This priceless collection of some twenty-six essays, prefaces, and introductions by one of America’s most insightful editors reflects Solotaroff’s own journey from anxious graduate student to trustworthy critic and guide through the literary world of the last half century, especially the Jewish literary world. It is a personal but not a solipsistic journey, a demonstration of what his memoirs (the last one was nearly finished and is sure to be published posthumously) portray as a battle with self-created family demons. The wannabe fiction writer became the editor by scrapping his mirror for a lens and discovering authors in their manuscripts, whatever they might seem to be in company. Personal anecdote, never name dropping, might frame Solotaroff’s insight to a writer, but terse summary and pointed analysis of the writing prove the point. Each of these essays in criticism begins by applying Matthew Arnold’s touchstone of seeing the work or the career whole — as what in itself it really is. Thus Walter Benjamin sees all good story telling as rooted not in the teller but in the tale, Alfed Kazin chronicles not so much regional story patterns as the essence of the American imagination, Irving Howe’s world of “Ourselves” is but the Jewish imprint on any immigrant culture: after a first generation’s determination to retain the old ways, and a second’s proclivity to forget them, the third generation’s need to stamp them in memory — before a final assimilation. Some two dozen writers, of poetry, fiction, and criticism, often, like Solotaroff himself up from working-class origins, come alive as forces and influences on a global readership. And the “community’ of the title includes dedicated grant providers for under-funded sponsors.
The Literary Community: Selected Essays 1967 – 2007
The arrangement of the essays, not chronological but pedagogic, presents a course in understanding writing, its processes, temptations, pitfalls, over- and under-appreciations in a hard world of publishing, and, in a final tender essay called “The Pits of Fiction,” the difference between the critical mind that writes of thoughts and the vivid imagination that creates events. It is a book to be read over the course of a week or two, no more than two or three essays a day. The mulling time in between will be enriched by echoes of Solotaroff’s evocative prose.
The “Introduction” by Russell Banks provides an overview of Solotaroff’s career and a partial list of original outlets for the essays. Within the text, the essays are identified by title and date but not usually by provenance. There is no index. One must often guess whether a given piece was originally a forward or a critical review and in what venue. But since this book is a window into the ways of publishing, the reader is free to guess that these omissions may be ascribed to budget. Its payoff is Ted Solotaroff’s generous gift to anyone spending some part of life in the community known as literature.
Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.
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