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. 

New American Review.

The recent death of legendary editor and critic Ted Solotaroff brought back memories of being in thrall to his greatest creation, the literary magazine New American Review (later simply American Review). In 26 issues, from September 1967 through November 1977, under the successive sponsorships of New American Library, Simon & Schuster, and finally Bantam, NAR reliably bottled the cultural lightning flashing about in those thrillingly depressing years. James Wolcott, in his lovely post "Last of the Literary Godfathers," calls it "a zeitgeist mixtape." That's exactly what it was. As soon as NAR was launched, it became the place where young readers hot for the newest new things in literature and experience rushed to get The Word. Man, did it deliver. I have just looked through the tables of contents of my completist's collection of all 26 numbers, which only confirmed my conviction that NAR was the greatest American literary magazine ever. You might protest, but consider:

Its roster of fiction included work by Philip Roth (two pieces from Portnoy's Complaint and "I Always Wanted You To Admire My Fasting: Looking at Kafka"), Leonard Michaels, Gabriel García Márquez, Max Apple ("The Oranging of America"), John Barth, Tom Robbins, Susan Sontag, V.S. Pritchett, Grace Paley ("Faith: In a Tree"), Robert Stone, Ian McEwan (three of his earliest stories), Jorge Luis Borges, Gilbert Sorrentino ("The Moon in Its Flight"), Brian Moore, J.F. Powers, Cynthia Ozick, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme ("Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning"), Russell Banks, Ralph Ellison, J.F. Powers, and William Gass ("In the Heart of the Heart of the Country"). Do read that list again. It published Harold Brodkey's notorious cunnilingual epic "Innocence," with its immortal line "To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die." E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Coover's The Public Burning first appeared in its pages. Nonfiction works that debuted in NAR included Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Michael Herr's Dispatches, A. Alvarez's The Savage God, and Marshall Berman's lyric apologia for radical striving, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Its brainy and ultraengaged essays included Gass' "Fiction and the Figures of Life," Ellen Willis' "Lessons of Chicago," Leslie Epstein's "Walking Wounded, Living Dead" (an astonishing meditation on the return of the Living Theatre from exile, and perhaps the most penetrating thing ever written about the '60s crackup), Norman Mailer's "A Course in Film-Making" (a chest-beating account of the making of Maidstone), and superb work from Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Gilman, George Dennison, Peter Handke, Wilfrid Sheed, Albert Goldman, Paul Zweig, and Theodore Roszak. Its gilt-edged roster of poets featured Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, John Berryman, Richard Hugo, James Welch, Sylvia Plath, A.R. Ammons , James Merrill, and W.S. Merwin.

Partisan Review partisans, start your engines!

NAR was entirely the product of its editor's particular taste and critical intelligence (with No. 16, the words "Edited by Theodore Solotaroff" began to appear on the cover). It was also acutely reflective of its time in respect to its contents, its overall stance, and its unusual format as a mass-market paperback widely available not only in bookstores but also in drugstores and candy stores. A former graduate student of literature at the University of Chicago in the '50s (where his long, complicated friendship with Philip Roth began), he had honed his editorial skills at Commentary under the tutelage of Norman Podhoretz and then edited Book Week, the review supplement of the New York Herald Tribune for a couple of years.

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.

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.