Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days
The last article Ted Solotaroff wrote for The Nation was a short tribute to Emile Capouya, an essayist, short story writer, book editor and, from 1970 to 1976, this magazine's literary editor. When his article was published in 2005, Ted was immersed in writing a memoir about his own days as a literary editor and critic. "Adventures in Editing," the second part of which will appear in the next issue of The Nation, is an edited version of that memoir, which was left unfinished when Ted died in August. "Adventures in Editing" concerns Ted's first magazine gig: the years he worked under the tutelage of Norman Podhoretz at Commentary in the early 1960s. As Ted honed his editorial chops, befriended writers and clashed with his boss, he also gradually awakened to the conviction that would soon guide his work on the phenomenal little magazine New American Review: "Literature was too important a democratic resource to be left to the literati." One can also see Ted fashioning what book editor Gerald Howard has called his "exquisitely calibrated openness to the new with old-school rigor." We are especially grateful to Ted's literary executor, Maura Spiegel, for her assistance in publishing this article; to his son Isaac Solotaroff for providing photographs of Ted; and to Adam Bright for research. --John Palattella
I began working at Commentary in September 1960, some nine months after Norman Podhoretz had taken over, invigorating the magazine and steering it in a less Jewish and more leftward direction. By leading off his first three issues with long excerpts from Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman, the surprise witness whose testimony would soon change the terms of the debate about American society from conformist to deformed, Norman made it clear that the magazine would hold its own as the suddenly prominent new voice of a new decade. It was a great place to be, and a vastly unexpected one for someone who had been about to begin teaching two sections of Factual Writing for Forestry Students at the University of Washington.
The first morning, I was shown into my office by Sherry Abel, the managing editor, a large, graceful, middle-aged woman with a droll air. "Norman wants you to read these," she said, indicating a file folder on the desk with several manuscripts. ''They're for the meeting this afternoon. After that you can look through those." She nodded toward two stacks of manuscripts, their return envelopes attached to them like lepers' bells. "They're from what we call the slush pile. You'll soon see why."
And that was more or less that. No indoctrination, no getting-to-know-you, almost zero curiosity except for a sly glance. Welcome to the Big Time. As Sherry went out she asked me if I wanted the door open or closed.
"You men," she said, a throaty chuckle trailing behind her.
I sat down at the desk and took it all in: an ample, spick-and-span office with its contemporary walnut desk and chair, new filing cabinet, spiffy Olympia typewriter and wide view of the Upper East Side. The Commentary quarters took up a floor of a new office building that housed the American Jewish Committee, the class act of the national Jewish organizations. I felt like I was being taken into one of those patrician German-Jewish families like the Lehmans or the Strauses, I who not too many years ago had been a waiter at a family dinner party that Senator Lehman had led with the quiet aplomb and tact of a most civilized aristocrat. I'd been so bowled over that my standing resentment of privilege had collapsed.
I floated on the exhilaration for a few minutes more, fending off the internal naysayer who wanted to know how appropriate a sense of confidence, even entitlement, was for someone who had never worked a day at a magazine, whose only credential for this highflying job was a review of a minor novel and two shaky, mostly guesswork pieces on Jewish-American writing. Even Podhoretz had been surprised that I'd taken his offer instead of going to the University of Washington and finishing my dissertation. But there it was: it didn't feel like a gamble, or even a run of luck; it was beginning to feel like my destiny. The highflier I'd had inklings and flashes of being as a student and freshman English teacher and recently as a writer was apparently taking over, as was the dormant Jew I had begun cultivating.
Or was it only that, like clothes, the office makes the man? This one was a far cry from the little cubicle I'd left at the University of Chicago--the battered desk with the stuck drawer, the hard-on-the-ass chair, the clunky old Royal with its red-and-black ribbon, the piles of student themes, staff memos, syllabuses and the spillover of my dissertation on Henry James. The cubicle at Chicago I had been so proud to have earned as the only graduate student on the college English staff was now the objective correlative, as we used to say, of myself at the bottom of the academic ladder.
Poking around, I opened the top drawer of the desk. Staring at me were two crisp stacks of rejection slips:
We regret that your manuscript isn't suitable for Commentary.
They were more courteous than the slips I'd received six or seven years ago. But the message was the same blank shrug. After leaving college and settling in New York, I had tried to lead a fiction writer's life for several years and gotten nowhere. I'd lived from one rejection slip to the next, reduced to taking heart from a "Sorry" or "Try us again" scribbled occasionally at the bottom. After my labored stories came back from New World Writing and Partisan Review, I'd send them to Commentary before submitting them further down my prestige chain to Harper's and The Atlantic. It was at New World Writing or Partisan Review that I had fantasized I would someday "arrive."
I turned to the two sets of manuscripts. First, I read through those of the finalists, four or five of them, along with the comments of the other three editors, and added a comment of my own. One of them, a piece about how the control of medical policy and services was passing from the American Medical Association to government and the unions, was written in such clumsy, jargon-ridden prose that I thought it could have slipped in from the slush pile, and said so. Chutzpah had mostly gotten me here, so I went with it. Also, during the meeting at which Podhoretz had offered me the job, I had soon become aware that he liked people who were outspoken like himself and tended to walk all over those who weren't.
I then turned to the unsolicited manuscripts and found two or three that were marginally promising, even to the point that a stronger writer seemed to be lurking on the outskirts of the story or essay. For the rest of the morning I wrote specific suggestions in the margins and then a carefully encouraging cover letter to the authors. To some of the others I attached shorter letters, explaining their manuscripts' main problems. To the remaining ones, the hopeless, I said that perhaps they should try a different kind of magazine or journal--and signed my name.