Over the course of the past twenty years, Theodore Solotaroff has stood out as one of the most intelligent, committed and idealistic supporters of serious, contemporary American literature. Encouraging both innovation and intellectual rigour, he has pressed the New York publishing establishment into accommodating diversity, experimentation and youth in fiction, and into maintaining, against the pressure of big business and bestsellers, high literary standards.
Solotaroff’s career has taken him through almost every area of the American literary scene. He has taught composition and creative writing, worked as the book editor for the New York Herald Tribune, and is currently a senior editor at Bantam, one of the world’s largest mass market paperback publishers. He is, moreover, the author of novels, essays and numerous articles.
Most notably, in 1967 Solotaroff founded The New American Review (retitled American Review in 1971). For ten years, this paperback literary magazine asserted itself as the most vital and important literary magazine in the United States. To cite only a few examples, the Review first brought to American readers sections of Portnoy’s Complaint, Sexual Politics, Ragtime and The Public Burning; also Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’, Paley’s ‘Faith: In a Tree’, Brodkey’s ‘Innocence’, Mailer’s essay on Henry Miller and Alvarez’s memoirs of Sylvia Plath.
The Review sold unusually well: the first issue passed 100,000 copies and all twenty-six issues sold at least 20,000 each. Pre-eminently a writer’s magazine, it paid unusually high rates, encouraged and solicited innovation, published new writers, and accommodated lengthier work. Throughout, it strove to remain topical and socially engaged; as one critic remarked, it provided ‘a vital dialogue between public concern and private imagination’. In his Preface to the first issue, Solotaroff said he wanted the magazine to provide
‘more explicit and topical connections between contemporary literature and the culture at large.’
In 1977, with the magazine’s readership and Solotaroff’s sense of purpose dwindling, the decision was made to close the magazine. The following interview with Solotaroff took place not long afterwards.
William Warner: What’s going to replace American Review?
Theodore Solotaroff: Well, at the moment nothing specific, though I would think that within a year or so either Bantam or another publishing house will be doing another kind of paperback magazine.
I wanted out of the Review for several reasons. I’d pretty much either exhausted my ideas for it or else had realized them, which, I think, comes to the same thing. And I felt American Review had also run a course and that to develop a real commercial credibility in the market place would require a different kind of magazine than the one I’d been doing. One more attuned to the Seventies than American Review had become, a magazine more aware of what’s happening today and expressing more of today’s tone and style.
When we started New American Review in ’66, it was very much a magazine that was growing out of developments taking place in the Sixties. But it was meant to mediate between the radical cultural revolution we were going through – call it the Movement, the Counter-Culture, the Vietnam protest, the Civil Rights Movement, the Youth Revolution, whatever – and the continuing liberal literary tradition. We wanted to be both receptive and critical of these new developments: one of the functions of a magazine is to be very critical of the area in which it carves out its own identity. So that’s what I was doing: trying to negotiate this encounter between the new and the traditional, to place the new within the tradition and at the same time to restate the tradition. So I published a lot of things, beginning with an essay by Conor Cruise O’Brien on Burke and Marx which was meant to show that the understanding of revolution was not confined to radicals, that Burke probably understood as much about revolution as any 19th Century figure except Marx. And another essay by Richard Gilman which was a very sharp and abrasive attack on Mac Bird, an ostensibly radical but in fact trivial and commercial burlesque of the Johnson administration, which attracted an inexplicably enthusiastic cult. And Gilman was saying that just because something is on your side of the issues doesn’t mean it’s good writing. So it was in that vein that the magazine attempted to plug into the Sixties. But now there is not that going on, and I’m not sure I know what is going on: a lot of people say very little. I think there’s more than meets the eye. In the final issue, Theodore Roszak, probably the most astute observer of the Counter-Culture, wrote an essay on what he calls personalism versus individualism. The Movement of the Sixties, he believes, has not ended but continues in the Seventies in a different form. What’s happened, in his view, is that a strong tendency of the Sixties – a pervasive opposition to institutions of any kind – has broken up into what he calls a situational network. People did not want to identify with something called the working class or the student class. So what you see happening now is people organizing, not into some large movement, but rather into smaller groups of more local concerns: Gay Liberation here, Black Power there; you know, you see all kinds of small groups, consciousness raising groups, male consciousness raising groups, you even find drug addicts organizing.
