A Dissident Writer in Modern America

Has Renata Adler's genuine radicalism resulted in her being silenced?

After the Tall Timber by Renata Adler. New York Review of Books. 528 pages.

NEAR THE END OF NYRB Classics’ new assemblage of Renata Adler’s nonfiction, in an essay entitled “Irreparable Harm,” Adler writes,

Not infrequently, an event so radical that it alters everything appears for a time to have had no effect, or even not to have occurred. This is true in personal as in public life. A loss, a flood, a medical diagnosis, a rolling of tanks toward the statehouse — life goes on apparently as usual.

It’s difficult to encounter these words without wondering, at least for a moment, whether they do apply to Adler’s personal life, whether she has suffered such a leveling event herself. Her relatively long silence (with the exception of a few short epilogues, and a brief 2015 preamble to her infamous 1980 piece on Pauline Kael, “House Critic,” the most recent work here dates to 2003), her enigmatic profile, the semi-quiet reissue of her two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark a few years ago (“semi-quiet” because they were neither accompanied by the announcement of any new fiction nor by the sort of magazine coverage that might have followed comparable generational talents, a Paula Fox or a Shirley Hazzard, say) — all these things conspire to frame the question: What’s happened to Renata Adler? Where has she gone, and why hasn’t her return — to the extent that it is one — been trumpeted from the hills?

It’s depressing to ask, and more depressing to answer; but the answer is so entwined with the contents of After The Tall Timber it would be irresponsible not to try. Adler is a great American writer. In a just world — and one can hear her sniggering at the phrase with that peculiar combination of genuine mirth and clarifying outrage that marks her own tone completely — her writing would be valorized as wholly as Didion’s or DeLillo’s or Pynchon’s could ever be. These are all fair points of comparison, but they are also equally misleading. Adler carves her own large outline — the political pieces in this collection range from the Civil Rights marches in Selma to Biafra to Watergate to Kenneth Starr, and in their ranginess and depth (though thankfully never, ever in their self-mythologizing) might be contrasted only with Norman Mailer’s better work in this category — but at the same time, it’s her own relentless and absolute skepticism that causes her to reject such contours. One gets the sense Adler is never satisfied: not with her work, not (or rarely) with the editors she is assigned, certainly never — and I mean never — with the institutions behind them. This may have rendered her brief stint as The New York Times’ daily film reviewer untenable — Adler was a terrible critic, with no particular feeling for cinema (although the introduction to A Year in the Dark, included here, makes for a fascinating study of writerly ambivalence) — and it may, one guesses, make Adler’s writing life difficult, if not flat out hellish, but to readers it is a colossal gift. Where Adler rightly scorns the New Journalists who were her peers (“we were starting to get, in what looked like quite respectable contexts, a new variant of sensational or yellow journalism […] the news or some distortion of the news, as entertainment”), she also scorns — and cheerfully excoriates — her own employers and colleagues alike. Consider her clear-eyed demolition of The New York Times in the most recent piece in the collection, “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” which takes them to task over their disingenuous institutional mea culpas over Jayson Blair — and over the trifling nature of their “Corrections,” in general — before highlighting their ruinous coverage of Wen Ho Lee. Or her quarrel with The New Yorker (which earned an entire book of its own — Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker — here recapped briefly at the beginning of the essay “A Court of No Appeal”), of Kael and Bob Woodward, all of which make for bracing, and quite frankly delicious, reading, but at the same time go a long way to explaining her disappearance.

“Disappearance.” It is perhaps the wrong word for someone who is still alive and practicing, but I choose it for its sinister connotation. Michael Wolff, in a broadly on-point but flecked-with-howlers introduction, seems to indicate that Adler was simply blackballed. Describing a 1980s party hosted by “publishing myrmidons of frightening standing and lockstep opinions,” Wolff claims to have intruded upon a conversation in which Adler’s name elicited the remark, “Something must be done.” However cartoonish this depiction, it seems essentially correct. And whether Adler simply attacked the wrong people, or was cursed with a self-negating streak (Wolff describes her in terms of “muddled fear and vulnerability […] ever in need of protection”), or both, as seems more likely, the fact remains that her marginalization stems directly from institutional hostility and cultural sexism. (Norman Mailer was a much bigger bully, given to pick still larger fights, and no one ever dismissed him as merely shrill.) What’s so stunning about After the Tall Timber, however, isn’t just Adler’s ferocity or her fearlessness — one gets the sense that it isn’t “fearlessness” so much as a simple ethical stance that won’t bend to anything — but rather how plain it becomes that there’s a cost to speaking truth to power. Especially when the “power” that’s being addressed isn’t just the them of a GOP or a Wall Street; rather, Adler trains her intelligence and her wit on the ostensibly free press that is supposed to be checking — or, at least, exposing — those systems and their abuses. The effort wins her few friends (or maybe just few who’ll go on the record) but it also left me feeling a bit like she’s our Solzhenitsyn; someone whose genuine radicalism, despite her defining herself as a “liberal Republican,” has resulted in her being silenced.

Or not — because what’s most exhilarating about reading After the Tall Timber is, as it has always been, Adler’s wit; the stinging exactitude of both her sentences and her aim, along with the feeling that it is still possible — in America! in 2015! — to be a dissident writer. The idea that being a novelist, or a nonfiction writer — a writer of any narrative content whatever — is fundamentally a mug’s game has truly seeped into the literary world’s consciousness, if there even exists such a world. One gets the sense, often, that writers are simply propping one another up, that if the novel or the poem or the short story or the memoir isn’t as dead as this or that broadside from Philip Roth or Will Self or David Shields — himself an Adler enthusiast — likes to claim, then it can at least be summed up in a listicle. In this dismal and hopelessly false literary climate, which is forever undermining the actual errand of literature by pretending that the attention paid to it is the sole or accurate measure of its value, After the Tall Timber is, to put it mildly, an irresistible corrective. In its way, the book is an equivalent (how ideal is its title, in this respect) of the proverbial tree falling in a forest. The sound it makes is both piercingly private and roundly political, fully public in its implication. One ignores a book like this not just at one’s own peril, but at the peril of the Republic as well.

