Ted Solotaroff 1996

Ted Solotaroff

I’d like to begin by adding a few words to Bob Pennoyer’s about the man who is most responsible for this occasion and for the values that it represents and confers. For the past fifteen years or so Gerald Freund has been, to my mind, one of the most important members of the literary community in America, as important in his way as John Updike to fiction or Robert Bly to poetry or Harold Bloom to criticism or Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein to literary intellect or Robert Gottlieb and Elisabeth Sifton, Dan Halpern and Sam Hamill to literary publishing. The ten writers who this evening are being given $30,000 worth of free time, their most needed working condition, and of recognition, their most enabling resource, join the hundreds of poets, fiction writers, essayists and dramatists whose careers Gerry has fostered in similar ways.

Hundreds is no hyperbole. The Whiting program alone now accounts for 120 of them; add the 150 or more literary recipients of the MacArthur Fellowships, which Gerry ran and helped keep alive during it’s early traumatic years; the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writing Awards, which he created and oversaw for several years, adds another sixty. Now there are also the Rona Jaffe Awards for the early gifted writers. And this doesn’t take into account his years of funding writers through the program at the Rockefeller Foundation and, in recent years, through a slew of small private ones.

Knowing what an abiding and often necessitous uncertainty a literary career is as a way of life, he has created a support structure that spans it. The Rona Jaffe Awards reaches into the masses of aspiring writers churned out by the MFA programs, identifies some of the most gifted, and sponsors a sense of vocation in them. The Whiting Award helps the accomplished younger writer to arrive and to survive the precarious first ten years, the years of writing in the cold, of the sophomore jinx, as they say in baseball. The Wallace Award helps those who are in full career to navigate the treacherous middle of the voyage, often against the powerful tide of current trends and fashions and against the high winds of change in publishing houses that have been blowing many fiction writers and poets hither and yon and sometimes right back into obscurity they thought they had put behind them. Finally, a number of the MacArthur recipients have been elderly and/or sorely neglected innovative writers who have been given a second lease on careers that might otherwise have exhausted their resources and morale.

Since this is going to be a personal talk with a good deal of testifying, I’ll start with Gerry. I first met him about 25 years ago when he was Dean of Hunter College and I was trying to keep New American Review going after its first publisher had given me its walking papers. He thought there might be a way to bring it into the new CUNY cluster of writing programs, a brilliant, original scheme I wished later that I’d followed further instead of going with another commercial publisher. So that was Gerry the innovator. Some years later I was part of a small committee of writers and editors Gerry brought together to devise the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Awards, which produced the new idea of writers doing something for the reading public in return for three years of support. This was not an easy idea to put across, believe me, to a bunch of prancing, snorting literary egos and get them into the harness of a workable program. That was Gerry the diplomat. If you read between the lines of his new book, the candid distillation of thirty years of heavy-duty experience in the corridors of money and power, as well as the arts and sciences, you’ll see that if anyone in America has the right to call his book Narcissism and Philanthropy, it is Gerry Freund.

One more anecdote: last year he called me and asked me to nominate a young political writer for a grant. I came back with a middle-aged one who was at his wit’s end in trying to finish a seven-year project—a biography of Bayard Rustin. The writer wasn’t eligible for the grant but Gerry asked to see his previous work and meet with him and a week later he had come up with the money from somewhere that enabled the writer to complete the final mile of his marathon. That is Gerry the literary caregiver as well as the innovator and diplomat.

I am not only paying tribute to a man, I am also pointing to his cause—the nurture, support, and identification of vital writing in America today—vital in both senses, alive and necessary—finding the enduring in the topical, reclaiming the complexity of life from the sitcom and the melodrama, the news story and the talk show. Along with the nurture, care, and relief of individual writers, Gerry has helped to maintain the literary community itself, which has been going through deep struggles of identity and values in the past two decades because of the ever more intense commodification of publishing, the campus warfare between the traditional writers and the postmodernists, the impact of multiculturalism on literary norms and standards and book sales, the drying up of support for the small press movement and the independent writer. Such a small community in our society and yet so fragmented.

I’m not going to deliver another jeremiad about the literary-industrial complex or get into the vexing issues again of literature as art versus literature as a major resource of gender, sexual, racial and ethnic identity and expression. But there is one corrosive consequence of our market-driven and promotion mad society that I haven’t written about before that the Whiting and the other prestigious awards significantly help to alleviate. We know big-time publishing lives cheek-by-jowl with the magazine, TV, and movie business; in many cases, its houses are sister subsidiaries of the same conglomerate, but in any case are increasingly part of the mass media, the great leveler of cultural distinctions. Pursuing synergy and profit, it has picked up the media’s inordinate and contagious interest in topicality, celebrity, trendiness, and knowingness. In a word, the buzz: the circuitry that connects product, author, publicity, gossip, and box office and that, along with the bottom line, is the chief measure of the success with a book. If you read the New York Observer, for example, you can see the publishing business turning into show business before your eyes.

