April 2013

Guy Cunningham


An Interview with Renata Adler

Renata Adler has covered so much ground as a writer that it is probably a mistake to single out just one or two "defining works." After all, she spent three decades as a prominent staff writer for The New Yorker, she was once the lead movie critic for the New York Times, and has authored a number of important works of long-form nonfiction, including the widely-praised Reckless Disregard. Even so, the re-publication of her two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), is a significant event.

Both books have earned sizable cult followings over the years, and were important influences on Elizabeth Hardwick, David Foster Wallace, and David Shields, among others. Speedboat is perhaps the most important example of fragmentary writing in the last several decades -- instead of telling a linear story, it relates a series of images, anecdotes, conversations, and short bursts of text, all centered around a young journalist named Jen Fain. Pitch Dark is only slightly less fragmentary: the ostensible love story at its core is told mostly through snatches of conversations, and the book itself goes through a number of apparent false starts. Despite Adler's radical technique, however, both books are quite accessible, owing mainly to her deft use of language -- which once prompted John Leonard to declare, "Nobody writes better prose than Renata Adler."

I had an opportunity to speak to Adler -- who turns out to be both very approachable and very gracious -- at a small café in New York's Greenwich Village.

One of the things I'm curious about is, with Speedboat and Pitch Dark coming back out now, have you read them again?

Yes. And I hadn't really expected to. I never usually read stuff after it's published. Ever. But here there was some proofreading and stuff like that.

What is that experience like, reading something you wrote a while ago? Do you still recognize it as yours? Do you remember it?

Oh yeah. The very strange question that arises, since I'm writing now, is whether I have used something before. Which probably arises for writers all the time. It's like in a conversation, you think, "Have I just said what I'm saying now five minutes ago?" And so, that was interesting check. It turned out, no, I had not. Unless I didn't notice. (Laughs) But I remember it. I do.

Looking at them now, do they seem like part of a similar project? Do they seem related?

They're not the same project, but they're not two separate novels, either. They're different. There's more clearly a feeling in Pitch Dark than there is in Speedboat.

The question is, in a way, what's the unit of what you're writing? And for some, what I would call modernist -- no matter how defined -- writers, the unit is the form and the whole. For me the unit has never been the form and the whole. For me, the unit tends to be the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the section. But then, the consciousness of the whole is there in real life. I care about people -- I care about the people in my life. But how to do that in fiction without resorting to stuff that I don't want to do, or know how to do.

Are you thinking of that when you're writing?

Never. No. It's funny, I've only been thinking about it after. "Why did I not do it this other way?" And there are reasons I didn't do it that other way. But one doesn't want to lose too much to those reasons. But I would never write nonfiction this way. Although, theoretically, why not? You could say, "Over here we have this happening, and over here we have this happening, and by the way I'm interested in this. And this is also true." Maybe there's nonfiction like that, but I don't want to write it. I don't despise it. I just don't want to do it. I wouldn't want to do it or know how to do it.

One of the things that strikes me about the books is their form. Both of them are fragmentary -- Speedboat especially is very fragmentary -- and that feels very contemporary to me.

The intention was never to be fragmentary. That's how it came out. But there was never the intent to be fragmentary. You suddenly think, "Wait a minute, this is doing this, let's stop that."

One wants -- one has a right in a way -- to lose oneself in fiction. So one doesn't want to be brought up short all the time. And then there's another thing that I seem to do, which is try to put a little essay in there. It's there because it matters to me. One thing that occurs to me is that plot and momentum and feeling may not have to do with story as we think of it. That is, a sentence may have a plot, a paragraph may have a plot, a cadence may have a plot. And there are other intensities than, say, suspense.

But then, why should people care? And some people don't. We can all tell them in a John le Carré novel -- which I love -- why they should care that Smiley should win and Karla should lose. And if it's Harry Potter, we can tell them why you should care that this happens and not this. Those effects are incredibly valuable, and you don't want to lose, let alone renounce them. What then? For example, if I happen to be reading, just take an absurd example -- Anna Karenina -- do I not wish that she would not throw herself on the track? I'd much prefer that she not. Yet I know that she will, because she does.

You might think that one invariably cares more about real life than what's in fiction, but I think that maybe it isn't really so. Particularly with public things like teams -- you may have a favorite team and you'd rather they'd won than that they'd lost. And you may care a lot about that. And some people care enormously about that. And some people seem to care what happens to this celebrity or that. They may feel very strongly about having this happen or that happen. And that's real life. But do I care more about a particular character in fiction? I do. So that particular magic, in fiction, one doesn't want to lose it. One doesn't want to forgo it. On the other hand, one doesn't want to have it too easy.

Do you ever think about your fiction's relationship to poetry? Because I feel like a lot of poets do a similar thing -- where all of the drama is in the verse, and all of it comes out of the words.

As it is in music, often. Not so much in Bartók as in something with a clear melody. You get the string quartets and you're going to be moved. I don't get that in Bartók, and I don't get that post-Bartók. I might get that in another way from country and western. If I turn on my car radio, I don't want to hear a lot of dissonance. So it's very tricky, that, and how to do that in fiction. In an essay, you can see where there's static. And you can see where there's padding. In fiction it's very hard. Because if you cut away the padding, you may be left with just static.

It seems, in modernism especially, there are people who sort of make the static into part of the text. Like Beckett. I love Beckett, and Beckett in a lot of ways is able to use static.

That's fascinating. And it's absolutely true. And the only thing is, I really don't want static. I admire somebody who can use static. But if somebody says, "Turn that off, that's static" -- that's convincing to me.

