Was New American Review the best literary magazine ever?

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Aug. 19 2008 11:50 AM

Was New American Review the Best Literary Magazine Ever?

I dare you to name a better one.

Elsewhere in Slate this week, Thomas Beller writes about Ted Solotaroff, his literary contemporary Rust Hills, and the mysterious motives of fiction editors. 

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In 1967 Solotaroff moved to the giant paperback publisher New American Library, where he launched the New American Review.Unlike the small public to which most literary magazines are addressed, NAR, with its mass-market format, faced the challenge of attracting a sizable enough audience to support a minimum printing of 100,000 copies. This seems like the sheerest folly now, but in those days, the dual phenomena of the paperback revolution and the explosion in college enrollments had created the largest literate audience in American history. It was—or as I really should say, "we were"—searching for answers to the biggest questions and finding a lot of them in paperbacks. So, the thing was thinkable, if not precisely doable.

Solotaroff kept this dubious economic proposition afloat for 11 years on sheer excellence, and none of the back-office strain that eventually did in NAR showed in its consistently glittering contents. In many senses a classic New York intellectual, with all that implies, Solotaroff paired his highbrow tendencies with the conviction that, as he put it, "Literature was too important a democratic resource to be left to the literati." The country was in more or less permanent crisis during NAR's years of publication, and it engaged with the period's vertiginous sense of cultural free fall in a fashion that exquisitely calibrated openness to the new with old-school rigor. As he later wrote, "[O]ur purpose, as it evolved in the late 1960s, was to apply the critical standards of [the traditional culture] to the ideology and sensibility of [the counterculture], and occasionally vice-versa." In fiction that meant that such essentially countercultural sensibilities as Brautigan, Robbins, Stone, and Apple cohabited with Postmodernists Coover, Barth, Elkins, and Gass and more traditional writers like Moore, Powers, and Pritchett.

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Solotaroff's high-'50s intellectual inclination showed itself most conspicuously in the sorts of essays that NAR favored, which tended to be of the critical variety, bringing formidable analytical powers to bear on the urgent, vexing issues of the day, whether political, literary, sexual, cultural, or intellectual. Not that those categories held very fast in the minds of NAR's readers, who subscribed to the everything-is-everything ethos.

New American Review died, we can see now, a natural economic and aesthetic death. The countercultural project dissipated, its audience matured (and maybe lost energy and interest), the accountants had their way. Literary Postmodernism gave way to Raymond Carver-style minimalism, and a more personal and reportage-based style of essay came to the fore—two developments that another editor of genius, Bill Buford, championed when he grabbed the torch and launched the next great literary magazine, Granta. But there are thousands of people of a certain age, many of them in magazine and book publishing, who still cherish the excitement that NAR reliably delivered and had their sensibilities shaped and enlarged by its mind-altering contents. Solotaroff wrote rather famously of "a few good voices in my head" that inspired and guided his editorial labors; he became one of those voices for many others. I am one of that number, and in his various guises Ted was a hero and a role model for me. It is a grace note of my career that I became this peerless editor's editor for his fine family memoir Truth Comes in Blows. At our first lunch I brought my copy of NAR No. 1 with me for him to sign, which pleased him greatly. He wrote on the inside cover, the front of which featured a staggering list of contributors and a photo of five bearded graduate students on the quad, doubtless discussing some new breakthrough in consciousness or forthcoming anti-war rally, "To Gerry, Thanks for asking. Best, Ted." I can't think of anything I own that has more value to me.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.

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