WW: So that would fit with what you have written on the current decentralization of literature.
TS: Yeah, that would. I think that people in writing are tending to say well, you know I’m really from this particular place and I write with a sense of this place much more than I do with a sense of something called the Modern Tradition. Ten or fifteen years ago, poets would have identified with the Modern Tradition in one form or another – whether it was the tradition of Wallace Stevens or the tradition of William Carlos Williams, or possibly that of Lorca or Vallejo, what have you. Whereas now, these poets identify with the poetry that’s going on around them, in Minnesota or Michigan or Washington or whatever. And I think it’s very healthy, on several grounds. It’s healthy in that it gives the writer who comes out of this a sense of a rootedness. I think Alan Tate once said that for something to be universal it must first be parochial. And I think the Modern Tradition has become very unrooted and rootless. People belong to literary movements which are abstractions rather than to ways of life which are concrete.
The market for writing is very decentralized too. For example, we publish a writer named Tom Robbins who, up until recently, has been almost strictly a West Coast phenomenon: his appeal increased most every hundred miles west you went once you passed Denver. Or Brautigan. Or Charles Bukowski, who’s a major figure on the West Coast but in New England you don’t even hear of him. On the other hand, someone like Saul Bellow is a major writer from Boston to Washington and Chicago, but among those people who read Bukowski and Brautigan, he’s relatively ignored. Or you find a constituency which thinks that the most important living writer in America is John Hawkes; someone else thinks it’s John Updike, someone else Erica Jong. That’s a sign of this kind of decentralization.
Thirty years ago, people would say that the major American novelists were Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Almost everyone would have agreed. The major poets? Frost, Stevens, Cummings, Pound and Eliot. There would have been a real consensus as to who the major writers were. But now, there is no longer any consensus as to who are the major writers and what are the important tendencies; it depends on where you’re at. There’s a kind of analogue here to the political situation we just looked at: that you tend to read the writers and be influenced by them because you have a particular place in common.
WW: The problem, it would seem to me than, is isolation of the readership and the writers, distribution problems, sales problems.
TS: Well, that’s it. It’s not just getting your manuscript accepted that counts, it’s how it’s published. Three thousand copies, no advertising budget to speak of, no real interest except you see your own editors – that’s not being published, that’s being printed. You see? The question is how much effort goes into getting the book out. Now, most publishers are here in New York, and they do not have any stake in, say, the writing that’s developing in the Pacific Northwest. They may get a collection of poems by Carolyn Kaiser or Richard Hugo or James Welch, and they’ll make sure that the bookstores in the Pacific Northwest are approached. And they’ll probably end up with placing 30, 40, 50 per cent of the first printing in the area; but still it’s not the same as a local press in Seattle doing these poems with a ready network of bookstores and readings and which would give the book a real life of its own. A mutual support system: the poet’s presence, his own activity on behalf of the book, a small press which is only doing maybe four books that year, bookstore appearances; maybe the poet’s part of a poetry in the schools program, he’s teaching in a Seattle high school; maybe he’s reading his poems at a high school assembly. In other words, the small press publishing method, at least in theory, is much more attuned to the actual conditions of these author’s works.
WW: But then somehow the Tom Robbinses have to get from being LA local to being nationally known.
TS: That’s right. This can very easily happen more or less of its own course.