The importance of the buzz doesn’t stop with the media. It goes out into the culture, even the literary culture. I’ve taught in and visited a number of MFA programs where an attenuated version of the buzz seems to be coming off the intense questions I’m asked about marketing and promoting one’s fiction or in the fiction itself which approaches trendiness with wide open arms. What these writers are responding to is not the old spur of eventual fame but the new one of well-planned celebrity. They’re aware of a number of writers, not to mention painters and musicians, of the previous and present generation, who have been able to place their pulse on the media’s finger and turn it into buzz—the soundtrack of fame in our time, just as the limelight of celebrity, lit by flashbulbs and TV studio light, is its picture—and this is true of all the popular arts in our market driven, media-obsessed society.

It is squarely against this phenomenon that the Whiting and the other literary awards stands and, in so doing, gives hope and reassurance as well as money. For in place of media buzz and limelight it provides recognition and confirmation and a small portion of genuine, clarified fame, in and from the community that matters most to quality writers, the literary community.

For what we are doing here today is keeping the faith that there is still such a community, because in this hour or two, just as the Whiting judges have been doing in their meetings to select the winners, we are configuring its membership and asserting its value.

As I’ve said before, the literary community is becoming like catacomb Christianity in a pagan empire whose household gods are wealth and power. It lives on in a publishing house where the people of the book and its culture lead a shadowy, complicated existence in the interstices of the marketing culture, and often in the same mind of a publisher and editor and even sales manager of publicity director. It lives on in the creative writing and humanistic interstices of the English departments, where novelists and poets and literary critics contend with the regnant faith and growth industry of postmodernism. It exists in the interstices of high-tech word processing where small presses set up shop and keep the flow of new writing circulating. It lives on, most importantly of all, in the personal and enabling relationships between and among writers and between the generations, including the writers who have gone before but remain alive. The literary community may be small, it may be harshly fragmented, it may be losing the sense of it’s own past—a whole other issue. But except maybe for the sixties, it’s never had it easy in America, where it’s not an institution as it is in France or Germany or the U.K. But it’s still out there in America and hanging on, still resourceful and still able to invigorate itself and its members—with a little help from its friends like Gerry Freund. As the poet and poetry editor T.S. Eliot put it, we’re not trying to prevail but just to keep something alive.

Having been a New York literary editor and reviewer and occasional commentator, I’ve tried, like Gerry Freud, to do what I could for the community and its problems, but I understand better now what it is and how it works for writers because in recent years I’ve been living the life of an isolated and increasingly obscure member of it. About five years ago I left my place in the limelight and the buzz, such as my portion was, and went off to live in a little town near Hampton Bay, Long Island, the working man’s Hampton, where culture pretty much begins at the little local library and ends at BlockBuster Video. Though I had anticipated and certainly hoped for the solitude it conferred, I was still surprised and even dismayed to find out how soon the phone stopped ringing. Also, the silence in my head: not the silence of peace and quiet I had planned for, but the silence of a kind of inertness. I had taken my mind away from the buzz and was crestfallen to find that without it jogging my brain cells, not much was going on in there, except, now and then, a pounding cognitive dissonance.

As the wise say, be careful what you wish for. I had left my career in publishing mainly to write a book, the story of my family and myself. Along with the time and solitude that early retirement confers, I felt I needed precisely the absence of the buzz, which would be at best distracting and at worst destructive to my task. For I knew what the buzzers wanted, having so recently been once myself, particularly for authors like myself: they wanted to know all about what it was like to work at Commentary when Norman Podhoretz was changing his mind back in the ‘60s; or about editing Book Week by myself during the five month strike of the World Journal Tribune; or about the experiences of starting and maintaining New American Review, preferably with the lowdown on working with Harold Brodkey and Susan Sontag; or about my relationships with the New York Jewish intellectuals and the counter-culture renegades; or about my adventures in trade publishing with the Helen Wolffs and the Dick Snyders. That’s what I, the erstwhile buzzer, would want to acquire, and not some oft-told story of two immigrant East European families and of growing up Jewish and American in the 1930s and 40s.

So I mainly retired to East Quogue because I couldn’t afford to have one side of my mind say to the other, “Come on, Ted, who cares anymore about this personal and dated stuff? Who is going to buy this book?” The leading question of the career I had just left. I couldn’t afford to have those thoughts on my mind, but try telling an isolated writer what he can and cannot have on his mind.

I can see now that the dissonance between what would sell and what I both wanted to write and needed to learn how to write, if the later career material wasn’t to turn into the higher gossip. This dissonance was a necessary part of the reeducation of someone who had stopped being a literary editor and begun being a full-time literary writer—that is, anxious, alone, and much of the time in doubt. I’d written critical pieces and reviews for some thirty years, and so to get away from the dissonance and also keep my hand in, and my own pulse in, I went back to doing that on a more or less regular basis for The Nation.  Which in time set up a different dissonant dialogue in my head between the professional literary journalist who knew what he was doing and was getting a lot of feedback and the scorned, bitter, amateur memoirist who didn’t and was getting none but was stubbornly saying, “You didn’t have to retire to write about publishing or to defend Irving Howe or to review John Cheever. That’s not what the last chance you were giving yourself was about.” Finally, the mediator between the two, my writing conscience, said, “The whining amateur is right. Give him a chance.”