Strong words, I guess. It feels vaguely ridiculous to write them, but then, ridiculousness is also Adler’s metier. Her ability to skewer it is fantastic. One summation of her disdain for the Times comes at the beginning of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing” when she quotes its publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.: “There’s no complacency here. Never has been. Never will be.” As Adler deliciously notes, such is “a perfect example of the self-refuting sentence. In its underlying idiocy and limitless self-regard it also manages to embody, and project through time, a virtual definition of the word “complacency.” Elsewhere, she describes occupying Bosley Crowther’s abandoned office and trying to remove the words “Movie News” off the door — presumably recognizing something absurd, even tautological, about the coupling. “The letters had always looked unseemly to me. I tried to slide them around into Movie Snew, but that didn’t work, and I finally removed them together and felt fine.” In a way, After the Tall Timber traces a fairly simple arc, from straightforward, respectfully reported New Yorker pieces like “The March for Non-Violence From Selma” and “Fly Trans-Love Airways” (an oddly square-seeming piece from 1967 about teenagers on the Sunset Strip; as it appeared in Toward a Radical Middle, the essay made the mistake of referring to the band “the Love;” here, the error has been corrected and the definite article removed, but the piece retains its air of slightly fuddled remoteness, of viewing its specimens through a thick glass), to the more prosecutorial positions taken over the later few decades. As Adler puts it herself in her introduction to Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001):

At the time of the Vietnam War, it could be argued that the press had become too reflexively adversarial and skeptical of the policies of government. Now I believe the reverse is true […] the press itself has become a bureaucracy, quasi-governmental, and, far from calling attention to the collapse of public process […] it has become an instrument of intimidation, an instrumentality even of the police function of the state.

These are heavy charges, particularly coming from someone accusing the Vietnam-era press — complicit enough in its own way — of “reflexive” skepticism. And so it’s worth wondering whether Adler isn’t a crank, whether her at-times patronizing critics and defenders (“Oh, Renata, she’s just impossible”) aren’t rather on to something. It’d be so easy — it certainly wouldn’t require choking down so many giant-sized horse pills and unpalatable revelations — if she were simply overstating things; if she were herself being “reflexively adversarial.” Only …

Well, no. Adler’s not walking out on any frail limbs here, not wearing any tinfoil hats. “Irreparable Harm,” her bracing essay about the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore isn’t bracing because it tells us the election was stolen — we already know that — but rather because it frames that theft in such expressly judicial terms. She’s not coming at this like a polemicist (she’s not Matt Taibi) but rather as someone with a law degree from Yale. (Adler attended Yale in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and it’s tempting to suggest the more aggressive mode of her later writing grew from this experience, but she began writing speeches for the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry during the Watergate era, even before she wrote Speedboat[1].) Adler quotes the court’s per curiam and then Justice Scalia’s concurrence before rearing back and using Scalia’s own words, his dissent in 1988’s Morrison v. Olson, which upheld as constitutional the office of independent counsel, to demolish his later argument. Her concern isn’t the theft of an election — “[Bush] would have become president in any case,” she notes, pointing out that the hand count would’ve had to be certified either by Congress or, more probably, by Florida’s Governor — Jeb Bush — but rather what she perceives as a judicial coup by the Rehnquist court. “It is not enough to say this is the most lawless decision in the history of the [Supreme] Court,” she writes. “The Court, even when it acts on a lawless basis, is beyond appeal. Our system provides for the lower courts no equivalent of civil disobedience …” This, Adler notes, is the real meaning of the Court’s ruling, the sort of long-term damage that cannot be walked back. Of course, 15 years later, we’re hardly thinking about that ruling (that lull, that pause in which “life goes on apparently as usual” may be lasting longer than we thought — or else that crisis has simply been superseded by a series that seems more urgent, despite the fact every subsequent crisis — the Islamic State, our presences in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. — stems directly from this one), so why revisit it? Surely we have better things to do? 

One looks to the book’s conclusion, to its final words, to be reminded that we do not. Adler circles back around to Arthur Sulzberger’s complacent words on the matter of Jayson Blair. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives,” Sulzberger begins, before serving up the bad apple/lone gunman excuse that recurs, over and over and over again, throughout our recent history — “this was a bad man doing bad things” — then offers a mild riposte, the sort of firm but reasonable observation with which this book is studded, a plea for better gatekeepers. “What is needed is the return of someone who would want to be remembered for having kept the paper straight.” Indeed. Adler herself, for all the “ferocity” attributed to her even in the book’s introduction, is simply pointing out any number of things that are barely hidden, or at least aren’t hidden well. She herself, far from being a scourge, is simply doing her job. She was, and is after all, a reporter. One looks out into the world at her detractors — “She’s hiding under the guise of memoir and trying to rewrite history,” one off-the-record pundit remarked of her New Yorker book, Gone[2] — and starts to see a bit of kettle black-ism, a certain amount of self-protection. In any case, we’re more than lucky to have the pieces in After the Tall Timber returned to us. To read them seems wiser, and infinitely more pleasurable, than opting to remain in the dark.


[1] “The Quirky Brilliance of Renata Adler,” New York magazine, December 12, 1983

[2] “Renata Adler is Making Enemies Again,” The New York Times, January 16, 2000


Matthew Specktor’s latest novel is American Dream Machine.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesHarper’s, the Paris ReviewTin House, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has recently been at work adapting American Dream Machine for FX Networks.


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