Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days
David Segal was the friend of a young woman I had known during college in Ann Arbor in the early 1950s. A short, pudgy fellow who made up in aggressiveness what he lacked in size, he would go on to have a significant career as a book editor until his untimely death in his early 40s. But when I first knew him he was working in his father's thread business. Married to the writer Lore Segal, he moved in Upper West Side literary circles, and our paths crossed one evening at a dinner party. He told me that he was trying to write his way out of the family business, and having spent a good part of my adolescence in my father's plate-glass shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I was touched by his situation. He had published a review in Commonweal, and I asked him if he wanted to try to write something for Commentary. What did I have in mind? I suggested that he look around for a book that really interested him, and if it wasn't already assigned, he could try a review.
I'd been doing this for some time now. Shortly after I'd come to Commentary, I'd had a conversation with Norman about recruiting writers for the magazine. It didn't seem to me such a big deal; I said I knew of four or five people at the University of Chicago alone who could write for Commentary.
"You think you do, but you don't," said Norman. "You don't realize how unusual you were for an academic."
I said I wasn't that unusual: I'd lucked into an opportunity my friends hadn't had. "I'll bet you a dinner that I can bring five writers you've never heard of into the magazine in the next year."
"I don't want to take your money," he said. "I'll bet you won't bring three."
We turned out to both be right. With one exception, the novelist Thomas Rogers, none of the former colleagues I had in mind sent in a review or piece that was lively enough to be accepted. A former fellow graduate student, Elizabeth Tornquist, who was turning to political journalism, also managed to crack the barrier. The others had fallen into one or another mode of scholarly dullness or pedagogical authority and, despite my suggestions, had trouble climbing out to address the common reader. My efforts to point their prose and sense of subject in a broader direction brought little joy to either party. "How dare you revise my formulation of an intellectual problem" was a fairly typical reaction.
I was still looking for my third winner. David Segal decided to write about contemporary cartoonists: Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein and Saul Steinberg. David could write: "Steinberg's line is most venomous in his drawings of women; the book swarms with women who wear grotesque faces as if they were the scars of old victories." But at the editorial meeting, his manuscript was judged to be all over the place and lacking a context. I worked on it with David, resubmitted it and was told it still wasn't acceptable. Rather than expose either of us to another bruising bout of editing, I tightened up the prose some more; and since I had room in the next issue for it, I gave it to Sherry. Then I called David and told him the good news, adding that I'd done a bit of last-minute tinkering, which he could check out in the galleys.
He didn't return the galleys, but when the issue appeared he phoned me. Expecting that he was calling to tell me how pleased he was to be in Commentary, I said as much, being pleased with myself that we'd brought it off.
"I hated every word of it," he said. "Damn you, Ted, you took what I wrote and made it into something you wrote. You took away any pride I had in writing it. What would you feel like if the same thing had been done to you?"
When I put the receiver down a few moments later, his fury was still blazing into me. I'd tried to explain that the same thing had happened to me, that it had been a learning experience, that we could have revised the galleys. But my words sounded hollow. I tried to work up some anger of my own but was overtaken by shame. He was right. The review I'd published in PR had been cut by Rahv like a butcher cuts meat. I'd all but disowned it, and with it the desire to write for PR. I thought of the sentence that Norman had dropped into my Golden piece, which had introduced a small worm into the apple of gratification and gratitude. That was nothing compared with what I had done to Segal's review, not to mention more extensive solo "typewriter" jobs.
I'd been editing freely for more than a year now. As Sherry had said, Commentary editors had to be presumptuous to publish perhaps half of our writers and maintain the minimum standard of terse, fluent, idiomatic, well-organized prose. Over time my initial concerns about the author's stake in his work had shifted and hardened into my working understanding of "the Commentary piece"--a kind of intuition of what belonged in the magazine and what didn't--from the piece as a whole down to a given sentence or metaphor. But was editing in this more or less arbitrary way all that different from the compromises that Richard Yates's Frank Wheeler, in writing serviceable promotional copy, makes in Revolutionary Road? Was I becoming an intellectual organization man whose product was "the Commentary piece"?
The second part of this article will appear in next week's issue.