Remembering Ted Solotaroff
Best piece of editorial advice I ever got: “In a race to nausea, it’s best to be brief.” I’m going to try to honor that now.
I came on those words about a dozen years ago, written in a tiny, precise hand in the margins of my second book, a novel about a vaguely depressed, self-involved character telling the story of his own vague depression and self-involvement in a vaguely depressed and, um, self-involved way. Or was that my first novel? Anyway the line, as intended, went through me like a harpoon. Like most of Ted’s editorial comments it seemed witty and penetrating without being in any way facile or glib (whatever the opposite of glib is, that’s what Ted was, which makes his enthusiasm for young writers seem either paradoxical or inevitable, or both). Like most of his comments it was bluntly, devastatingly honest—truth comes in blows and all that—and at the same time also rather tender and forgiving. “What one wants most in a friend is both candor and empathy,” Ted wrote in an essay, and every writer who worked with him felt his friendship in that sense, for Ted knew better than anyone that writing a novel is a difficult task, more serious than it looks, and that the things you draw strength from can over the course of a project morph into the very things that defeat you. And finally, like most of his comments it seemed to express and embody an entire literary, ethical, and moral point of view, though in Ted’s case these were all more or less the same thing.
And what was—excuse me, is, because it’s still there in the books he edited and wrote—that point of view? It has many windows, but to my mind they all gaze out on the same field, a field which for lack of a better phrase I’ll call seriousness of purpose. Tell the truth as best you can, and get on with it.
Ted was a grown-up. He knew what bored him (navel-gazing, for instance) and wasn’t afraid to say so, but he also knew what interested him, which was more or less everything else. He liked stylish prose, but he reserved his highest praise for what fueled that prose, for the investigation of what he called “a genuine subject.” He liked writing that knew things, that had the authority (as Harold Brodkey famously put it, in a story it’s hard to believe anyone but Ted would have published) of “being on one’s knees in front of the event.”
He liked writers too, as we all know. Not everyone does, or should; but Ted did. I was among his last group of “discoveries,” when he was already on his way out of the office, and maybe that’s why I always felt a sense of rare luck about Ted being my editor, like tapping a gold vein on my first strike. In a low moment I’d once “borrowed” a fairly significant number of the back issues of New American Review from the grad student lounge at Columbia, and took them back to my awful apartment, where I hunched over their pages like a Talmudist. (I still have them, by the way, and could, I’m sure, like many of us here today, still rattle off entire tables of contents). And then one day about five years later, there was that stammery, lugubrious voice on the answering machine, telling me I’d, “uh,” written “a, uh, swell book”—on a Saturday morning no less—and inviting me to come see him down on 53rd Street that Monday, and after that it was like being one of those late children born to aging fathers, those lions in winter: no Oedipal struggles (okay, a few Oedipal struggles), no rage or rebellion (okay, a little rage and rebellion), but mostly a kind of warm, benevolent enfoldment: all gravy, all luck, all love.
Maybe because I too am now a father, this is what has come to matter most over time, not the literary or vocational stuff but the love. Ted could be a formidable antagonist, but he was an even more formidable advocate. Even as he pushed you harder than you wanted to be pushed, he’d also be pushing for you, in ways you only occasionally heard about, talking you up, trying to score you not recognition but the time to earn it through your work, and more important, to have a life. For him there seemed no separation. Long after he’d retired he remained fully engaged with his writers, kept faith with both the work and the life. Even in his last months, he was still calling regularly to check in, ask how the new book was coming, how our daughter was getting along, had I read the latest Roth, had I heard about Isaac’s film, had I heard from Max, what did I think about this new novelist he’d just read and admired. It was all a kind of web-weaving. The phrase Literary Community seems too dry, too small; it felt more like an Extended Family. Particularly now, as we gather in his absence: one final collection of Ted’s assembled, with himself—his taste, his humanity, his stubborn, enduring interest—at the center, at once nowhere and everywhere.
We all have these moments we know, even as they unfold, we’ll forever keep close, and here’s one of mine. It’s 1987. I’m twenty-nine years old, sitting next to Ted at his desk on Morningside Drive, going line by line, the way he liked, through the editing of my first novel. There’s music in the background, a tape sent by one of his writers, a really terrific writer he wants me to meet. Ted points to a line on the manuscript he doesn’t get. I explain that it’s actually an attempt at what some people call “humor.” Ted frowns and says “ah” in a sort of gloomy, rhetorical way, as if conceding that maybe under some very singular set of circumstances it might be construed as funny, and then looks down that zig-zaggy nose of his and says, well friend, it’s your name on the cover. But even as we go on to the next problem, I can see it’s still bothering him; he can’t let it go. Why have a line in there that doesn’t really, really matter? And that’s when it hits me over the head, like a cartoon frying pan: Good lord, he’s taking my stuff more seriously than I am. And I thought, well friend, time to grow up.