I reminisce in this shameless way because the experience has given me a much clearer and deeper awareness that there is a literary community, that it’s not just a metaphor for a lot of good intentions and wishful thinking and networking for reading gigs. My conversion to imaginative writing didn’t happen overnight or in a week or a month. It took more than a year before the voice of the buzz stopped for good and the voices began to flow into my mind from the literary community, the living and the dead. E.L. Doctorow instructed me to “trust the writing process.” That became my mantra—the simple, difficult way. A number of writerly truths followed from it.

One is that there are no mistakes as long as you keep writing; there are only phrases and paths that prove false or dull and set you again on the search for ones that work, that have energy and interest in them a week later. You find your way by apparently losing it.

You start the chapter with a clear idea of what you’re going to tell and the process takes over and soon you’re writing about something that has nothing to do with it or that you can hardly remember or even know if it really happened. Before long, you’re lost. You have the feelings of being lost, of doubt and fear, which you learn to live with and even welcome. Philip Roth, another of my new allies and instructors told me, “It’s when I get lost that I feel I’m getting somewhere because some new stuff is getting freed up.” When I sent him the autobiographical sketch I’d written for the Contemporary Authors series he said, “What you have to do now is take this and shatter it,” which was dismaying, perplexing, but right on the money.

I also began to listen to the words of my main colleague on American Review, Richard Howard, who had said, “Only the risk is really interesting.” Russell Banks, one of my former authors, reminded me in my bitter, cynical moments that cynicism about writing is usually the sign of a writer who is losing it.

Another of the members of the community who took up residence in my head was Henry James, who kept telling me, “We work in the dark. We do what we can. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” He’d told me that before but now he was telling it to me for keeps. In the midst of the darkness and doubt that went on for five years, he and my other allies in the literary community, of which I’ve mentioned only a few, sustained the passion that grows out of doubt that enabled me to complete the task. Probably the most important message I got along the way was from Hayden Carruth, who crustily told me after the first hundred pages to stop whining, that I was getting somewhere, to keep going.

What I had to do, in effect, was to take off the comfortable shoes I’d been wearing for thirty years and start walking barefoot so that I could feel my ground, to throw away the crutch of writing about other writers’ imagination and make my slow, stumbling, often backward way with my own. I had to join the seven fiction writers we honor this evening because, as I found out, when I’d gotten the hang of what I was doing, the memoir worth writing is the envisioned and intuitive narrative behind and under the facts and events that it retrieves, connects, and weights with meaning, shades with implication. To cope with my old habits of the literary pundit and the village explainer, I fastened a manta in the middle of my head, D. H. Lawrence’s “Trust the tale, not the teller,” or in my own borrowed version, “It’s a story, stupid.” I also had to join the three poets we are honoring to the extent that I found out that the way you sort out the material facts and the representative experiences from all the others that swarm around a family and a life is by going directly to the painful ones, even the shameful ones, and to the joyous and affirming ones, which can be no less repressed, no less in need of being teased out by guesswork and metaphor than the content of a poem is.

So to you ten much younger writers I can say I know better what you’ve been through. I understand better what this means. Alfred Kazin once said, “The trouble with being a writer is that you never know where you stand.” Well, if Alfred Kazin doesn’t know, who does? The media glare and buzz of a Whiting Award will soon vanish, and in a year, so will the money and the time it’s freed up. The recognition this evening from your peers, your real community, will not tell you where you stand once you’re back in the stillness of Portland, Oregon and Auburn, Alabama or in the buzz of New York and Los Angeles. But I hope you’ll let this award go on recognizing you and say that you’ve been doing something serious in your subjects and something right for your art, something good for the community of writers and readers as well as for your publisher, your editor, your agent, even your copy editor and publicist who are grateful to you for confirming their vocation, renewing their place in the community.


Renowned literary editor, essayist and memoirist Ted Solotaroff began his career as an editor and critic at the opinion journal Commentary Magazine, 1960-66. In 1967 he founded New American Review, a paperback literary journal, later called American Review, that had a print run of over 100,000.  The Review published, among many others, E.L. Doctorow, Sylvia Plath, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William H. Gass. Michael Herr, Kate Millett, Donald Barthelme, and, early on, an excerpt from what became Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint." Described by Ian McEwan as “the most influential editor of his time,” Solotaroff became a senior editor at Harper & Row from 1979 to 1991, where he edited Russell Banks, Sue Miller, and Robert Bly.  In 1989, when Rupert Murdoch bought Harper & Row, Solotaroff began to do less editing and more writing, soon retiring in 1991 to work on his memoirs  His books include, The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties (1970), A Few Good Voices in My Head: Occasional Pieces on Writing, Editing, and Reading My Contemporaries (1987), Truth Comes in Blows: A Memoir (1998), and First Loves: A Memoir (2003).