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The return of Renata Adler, with After the Tall Timber: “Perhaps the obvious question to ask about Adler’s career is why did it disappear? Was she really shut out by a literary and journalistic establishment or did her work simply fall from favour?”
In a conversation with a journalist from the New York Times in 1999 Renata Adler asked the paper’s representative whether she worried “that much about reputation”. “Of course we do,” the paper responded in its subsequent editorial. “And so should she.” The background to this exchange is dealt with by Adler herself in an essay collected here and entitled “A Court of No Appeal”. In the briefest of summaries, Adler published a memoir, Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, in which – in a single sentence – she questioned the illustrious moral record of John Sirica (the prosecuting Judge at Watergate). In the ensuing dispute the Times printed some ten articles in response to Adler’s book directed at Adler’s reputation as a journalist, Adler in turn published her essay, along with a later addendum, directed at the reputation of the New York Times. The reputations at stake in this instance are those of journalistic validity. Yet, with the arrival this year of After the Tall Timber, the first collection of Renata Adler’s non-fiction to span her forty or so year writing career, alongside the republication of her two novels in 2013 after several years out of print, Adler’s own reputation as a journalist, novelist and above all writer cannot help but be considered.
The facts of Adler’s remarkable writing career are both well established and fascinating. She was born in 1938 in Milan to parents fleeing Nazi Germany. Raised in Connecticut, she studied at Bryn Mawr, Harvard and the Sorbonne, before in 1963 she began work as a staff writer at the New Yorker. In America she covers Selma in 1965, a Black Power march in Mississippi in ’66 and the sunset strip in ’67; abroad she covers conflict in Israel and Biafra (all of which are collected in this volume). In 1968 she spends just over a year as a film critic at the New York Times. In the seventies she ups her game further. In 1974 she worked with the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry. In 1976 she published her first novel, Speedboat, whose wry intelligent protagonist Jen Fain and spellbinding prose creates a unique negotiation of 1970s America. Then, at the height of her fame, following the infamous photo portraits by Richard Avedon, she enrols at Yale Law School. By the 1980s she has a law degree and a second novel, Pitch Dark, which follows the flight and turmoil of Kate Ennis as she calls time on an affair with a married man. Then, after twenty years of fervent activity and literary and journalistic success everything stops. Or at least, that is the narrative. In reality Adler continues to publish non-fiction, but as Michael Wolff makes clear in his excellent preface to this collection, while some writer’s careers flounder because they fall into silence, Adler’s career goes “astray…primarily for not being able to keep her silence”/ There were already rumblings of her ability to court controversy. Her decision to quit the New York Times after roughly a year is generally considered to be a bad career move. Her 1980 evisceration of the New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael (also collected here: “House Critic”) is another indication of Adler’s tendency towards combat. Yet, in the aforementioned memoir, Gone, in which she explores what became of the New Yorker after it was sold in 1985 that saw her become toxic. As Woolf notes, on hearing the whispered name “Renata” at a cocktail party: “I literally intruded on a clucking circle of these reproachful men planning their counterattacks against her.” Adler’s publications grew fewer and her novels slipped out of print.
Perhaps the obvious question to ask about Adler’s career is why did it disappear? Was she really shut out by a literary and journalistic establishment or did her work simply fall from favour? The answer is probably, and inevitably, a bit of both. More interesting though, is the question of why in the last couple of years has her work achieved such a renaissance? And why a relatively unknown and perhaps a forgotten author has become something of a cult figure?
The essays collected in the typically beautiful New York Review of Books edition span some forty years worth of Adler’s journalism. The essays are soundly written in prose that never grows turgid. They are also incisive, energetic and above all suspicious. They are suspicious of many things: power relations within the civil rights movement; ’60s bohemia on the sunset strip; certainty in Gaza; Northern white liberalism and Black Power; the post-Watergate treatment of G. Gordon Liddy; the National Guard; post-colonial Nigeria; the role of the daily critic in the arts market place; Pauline Kael; the writing of courts; the Supreme Court; Richard Nixon; the impeachment of Richard Nixon; the Starr report on the conduct of Bill Clinton; The New York Times; the presidential election of George Bush following the court proceedings in Florida.
