A FEW GOOD VOICES IN MY HEAD

Occasional Pieces on Writing, Editing,

And Reading My Contemporaries

By Ted Solotaroff

Cornelia & Michael Bessie/Harper & Row

304 pp. $20; paperback, $10.95

TED SOLOTAROFF is a well-known figure in the American publishing world. In recent years he has been a senior editor at Harper & Row. Earlier, in the late '60s and '70s, he was the founder and editor of The New American Review, later The American Review, which set out to identify new young voices in American writing and bring them to the attention of a mass public. He steered a good many of these gifted writers to Bantam, which published The American Review after its name change, and later to Harper & Row when he became an editor there. These writers include such well-known names as Max Apple, Douglas Unger, Joan Chase, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz; he is said to have the gift of finding the one laconic phrase that inspires a young writer into creativity. He is also a talented essayist and reviewer; his earlier pieces are collected in The Red Hot Vacuum (1970). Any book by him is necessarily of interest, and this book would be of interest no matter who had written it.

At first glance A Few Good Voices in My Head looks like the typical volume in which an essayist or reviewer sweeps up his occasional pieces from time to time, claps a catchy title on it, and offers it as a book. These are occasional pieces, as Solotaroff admits. But they are carefully selected, and in some way he manages to impart to the whole book a cogent, consistent, and pressing theme. The book is about the literary vocation, how hard it is, what the mistakes are that you can make, and how you feel if you succeed, which isn't very likely. The title is in answer to the old question, "For whom do you write?" Solotaroff has got a far better answer than the usual windy ones you hear, and a striking one for a professional editor whose books necessarily have to make money. But he is the kind of editor who has his eye on more than trying to steal best-selling established authors away from other editors, and he has a keen insight into the process of creative composition. The working writer is bewitched to find an editor who knows that a first draft is like "telling a joke whose punch line you've forgotten" or one who reminds us of Joyce's dictum that the best writers work in "silence, exile, and cunning." This sounds like somebody who knows what he is talking about. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that Solotaroff is now working on a novel of his own.

Several of the pieces deal with the condition of writers under dictatorship, behind the Iron Curtain and in Argentina. Initially this doesn't seem to have much to do with the real center of the book, the American literary experience. But Solotaroff quotes the Russian writer Anatole Kuznetsov, who narrowly escaped being shot by the Nazis and was later censored by the Soviets: "You've got the guns, but I've got my legs . . . I know now why I am alive, scratch around among the market-stalls, gnaw horse's bones: I am growing up so as to be able to hate you and fight you . . . to fight against the evil ones who are turning the world into a prison and a stone crusher."

This is the kind of experience, and emotion, that the young American writer lacks. A good deal of the book, and some of its most interesting parts, is devoted to the present-day sponsorship of fiction and poetry writing by universities. The real peril of academic writing programs is that they are in danger of producing a generation of writers who have no experience of life except schooling and writing schools. In most cases they are very young. The writing they produce is the fashionable minimalism in style, and in content the trivial quotidian problems of unimportant people. There are no heroes or larger-than-life figures in their writing, no Leverku hns, no Raskolnikovs or Levins, no Gregor Samsas. Their writing teachers, who in most cases have read the classics themselves, instead give them Ann Beattie to read. For them the world is not a "prison and a stone crusher"; it's a pleasant campus, with fellowships to pay the bills and some not-too-difficult books to read.

There's probably no real solution to this problem, but Solotaroff, in his essay "The Literary Campus and the Person of Letters," does suggest an interesting palliative. He calls for a Person of Letters Program (PLP), whch would accept only writers with a certain amount of experience of the world and an acquired literary culture -- one which would expose them to all genres before allowing them to specialize in novel or poem, and would include serious literary study in foreign as well as English-language texts. Although Solotaroff is too modest to make the claim, he himself (especially if his promised novel is any good) is on the verge of being that Person of Letters he calls for in his own book. He is not confined by the format of his book to the mere status of editor, critic, or essayist; he offers himself here as a humane man of letters, a thinker in the tradition of the Jewish moralists he admires, a wise and compassionate human voice -- a voice reassuring to most of us working writers who are scared to death of high-powered editors.

MacDonald Harris' most recent novel is "Glowstone." He is on the staff of the Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine.