After the Tall Timber review: Renata Adler returns

America’s most unyielding critic of art, poltics and journalism comes in from the cold with a superb collection of nonfiction, writes Molly McCloskey

Sat, May 2, 2015, 12:07


Book Title:
After the Tall Timber


Renata Adler

New York Review Books

Guideline Price:

It is rare for a writer, or perhaps for anyone, to peak twice in life. Renata Adler, now in her 70s, made it big when she was young and then vanished.

And Adler didn’t fade from view because of changing fashion. It wasn’t, as Michael Wolff notes in the preface to her collected nonfiction, money, drugs or Hollywood that threw Adler’s career of course. It was, instead, not being able to keep silent, and the shunning she suffered as a result shows that “even serious writing is harshly proscribed, that the literary life has its hard rules, that politics must be carefully played, that renegades – and, no doubt, especially women renegades – who go past an undrawn line are cast out”.

Before she was cast out Adler could hardly have been more in. Born in Milan in 1938 to parents fleeing Nazi Germany, she was raised in Connecticut and took degrees from Bryn Mawr, Harvard, the Sorbonne and Yale Law School. In her mid 20s she joined the staff of the New Yorker, where she spent the 1960s covering the civil-rights movement and reporting from the Six Day War, Vietnam and Biafra.

In 1968 Adler was the first woman to become a film critic at the New York Times – a job so desirable that an ad for a department store read, “Some people think Renata Adler’s job is like being paid to eat bonbons.”

She published two highly acclaimed novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983). She was photographed by Richard Avedon, looking lithely beautiful.

But then came trouble, that inability to keep silent – or to keep silent about certain people. “I never attacked anyone weak,” Adler said in a 2012 interview. “Only bullies, secure in their courts, bureaucracies, fiefdoms. Fear didn’t come into it. Maybe it should have.”

Attack on Kael

In 1980, while still writing for the New Yorker, Adler published a takedown of Pauline Kael, the magazine’s powerful film critic, in the New York Review of Books. With lawyerly meticulousness, she charted Kael’s decline from a young freelance critic of unmatched “energy and good sense” to one of “protracted, obsessional invective” and wrote that Kael had altered criticism “astonishingly for the worse”.

In 1986 came Reckless Disregard, in which Adler lambasted CBS and Time magazine for irresponsible and dishonest work. In 1999 Adler published Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, in which she chronicled the decline of the magazine. It famously began: ‘As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.’ The New York Times published several negative articles about this “irritable little book” and questioned Adler’s ethics.

With her principle professional relationships unsurprisingly soured, Adler retreated to Newtown, Connecticut, and went largely silent. Now it is as though some statute of limitations on her offences has run out. In 2013 the NYRB reissued Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and it has now published After the Tall Timber. Interviews and appearances abound. A laudatory piece by Meghan O’Rourke appeared in the New Yorker titled “Welcome Back, Renata Adler”.

A new generation is thrilling to her fiction, which is compressed, lyrical, elliptical, jagged. The novels have the pressure, the sense of necessity, that great nonfiction can have and that novels mostly lack. They are autobiographical works that feel contemporary in their form and tone, despite being clear expressions and reflections of their time – the fragmentation of certainties, the dismantling of sense that was the 1960s and ’70s.

After the Tall Timber contains Adler’s journalism from the mid- 1960s to 2003. There are pieces drawn from Toward a Radical Middle (her early New Yorker work), A Year in the Dark (film reviews) and Canaries in the Mineshaft (writings on misrepresentation, coercion and abuse of public processes, and the journalist’s part in it).

These analytical pieces address some of the major American events of recent decades, such as Watergate, the Starr report on Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v Gore, and the decline of serious journalism, especially in the New York Times. (“The enterprise, whatever else it is, has almost ceased altogether to be a newspaper. It is still a habit.”)

Centrist politics

One of the pleasures of reading Adler is that she is far less predictable than most journalists. She championed centrism and never embraced the orthodoxy of the Left (in the early 1960s she was a “liberal Republican”). She has written sympathetically of G Gordon Liddy and accused Watergate judge John Sirica of incompetence, corruption, and “clear ties to organized crime”.

She has written unflatteringly of Bob Woodward, who, with Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate story: it was Woodward who produced “the noumenal encounter” between the anonymous source and the young reporter, upon which “a religion was born, which has grown to affect not just journalism but the entire culture”. (And by “affect”, Adler doesn’t mean improve.)

In 1969, she described American radicalism as one of “rhetoric, theater, mannerism, psychodrama”, which viewed “every human problem at a single level of atrocity”.

And so on. But Adler appears to take no obvious satisfaction in flaying her subjects. It is simply what you do, you get the story straight. She marshals the evidence, and her attention to detail is obsessive.

Apart from an earnest indignation, this isn’t emotional writing. “I particularly detested, and detest, the ‘new journalism’,” she writes. And indeed, her work is largely free of personality. The personal is saved for the fiction.

The return to print of Adler’s work is great news. Hers has been one of the odder instances of the writing life, and the determination with which she seemed to make inevitable her banishment from New York literary circles is rather fascinating.

Wolff writes of her prose that it is some of the most brutal ever directed at journalism: “It exists in service to itself, as its own standard, as its own force, and not in support of political or commercial positions.” One wonders if there was also something else at work, conscious or not, in Adler’s trajectory.

In her Kael piece, which is also about the dangers of writing criticism under constant deadlines, Adler says: “A voice that may have seemed, sometimes, true and iconoclastic when it was outside can become, with institutional support, vain, overbearing, foolish, hysterical.” What one gets in place of quiet authority is “the somewhat violent spectacle of a minor celebrity in frenzy”.

Renata Adler recused herself, rather dramatically, from institutional support, and thus perhaps from a similar fate.

Molly McCloskey’s memoir, Circles Around the Sun, is published in paperback by Penguin