Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
This is the second part of a two-part article. Part one appeared in last week's issue.
One day I received a call from the reception desk: a woman named Cynthia Ozick wanted to talk about writing for Commentary. I knew her name from a few poems I had come across in the literary magazines, and though I had pretty much stopped recruiting, I still liked to think of myself as approachable.
Small, awkward, intense, she arrived with an air of shyness that turned into ardor once she got going, reminding me of certain female graduate students who were like nuns in the library stacks and passionate in the seminars. Volubly thanking me for seeing her, she said that she had just been to The New York Review of Books, where they had all but thrown her out. She went on to tell me in her tight, edgy voice, the swarming eyes behind her scholarly spectacles never leaving my face, about a long novel, eight years in the writing, that she had just submitted. She now wanted to try her hand at reviewing. She said that she was a friend of Alfred Chester. Was I his editor?
I was. Alfred was our star literary reviewer--flamboyant, irreverent, unpredictable, even from one paragraph to the next. A flaming queen with a red wig, crystalline prose style and a razor wit, he seemed about 179 degrees across the human spectrum from this literary vestal virgin. But perhaps not. His stare burned with the same intensity.
We talked about a piece I had written about the life struggle and mind-shrinking indoctrination process of a married graduate student, which she said had confirmed the rightness of her decision to leave graduate school after receiving her master's degree. Her thesis, too, had been on Henry James. The more we talked, the more I sensed that Cynthia fell squarely into the category that Midge Decter referred to as "lit'ry ladies"--intensely fancy female academic writers.
A new John Cheever novel, The Wapshot Scandal, had recently come out. I chose it because the social dimension of Cheever's fiction was so front-and-center that Cynthia would be less likely to go astray into narrative gesture and symbolic form. I told her to think of our audience as a bright lawyer in Minneapolis who is broadly literate rather than narrowly literary. What followed from that was not to get involved in the "internal" mechanism of the novel but rather to use it to comment on the character of Cheever's fiction. Or again, she might think of putting the novel into an interesting context: the ethos of the New Yorker fiction writer, say, or WASP hegemony under duress, or the role of male fantasy in his work. Something like that.
In due course Cynthia's review arrived, and after a few sentences I knew we were in trouble.
What is the difference between a minor and a major writer? Certainly it is not subject matter: The Wapshot Scandal and Anna Karenina are both about adultery. Nor is it a question of control--John Cheever has an aerialist's sly command over just how taut the line of a sentence should be, and just how much power must be applied or withheld in the risk of ascent.
All of which culminated in the point that minor writers "do not believe in what they are showing us. Major writers believe. Minor writers record not societies, or even allegories of societies, but vapid dreams and pageants of desire."
The rest of the review was harder to follow. Flashes of perception kept turning obscure--sometimes in the same sentence. "St. Botolphs is not really what we are meant to take it for, a dying New England village redolent of its sailing-glory days--it too is a fabrication, a sort of Norman Rockwell cover done in the manner of Braque."
In a long explanatory cover letter, Cynthia at one point characterized the novel in a quick, deft way that provided more of a sense of the texture of The Wapshot Scandal than her entire review. I returned it with a letter pointing this out, questioning her criteria for major and minor writers. (Was credence really what separated Faulkner from Eudora Welty, Dreiser from Sherwood Anderson?) I observed that she was "trying to say too much that was complex and too little that was clear and descriptive and
oriented to the common reader who may not have read much of Cheever." I said that if she could stand to revise the review developing the précis in her letter in much the same straightforward prose, I'd be glad to consider it.
A few days later I received a four-page, single-spaced letter that began with Cynthia noting her gratitude to me, her towering esteem for Commentary and its writer-editors, and then a long defense of her review as being written precisely to the framework I had given her, and ended by asking me to reread the review "in the light of the responses I have given your points." This was a first. I was struck by her audacity, touched by her passion for the magazine and pissed off by her effrontery. I thought she needed a cold shoulder to lean on and wrote accordingly:
Dear Miss Ozick:
I'm puzzled by your letter. I don't quite understand why you have such admiration for the character of Commentary as a "serious" literary journal and why you are also so intransigent in the face of the editorial principles, tactics, queries, etc. that in large part determine this character. You also express a keen desire to write for the magazine but do not wish to make the choices that writing for it require: i.e. choosing to be less fancy, allusive, oblique, assuming, in a word less "literary." If you don't wish to make this choice, why then don't make it, but then you're deluding yourself if you think you really want to write for Commentary.
I ended by leaving the door open to discuss this impasse further if she wished.
Soon she walked back in, we thrashed out again the parameters of an acceptable Commentary review, and she went forth to try her hand at one, which we then worked on together. The new version began:
In one of John Cheever's Shady Hill stories a man comes home to his suburb after a plane trip. The plane has crashed in a field, but everyone has awesomely survived. The man enters his house in a sublime mood.... He has the sense that he is a secret angel, but everything is just the same as always, and no one wants to notice.
After deftly summarizing a more surreal version of a similar experience in The Wapshot Scandal, Cynthia observed:
Most of John Cheever's people, even the wicked ones, are wistful secret angels--like seraphim they have their errands and burdens, only nobody notices. That nobody ever notices is the real scandal of The Wapshot Scandal. It is, also, in a way, Cheever's own scandal as a writer.
Shades of Alfred Chester! The review moved briskly along on the rails of this direct, trenchant line of inquiry, the "scandal" being Cheever's inattentiveness to the society he purports to describe, whether St. Botolphs or the noncommunity surrounding a missile site, the good or evil of contemporary America: "Cheever can look at nothing in society without drawing a halo around it with his golden crayon; he transmutes his America into an enormous, generalized St. Botolphs--and then, playing satirist, scolds the residue that...resists wholesale Botolphsizing."
I, of course, was delighted by the transformation of the review. Cynthia, as it turned out, wasn't. Many years later, after she had become a famous fiction writer and essayist, she told me that she had hated every minute we worked on the review together. Moreover, she had sent the original version to The Antioch Review, which not only published it but later included it in the fiftieth-anniversary issue. I doubt, though, that had I known of that outcome it would have given me much pause or resolved my ambivalence. There was still too much ego gain for me in being the hotshot Commentary editor-writer who had prodded her effectively.