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.

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.

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.

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.

Thomas Beller is editor of Open City magazine and Mrbellersneighborhood.com. His most recent book is a collection of essays,How To Be a Man.