Ted Solotaroff, Rust Hills, and the mysterious motives of fiction editors.

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Aug. 20 2008 11:27 AM

The Deciders

Ted Solotaroff, Rust Hills, and the mysterious motives of fiction editors.

Elsewhere in Slate this week, Gerry Howard, Ted Solotaroff's editor, discusses the New American Review's role in shaping American literature of the '60s and '70s.

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I haven't looked at it for, probably, 10 years, but there is a line that still rings out in my imagination: A young writer named Douglas Unger has worked and reworked and reworked his first novel, only to get it back from Solotaroff, who by then was an editor at Harper and Row, with notes about the further rewriting that was needed. "But I've already worked on it so much!" Unger shouted. (Then—maybe I am embellishing here, but it's how it lives in my memory—he threw the manuscript on the ground and jumped up and down on it.)

This anecdote was a great plug for the novel, which Unger did rewrite and see published— Leaving the Land. I ran out to buy it and thought it was great, though perhaps my estimation was lifted by knowing the ordeal of its composition.

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What struck me most about the obituaries of both men was that late in life, when they were no longer actively working as editors, there remained an appetite for some flavor or enzyme that was present in the act of editing. Richard Ford is quoted in the Times obit saying that Hills would sometimes call him and tell him to send a story. "Long after he was an editor," Mr. Ford said, "he'd say to me: 'Send me a story you're working on, just send me a story. I'd like to read it.' "

In Max Apple's piece on Solotaroff that appeared in the Forward, he states that long after Solotaroff worked at a magazine or publishing house as an editor, he continued to read work by students and writers he met on his travels around the country as a guest speaker at writing programs and literary conferences. "Solotaroff would read and read and read what the hopeful writers—young and old—submitted, not because he was paid to do so, and not because he expected to find any literary gems. He read on because he understood that those who were not going to have writing careers still put writing at the center of their lives, and they deserved to be taken seriously by 'someone from New York.' "

I don't really believe that explanation of Apple's—or, at least, I don't think that is all of it. There is something both exhilarating and vexing about seeing writing in manuscript form (even if the manuscript is on the screen). Editing is really about deciding—you have to decide whether you like the overall voice and content of what you are reading, and if you do, you have to make certain decisions about the internal life of the piece. Editing can be at its most profound when it involves making a vague, almost aphoristic remark that might change a writer's entire focus, and it can be most profound when it entails wrestling with minutia, adding commas or subtracting them and, in this tiny way, changing the whole style and feel of a piece of writing. The malleability of a piece of writing as it is experienced by the reader in draft form makes reading more taxing than it would be on the printed page. But it also brings with it a bump of excitement. It lends a feeling of power and adventure to the reading experience. I assume that this feeling of power—and also, if you are discovering a writer, the vicarious sense of accomplishment and, finally, the bright moment of seeing beyond what is there on the page to what could be there—is what draws people to being fiction editors, especially fiction editors for magazines, which is one of the strangest and hardest-to-describe professions. There used to be so many of them! Where have they gone?

This bump of excitement is something that is hard to let go of, to judge from remarks about these two very different men who, because of the arbitrary roll of the dice that had them die so close together, have together shone a posthumous light onto the mysterious motives, or maybe just the enduring habits, of fiction editors.

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