In other words, for example, Bantam acquired a book called Rubyfruit Jungle. [Rita Mae Brown’s first novel, notorious for its outspoken lesbian protagonist.] This was first published by a small feminist press, and it began to have a certain underground reputation. I think they finally asked an agent to handle it because they couldn’t hope to distribute it beyond their own local outlets. So we took it over, and distributed it. We got the book reviewed and gave it a lot of promotion, but it already had its market. There was a lot of word of mouth about it. This is a perfect example of how this decentralization could work. Now if we had bought this book four years ago and had put it out, and it had not caught on right away, we probably would have remaindered and pulped it within a year. Maybe even less. Because Mass Market (publishing, Bantam’s speciality) means mass market. We’ll do a first printing of 50,000 copies on a book. The wholesalers are not exactly astute literary or cultural observers – they know what sells and what doesn’t, it’s hard for them to take a lesbian novel. But assuming we can persuade them to take it, or any novel, unless it moves very quickly, they send it back to us. The wholesaler or bookstore orders 50 copies of Rubyfruit Jungle. If it doesn’t move right off the bat, he’s got the next month’s list of paperbacks coming in. So in order to make room in his warehouse and make room in the pockets of the booksellers, he pulls them out of his warehouse and sends them back to us and the book goes out of print. So unless there is some kind of market established for it, to give it a chance to simply grow, the book will die: there has to be some kind of basis in which it can grow.
WW: So this might be a place where small presses or a thing like the Fiction Collective fit in to the larger publishing industry. (The Fiction Collective authors advance the money for the printing, promotion and distribution of their books; any profits are recycled back into the collective for future books. Past collective writers choose the future ones.)
TS: Sure. And furthermore, the small press sold Rubyfruit Jungle to us for several hundred thousand dollars. I’m sure this was a big shot in the arm for their publishing program.
WW: What do you think about corporate and government financing for small presses?
TS: I think that that’s a very important function. As long as there’s no control. Government money is money. The question is whether there are strings attached to it. For example, one of the things they did a number of years ago was something called the American Literary Anthology. This was an anthology of the best of the little magazines; and if a story from your magazine was chosen, you got a rather substantial grant, as well as the author getting a substantial payment. I think George Plimpton was the editor of it. Each of these anthologies was to be published by a different publishing house; and that was the way it was subsidized to some extent. They got into a big hassle with a Congressman who came upon a poem written by Ed Sanders. He used to have a press called Fuck You Press, and the poem was somewhat along those lines. There was big hue and cry about taxpayers’ money being used. I don’t know whether they published it or not, but this threw a big bucket of cold water on the whole project.
However, so far there doesn’t seem to be that much interference. The real problem is that they don’t give you very much money. The problem with the National Endowment for the Arts as far as publishing goes is not that they have become another centralized, surrogate capitalist entity, but that the money they have is a pittance. They give less than 2 per cent to publishing.
Meanwhile we have 250 creative writing programs that are just turning out the writers.
WW: One of the things you talked about in one of your American Review essays was the relation of the Sixties’ writing boom to the increase in teaching jobs.
TS: You know, curiously enough, one of the areas in which there still seem to be a few jobs around is creative writing, because creative writing has become the most popular offering an English Department has. You find people just storming the creative writing courses at registration and no one’s signing up for the Milton, the Browning course, even for that matter for the American Fiction course. As a result there seems to be some chance for a job in creative writing with a Master’s Degree and no chance at all with a Ph.D. from Harvard or Yale in literature.
WW: So how does that affect writing and the writer’s relation to publishing?
TS: I think it affects each writer in his own way. I mean Max Apple is merrily finishing a novel and another novel is three-fourths finished. He teaches at Rice. And it’s terrific. Another writer might find that teaching ties him down and makes him feel part of the establishment, and he doesn’t write at all. Or a third writer might say, shit, I’ve been teaching at the University of Chicago for the last 20 years now, and the only thing I know about is what goes on in academia; I’ve lost my material. God knows there’ve been enough novels about restless college English teachers.
WW: But it might also affect publishing. It’s a change from the Thirties or the Twenties when there were the popular magazines and that was the way the writer made his money, always writing, instead of taking time off to teach.
