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.

Ted Solotaroff (left) and Rust Hills.
Ted Solotaroff (left) and Rust Hills

"Everyone interesting died this weekend,"wrote Choire Sicha recently. I thought he was writing about two of the more prominent editors of fiction in the '60s and '70s, Ted Solotaroff and Rust Hills, whose obituaries recently showed up days apart in the New York Times. As it happens, he meant Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac. But I recognized the impulse to find meaning in the arbitrary proximity of people's deaths.

There is something about two people in the same field dying at around the same time that piques a morbid desire to make posthumous comparisons. There may not be any reason to think of the pair as a pair based on what they did in life, but if they die around the same time, there is suddenly a reason to consider them in light of each other.

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This happened a few years ago when George Plimpton and Edward Said died within a few days of each other. I wrote something about Plimpton and got a note from a friend remarking that Plimpton was not nearly as important a figure as Said. It made me uncomfortable, partly because it might be true but also for the slightly partisan feeling it aroused. I felt it diminished both men to set them against each other as if in a bracket in the NCAA tournament, with only one of them able to advance toward the final four of the Important Death tournament.

There is no need to set Rust Hills and Ted Solotaroff against one another. They were both fiction editors, Hills at Esquire, on and off, and Solotaroff, most famously, at the magazine he founded, the New American Review, which was so popular that it's not too difficult to come across it in used bookstores today, 30 years after it ended its 10-year run in 1978.

Hills I met once, for drinks at his place in Key West. I wrote him in advance of a trip I made down there, and he received me and brought along Ann Beattie to sit with me and my friend on the back patio by the pool. It was just the four of us and, if I recall, a gallon-size jug of Scotch whose brand I did not recognize (and not because it was some obscure single malt). He had a raffish and full head of gray hair, and we all sat and talked until the light was mostly gone from the sky. At the end, reluctant to leave, I asked for one more drink. "All right, one more," he said and then looked at my friend, "After that, he's your responsibility."

His manner was smooth, droll, and faintly patrician. He was very nice; I hardly knew him.

Solotaroff's smoldering presence is much closer to me. We had lunch once, and he brought, as a gift, his essay collection A Few Good Voices in My Head. It's an interesting book, but there is one essay that stands out from the rest for its capacity to scare the daylights out of any aspiring writer. That essay, "Writing in the Cold," is a brutally honest assessment of the challenges afflicting the young writer in today's culture—he wrote it in the '80s, but it is timeless. Solotaroff belonged to the Joycean school for which literary development was a process that could not be rushed. Within that process is a period of isolation and doubt that, he wrote, is all the more bitter and frightening for those who think they have eluded that condition. I recommend the essay as essential—if it doesn't petrify you with fear, then it is bracing and, in a way, confidence-building to know what one is up against.

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