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.