The problem of mass media exposure could be rectified by a good television program. “They have one on every week in Paris during which writers get together and discuss literary matters, sort of like a Johnny Carson show. But we’ve never had a good books program on PBS over here. I’ve got lots of ideas for a weekly format, but every time I approach them I’m told, `It’ll cost $400,000 just to shoot the pilot.’ So what? If the National Endowment for the Arts really wants to do something national, why don’t they put up the money for that?”

Book buying and distribution is another area that threatens the “literary” writer. “Thirty-five percent of all the books sold in America are sold in B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks. That means that 35 percent of your market is utterly indifferent to a good first novel because they can’t call it up on their computer and study the author’s sales track.”

He also lamented the “disappearance of the ‘person of letters,’ the writer who works in all fields, particularly criticism, but remains outside the university system. The majority of our writers depend upon teaching for an income. And that can have a mixed result. To some it’s very stimulating; it brings others to a complete standstill as far as their output is concerned. And it’s a very insular society that tends to impoverish the general culture.

“We’re dependent upon writers like Gore Vidal or John Updike or Elizabeth Hardwick who make their livings simply by writing, and who address the common reader.”

The seeming efflorescence of writers’ training programs doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm from Solotaroff, according to an article he wrote for the current issue of American Poetry Review. Asked to amplify the topic, he suggested that creative writing programs aren’t strenuous enough. “In some ways, all they do is provide a dilletante education. Some schools are intensive, others just give you a chance to hang on for two years discussing who the best agents are in New York and how you get into the New Yorker magazine.”

It just takes one book, he suggested, to bring together a society of readers. “It happened with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Ragtime and The Name of the Rose. We had two or three million readers all brought together by something literary; but then, like the Viet Cong, they just disappeared back into the population again.”

Solotaroff mixed a sense of general gloom with his own personal joy as a discoverer and cultivator of talent. Senior editors, he explained, come from the dwindling breed of literary editors who have survived long enough. His own involvement with a writer begins with the cultivation of the talent – in which he likened himself to a gardener cultivating a delicate crop. “Then I act as cheerleader and in-house promoter, making sure that this new author gets the right attention.”

The questioning that followed proved that, should Solotaroff feel inlined to dispense any of that attention in Saratoga Springs, a room full of budding novelists had work sitting very close to hand.

The final lecture in the series takes place at 8 PM Sept. 18 when E.L. Doctorow, William Kennedy, Russell Banks and Amy Hempel discuss “The Writer and the Public.” The free program will be held in Gannett Auditorium in Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore campus.

  – Schenectady Daily Gazette, 7 August 1987

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