Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old — a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea — to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style.
Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism.
1. She Is a Cautionary Tale
Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.
2. She Was Right About The New Yorker — Before She Was Wrong
Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?”
Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today — a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age?
3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished
Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse — to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books.
In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s:
[T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false.
“Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons — for whom Adler also has no great regard — was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity.
The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives — which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials — is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, 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 requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure.
“Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally — and this has served her well and at times not so well — her capacity for indignation.
Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold — if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway?
One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great.
4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One
Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now.
I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission — some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it.
And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf — and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove.
This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda — that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended:
Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment — the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant.
5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics
Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard — qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose.
6. Her Work Was Made to Last
Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times’s handling of the Jayson Blair affair:
[T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon — a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform.
In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them.
“After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.