Both of the books feel very "New York," especially Speedboat. For example, the sequence about the man stealing the other man's New York Times is just very New York to me.

There are some things that are written as a roman ŕ clef, and there some things that are roman ŕ clef and you don't want it to be. Some of it was real. That was, in fact, real. Some of it looks crazily absurd, and it was real, but people would say, "You have the freedom to make up different types of things, but this is going to far." So that's a very strange line.

Do you feel like there's a little more bleed now between fiction and nonfiction than there used to be?

I don't see that there could be much of what you call a bleed between the two. I would call that confusion. I don't understand it.

There are people who see Speedboat in particular as something that toes the line between fiction and nonfiction. At least they've wanted to. Do you think that that's mistaken?

If it turns out to resemble fact, well, that's not that the line is thin, is it? I don't know why, but I keep coming back lately in my head to Henry James and The Princess Casamassima. I wonder how he knew what he knows, and I wonder how he was prescient about a certain kind of political reality. It's just stunning to me. That said, it's not factual. It has nothing to do with whether it's factually true. I mean, if you put a factchecker on it, where are you? Fiction is a different animal. That's the thing. In a reporting piece you want to inform people of something, perhaps, "This is what happened, here's how it was -- these are facts." In an essay, you might want to persuade people of something, or get them interested in something. There are certain objects to an essay. But still -- is it true, is it fair, what can be said on the other side, all that -- all these considerations that do arise or do not arise. Some are irreducible.

Have you ever thought of returning to the novel, and putting out another novel?

Yes. I think I've finished something now. We'll see. We'll see.

Is it along the same lines, or is it very different?

It may be. It's hard for me to tell. But I guess I think of it as the third of three. But that doesn't really tell me anything, because when I wrote Speedboat, I wasn't thinking of it as the first of two or the first of three or anything, and when I wrote Pitch Dark I wasn't thinking of it as the second of two or the second of anything. But it's not incompatible with the other two, unless they're incompatible with each other.

One of the things I like about Speedboat is that it does something that you couldn't do in another medium.

That's a nice thing to say.

I remember Philip Roth, a couple of years ago, talking about the novel trying to compete with the screen, and the thought the novel wasn't doing a very good job of it -- and in a way, couldn't. I was wondering if you think that's true. Are the two in competition?

It's funny, because in film you have all these things like music -- which is tremendously important to me in a movie -- to tell you what you're supposed to feel. And it works. If the music says, "You're supposed to cry now," I probably will. In a novel, those effects are very, very difficult.

Do you think people are more credulous when they get factual information from a film? Do they hold films to a different standard?

Well, I don't know. That's a hard one, isn't it? Movies don't come into it so much for me. I think the whole consciousness of what is accurate and what is not has been terribly affected by failures of the press.

If people will watch a movie that might be well researched, but it's not history, say, Steven Spielberg's film about Lincoln, do you think it's a failure of the press?

No, I think that's a separate thing, because they're not pretending to be documentaries, are they? I think the problems for fiction and movies are a whole other question. I never even thought until this minute about the problem of nonfiction and movies.

I wanted to talk about journalism. I was rereading an old interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently, and he said: "I've always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist."

That's fascinating. And that surprises me. It's interesting you bring him up. It took me a long time to come around to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It came from two unlikely sources that I realized that I had to read it. And as happens to me quite frequently, I would get to page 150, say, and couldn't go another page. I didn't know what it was... And then I got it. And I thought it was the masterpiece of our lifetime. So there it is. And there were some things that still bothered me about it, but it was a masterpiece. So then, I started reading other books of his, and I couldn't see it. So, one masterpiece is enough.

I wanted to ask you about it, because your approach in fiction and nonfiction is (or at least seems) very different. Do you think of them as being... I don't want to say different sides of what you do, but are they related?

Completely unrelated. The demands are very tight if I'm writing a reporting piece. The minute you say, "This is fiction," that changes completely the rules. And in nonfiction, the rules are relatively clear to me. Not that I don't work very hard at it and change a lot, but I would say to myself, "It's very important that this be true, that this be fair." You can't really say that in fiction. The logic of nonfiction is so different.

A certain kind of reporting piece is where you're out there in the field and you say, "This happened, and then this happened, and than that happened. These are the good guys and these are the bad guys" -- perhaps, if you're lucky, if the story breaks that way. So that's a sort of given form that's chronological. And then there's another kind that borders on the essay, where you say, "Look, this is what I've found in these documents." So that's another kind of reporting.

For example, Janet Malcolm, who is just spectacular as an essayist, and as a reporter. And the ethics are so high. An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else. And that's happened with at least three pieces of Janet's. Where I thought, "This is just absolutely brilliant. And somehow, on the basis of what you've written here, here's what I think really happened." I don't know of any writer for whom that is true, except for Janet.

Is it because she lays out everything so clearly? Or are you arguing back against her?

No, no, no. When Janet was quoting, the quotations were so true and so right that I said, "Wait..." But I don't want this to seem trivial or like gossip, or anything. Because this means a lot to me. It's the way Janet reports, it just seems to me... just wonderful. There are other reporters I admire, but there's nobody I can think of that has that gift for that uncanny truth.

What's your take on journalism, as it exists now? It changes a lot, because newspapers are struggling, and you have blogs, and more alternative news outlets springing up.

I've deeply believed for a long time in the decline of the press, the ascendance of power and the decline of quality. But this has nothing to do with the Internet. It has been one of the most serious issues in our time, for this country. But that's a whole thing.