TS: Yeah, but look, I’m not so sure that teaching a lot of kids creative writing or teaching Herman Melville is any worse than trying to write a story the Saturday Evening Post would buy.
WW: People then may be influenced as much by what their writers teach as what their writers write.
TS: You mean students.
TS: Well, what’s the matter with that?
WW: I just wonder if it’s changing things.
TS: I don’t think so. I think that one of the first things a young writer does is to find a mentor. Unless you have that early experience of someone caring about your writing, the chances are you’re going to find it very hard to go on with your career anyway. If you stay under this particular writer’s thumb for the rest of your career then it’s no good either, but no one ever said that because some parents are possessive we shouldn’t have fathers and mothers. So I don’t really think that that is much of a problem.
I do think that having writers in residence is a good thing. See, one of the things a lot of young writers come to me and say is ‘OK, I’m just getting my degree from Antioch or Michigan or Harvard, and I really want to go on writing now. I’ve got this novel that I’ve done a third of, that John LaRue or Bernard Malamud or Max Apple or whoever says is really very promising. And I want to go on with it but I have to support myself now that I’m out of college, so what I really want to do right now is to get a job in publishing’. And I say, ‘What do you want to do that for?’ ‘Well, you know, I have to support myself and so on.’ And I say, ‘Well, you know, if you work in a publishing house the chances are you’re not going to do any writing because you work evenings, weekends. If you want to get anywhere in publishing you’ve got to really convince people that you’re diligent and hardworking and at the disposal of the house. And you know, reading a lot of other people’s prose 60 hours a day is not very conducive to writing your own.’ And they say, ‘Well, you, you’re able to do it.’ ‘Well, I lead a rather charmed life in publishing, and even I have precious little time to do any real writing. And in any case, I didn’t start as someone with an A. B. looking for a job in publishing. I came with a magazine. What I think you should do is go to a creative writing workshop for two years.’ And he says, ‘Well, I’ve just had all those courses.’
You know it’s very hard to make that transition from the campus where you’ve had John Hawkes reading your stuff, or John Barth, or William Harrison, or William Gass, or Robert Coover, and then suddenly, no one’s reading you. You’re in New York, you send your stuff out to a magazine, they send it back. Send it out, send it back. And that transition, particular if you’re 21 years old, is terribly difficult to make. Why don’t you give yourself a transitional period where you’re in a professional setting like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where your peers are all writers like yourself who want to be professional. And you still have a certain amount of nurture from the teachers. And by the time you leave there you’re probably in a better position to set yourself up as a writer than you would be if you came to New York straight. And I think that the function of these places is to act as a sort of transitional experience from the hothouse atmosphere of an undergraduate writing program to what you might call the cold house atmosphere of New York or wherever you are.
WW: So you think the whole teaching, student approach to writing is good.
TS: Yeah, I do. I don’t know if it necessarily creates William Faulkners. I don’t know what creates William Faulkners except heredity and luck and tremendous will to continue and some great talent. But as far as raising the level of literary productivity in the society as a whole, yeah, I think it’s great.
The problem is that the industry is almost guaranteed, by the very way it’s set up, to build frustration into the experience. As I say, we’re trying to run a very different literary culture than we have ever before. We no longer have a few elite talents and then a lot of popular, commercial writers. We have a couple thousand really first rate writers, and we’re trying to run this with an apparatus that’s practically nineteenth century, centralized publishing in New York.
WW: You are talking, then, about a democratization of writing, bringing Sixties social values to literature.
TS: Yeah, sure. What I try to do, what I would like to see New York publishing do, is to edit and distribute not for the literary elite but for the common reader. To get the books out to that doctor in Kansas City or that steel worker in East Chicago or Indiana: people who really like to read and will read good things if you can just give them interesting good things to read.
WW: That’s your Robert Bly phrase.
TS: Yeah, right: ‘To do something for the hive’.