Adler’s journalistic style differs only marginally from that of her fiction. Her early work in particular delights in anatomically precise description and reported conversation. It should be noted that as well as being a down-on-hands-and-knees field journalist Adler is also determined in the library. One gets the impression from these pieces, that before she writes anything she reads a lot, possibly everything she can find on a subject, so as to be sure to not approach from the blindness of her own ego. The structure of “But Ohio…”, an essay on the National Guard is perhaps typical; small, parallel details of history and reportage stand silently alongside one another, before slowly beginning to communicate. Similarly, “Letters from Biafra,” appears almost plotless at times, oscillating between commentary on the immediate situation in Nigeria, the wider post-colonial history and Adler’s own day-to-day experience as a correspondent.
Read in isolation these pieces are full of research and narrative. There are some shifts in interests and approach – perhaps notably towards an increasing concern with the law and journalism, with a greater preference for written sources than human ones. Yet, for a forty-year career the essays are perhaps better noted for their continuity. In different decades and in different times Adler’s suspicion has remained fairly steady. As she herself states in the introduction to her 2001 collection, Canaries in the Mineshaft: “Almost all of the pieces in this book have to do, in one way or another with what I regard as misrepresentation, coercion, and abuse of public process, and, to a degree, the journalist’s role in it.” More than anything else, this collection of essays is highly suspicious of motive and especially the fallacy that a particular motive might bring with it as truth.
One of the finest examples is her deconstruction of the Starr report, “Decoding the Starr report,” where she finds that within the mammoth case against Bill Clinton, with all its vibrant promise of scandal, there was very little of substance:
“The six volume report… is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganised, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirements of real evidence and constitutional practice.”
Increasingly in these essays, Adler discovers a situation where people – often journalists or lawyers – have shouted long and hard about something that might not quite be the case. This is the case with the Starr report, with Watergate, with G. Gordon Liddy. It is also the case with The New York Times.
On top of their disagreement over the legacy of John Sirica, Adler spends a great deal of time exploring the ways in which the New York Times shouts loud and hard. She has, as it were, two key targets in this exploration: one the introduction of the by-line, after which newspapers ceased to use anonymous reporters to quote known sources and began to use known reporters to quote anonymous sources; and secondly, the use of corrections pages to assure readers of a newspapers commitment to truth. The result of these two shifts has been the development of a journalism more concerned with maintaining a reputation as a trusted source than with actually being a trusted source of information.
There is a sense of injustice felt on reading this collection, not only at the multiple injustices uncovered over forty years by Adler’s meticulous writing, but also over the facts of Adler’s career. The incipient suggestion that the fate of Adler’s writing is in some way the result of her suspicion of the literary and journalistic establishment, that the reason those books fell out of print and her writing out of favour is because she didn’t sit down and worry about her own reputation as the New York Times thought she should but rather kept on looking and kept on shouting. In some senses this is a just response. Yet it is not the only response. For one thing, Adler continued to publish non-fiction throughout the ’90s and ’00s, and this collection comes only eleven years after her last book, Irreparable Harm; for another, because the narrative that Adler’s work has been unjustly marginalised feeds directly into the narrative of its triumphant return.
It is easy and right to think that After the Tall Timber, along with the republication of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, marks the resurgence of Adler’s reputation. The world of literature is a better place for having such novels in print and if more people read these essays, as they certainly should do, then that is also a good thing. But to understand the suspicions of Adler’s writing is to be suspicion of where corrections are made, wherever they come from, however well intended they might be.
The character Don Draper, in the US show Mad Men, regularly tells his advertising clients, that “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This is, by Adler’s reckoning, part of the problem with American journalism: every time someone asks the difficult questions the conversation is changed. It can also be seen in the New York Times’s two reviews to date of this collection, which dismiss Adler’s magniloquent pronouncements and divert their attention to early essays, ultimately arguing: “That there aren’t more pieces like it, in the latter decades of Ms. Adler’s career, is among the reason her fiction is likely to have a longer shelf life.”