The Lit­er­ary Com­mu­ni­ty: Select­ed Essays 1967 – 2007

Ted Solotaroff; Rus­sell Banks, intro.
  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

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 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.

Discussion Questions