The Great Books by Renata Adler

9 Jul
Renata Adler( circa 2000 photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Renata Adler( circa 2000 photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Now that New York Review Books has republished/reprinted Renata Adler’s hugely admired novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark The New Yorker with which Adler had a famously tortured break up has seen fit to smile brightly on Adler in a piece called Welcome Back Renata Adler. Megan O’Rourke effuses

What is amazing about Adler’s novels is the way that they integrate cultural analysis with telling details of social nuance. “Speedboat,” like “Pitch Dark,” has just been republished by NYRB Classics, after years of being passed along to new readers like samizdat pamphlets. Both novels have more in common with the New Novel than with the thrillers that Adler has said she loves. Both are written in a “discontinuous first-person” (in Muriel Spark’s phrase) that cumulatively conveys what it is like to be a female intellectual in the world of publishing in the nineteen-seventies. These are not works of realism—they have a dreamlike quality— but they contain as much reality as a Balzac novel does. It’s just that their reality is incantatory, sparse, periodically blazing, and not a little self-consciously neurotic.

I was privileged to engage Renata Adler in a delightful conversation upon the occasion of the publication of her 2001 essay anthology Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media (St Martin’s Press) which includes her still controversial review of Pauline Kaelpieces and topics including the real impeachable crime by Richard Nixon, genocide in Biafra, the shameful treatment of Wen Ho Lee by the New York Times, G. Gordon Liddy’s 1979 book tour and the Sirica controversy that was ignited by one line in her New Yorker memoir, Gone. and a bleak and righteous assessment of newspaper journalism, Adler points out:

Almost all of the pieces in this book have to do, one way or another, with what I regard as misrepresentation, coercion, and abuse of public process and, to a degree, the journalists’ role in it.

Of course, our conversation also dealt with her own travails and dishonorable treatment by various careerist journalists.

Adler also reveals:

RB:…Have you published any fiction since the early ‘80s?

RA: No, but you know I am not a very prolific—well, I am certainly not a very prolific published writer. If I had a boarding house and family of 12, it would be, “She also has this hobby, she also writes.” I don’t publish that much. But fiction, no, I hadn’t given up fiction. There just started to be such tensions within—how to put it, it sounds so parochial—within the New Yorker with respect to my writing and me with everything that uh [pause] I stopped, not so much writing fiction, but publishing fiction. But it’s what I care about. It’s what I really do care about. And this other stuff, of course, I do care about, too, but in another way. In a completely other way. But politics or reporting of any kind, particularly now—you must run across this all the time. You can’t, whether you are on the left or on the right, you can’t choose some from Group A and some from Group B, you either have these solid positions in this column over here or you have these solid positions in this column over there. Or you’re really in trouble.

With the recent resurrection of her two novels, Ms Adler has once again become a juicy subject for newspaper journalists. A fairly elucidating profile appears in Britain’s Guardian

Once upon a time, Renata Adler, who could not look awful even if she tried, was very famous and very cool: “Lena Dunham many times over,” as her friend, the writer Michael Wolff, puts it. A big name at the New Yorker in the days when that magazine was (to quote him again) as unmissable as HBO is now, and the author of two critically acclaimed modernist novels – Speedboat was published in 1976 and Pitch Dark in 1983 – she might have been Joan Didion’s younger and slightly more pugnacious sister (Adler was born in 1938, four years after Didion). Clever, beautiful, opiniated and ever watchful, she was a meteor: dazzling and unstoppable. Everyone wanted her, even Richard Avedon, who photographed her in 1978, and made her look every bit as charismatic and sexy as Katharine Hepburn. (Not that she sees it that way. “I look like a terrorist,” she says. “Or at least, like a hijacker, and they were the only terrorists in those days.” A pause. “He [Avedon] had gone from fashion to freaks.” Another pause. “I seemed to be the first in his freak series.”)

Asked if the response to Gone her New Yorker memoir was due to her gender (the interviewer notes “men can be utterly vile in print and get away with it, whereas a woman has only to speak her mind to be considered a bitch. After all, the journalist James Wolcott has mightily slagged off Adam Gopnik and he is still in work.”) Adler responds

I think that’s absolutely right. Shrill. I’ve been described as shrill. Isn’t that strange? When feminism began, I thought: well, it hasn’t been a problem for me, being a woman. But now I look back and I notice…

The money graf for Adler admirers offers:

She is thrilled about the return to print of her novels – “It’s all you can hope for as a writer, though they may still be terrible in some way I hadn’t suspected” – and has a third ready to be sent to her agent.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Currently reading Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)

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