As books become big business, literary voices are hard to hear

TED SOLOTAROFF has heard ``a few good voices'' coming out of the 20 years he's toiled in the publishing fields. Now, in his book-and-manuscript-crammed office at Harper & Row, he speaks of these voices the way people do when they remember from childhood the clacking of a distant train and the sound of a bicycle crunching in the gravel - all lost to mobility, ambition, and the speed of life in a consuming society.

The voices of culture and literary purpose have, he feels, been all but drowned out in a monolithic, dollar-driven publishing game.

``T.S. Eliot said that, in matters of culture, we don't look to prevail, but just to keep something alive,'' he says.

Today, in the book business, he adds, keeping even the whispers of culture alive has become a struggle. ``Look, it's always been hard. There's never been a Golden Age. The difference today is that you have to work harder with less enjoyment to keep the enterprise going.''

Working at this enterprise as an editor, essayist, and sometime contributor to magazines, Mr. Solotaroff has also become something of a Jeremiah.

His essay, ``What has happened to the publishing business?'' will appear in his book of occasional pieces, ``A Few Good Voices in My Head,'' to be published Oct. 28. It has been passed around the offices of trade publishers and is generally thought of as a savvy take-down on the literary-industrial complex.

``It certainly put the industry in accurate perspective,'' comments Little, Brown executive William Guthrie. ``I missed getting a copy when it first came out, and it was all I heard about for two weeks. I've sent more copies out to people than I can remember. ``They all say, `This is it. This is it.'''

``It'' is the recent history of publishing in which ``the conglomerates, the procurement executives, the new bookstore chains, and the new breed of American book consumers'' have worked ``like a pincer movement to narrow the scope and prospects of literary publishing.''

Solotaroff is referring to the explosion of mergers and acquisitions that struck the industry in the '60s and '70s; but the beat goes on in the swapping and buying of publishing companies. The game has, in fact, become international, as companies like West Germany's Bartelsmann, which bought Doubleday last year, made big-time deals. Harper & Row itself got swept up in the phenomenon. Rupert Murdoch bought the company for $300 million in March. Then, early last month, a British book company, controlled in part by Mr. Murdoch, made a conditional agreement to acquire 50 percent interest.

Swiveling in his chair, a wall of high-rises outside the window behind him, Solotaroff claims that merger mania has caused a ``tremendous disruption of the publishing business.'' He maintains that big corporations have ``destabilized virtually everything they've touched.''

The sweep of mergers in book publishing has led, he says, to a revolving-door mentality of writers and editors, who no longer cherish loyalty to one another or to the houses that first published them. And it has brought about a marketplace mentality, driven by the thrill-of-the-month-club style of publishing, in which fashion rules and authors' reputations go up and down like hemlines.

``Right now, we're in the middle of a feeding frenzy on yuppie fiction, brat-pack fiction,'' he says. ``It's sort of like sun-dried tomatoes as the food of choice. What is getting attention? Right now, this kind of fiction by people in their 20s is in vogue. Last year, it was the revival of the short story.''

The quick turnaround in styles plays havoc with ``the slow accumulation of a reputation, like Saul Bellow's,'' he says, adding that as such talents grow they accumulate ``a kind of solidity.'' All of which is made ``difficult today, because ... there just isn't the interest in building careers anymore.''

Solotaroff has built his career, and matured his ideas, over several decades - in publishing and earlier in the young-man-as-an-artist search for his own voice, writing stories while trying to fashion a literary life for himself.

He wears these years well, deeply tanned from the tennis courts of summer, sloe-eyed, thoughtful, quiet.

He wonders how the fresh young talent needed to feed the streams of publishing will make their way. They face, he says, ``a new generation of problems.'' He and his contemporaries worry that apprenticeship and the accumulation of professional skills seem to have disappeared from the business. ``Of course, there are good young editors. But they are not motivated, trained, supported in the way we were 20 or 30 years ago.''

``Gary Fisketjon is an exception,'' he adds, referring to the hot young editor who streaked out of Random House into the chief editorship of the Atlantic Monthly Press in a few years, somehow acquiring a soup-to-nuts education about the business in the process.

He spins off a string of young editors' names from various houses - Jonathan Gelassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Bobbi Bristol and Lee Goerner of Knopf, Arthur Samuelson and Rick Kot with Harper & Row, and Jerry Howard at Viking - pointing to them as promising blue-pencil wielders. But he worries that they will not be given the background in the myriad details of publishing that makes an editor the author's (and the reader's) omnibus advocate in every phase of crafting a book.

It is this crafting, and the care about what a book means, that he feels is getting lost in the rush to hustle titles through the stores.

Even in this rush, Solotaroff still hears some voices that make him want to listen for the future - most of them coming out of the university presses, small independent presses, and small imprints within larger houses. And he still holds out feelings of hope.

``America has this tremendous ability to surprise you. It's nice to remember how quickly things changed in the '60s,'' he says, referring to a time when, he feels, an explosion of new talent burst on the publishing scene. ``I still think that potential is there.''

And there is, he maintains, good reason to keep on.

``I'm always one for keeping the enterprise going,'' he says. ``Because I think they're going to come back.... Somebody's got to insist on doing this - and persist in doing it, too.''

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