May 2015

Brian Nicholson


After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction by Renata Adler

Renata Adler came out early against the idea of celebrity reporters. After having worked at The New York Times as a film critic for a year, she saw the New Journalist's desire to editorialize and be known as stemming from an envy of the relative celebrity of such positions, the first to be given bylines. This, she argues, then distorts the events of the day into a form of entertainment, which leads to a less informed public. Adler's assertion is that the news works best when there are multiple organizations, all well funded, pursuing their own information, that while they may possess their own institutional biases, these would be displayed in such a way that they can be worked through by well-informed readers, who will then come to their own conclusions. This strikes me as easier said than done, but throughout After the Tall Timber, collecting selections from close to forty years of journalism, Adler shows herself as being far more capable of parsing the meaning out of masses of obfuscating noise than most.

One of the best examples of this is her piece from 2000, "A Court of No Appeal," one of the few where the author needs to insert herself into the narrative she's telling to make her point unambiguously. Following the publication of a book authored by Adler, Gone, about the decline of The New Yorker, The New York Times (whose book review was now home to an editor she described in language less than laudatory) printed eight pieces attacking it -- four of which were focused on a single line, where Adler makes casual mention of Judge John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate trial, having ties to organized crime and being a friend of Joe McCarthy. They do not know where she got this information from, and call her asking for a statement. She says she is writing a piece that will explain it, and the paper runs pieces attacking her in the interim, insinuating her statement is libelous and should be retracted.

The piece she was writing is the one that we read now, that includes the tale of receiving the phone calls in question. She rationalizes her casual mention of Sirica's ties to organized crime because, having read and declined to review the man's autobiography decades before, she thought that the tactics of evasion of the truth in that book would have already been covered by another reviewer in the intervening years, and the facts of the man's biography would have come to light. They didn't. For all the harshness that Adler deals out to institutions, she seems to misunderstand, or at least consciously want to forget, how much smarter she is than her peers. It is incumbent on her, then, to clear her name by explicating the facts of this man's life -- that, by his own admission, he was boxing and setting up boxing matches in Washington, DC when boxing was outlawed within the city -- and making the connection that this means he was involved in organized crime.

Meanwhile, as Adler writes the piece, reporters ask her if G. Gordon Liddy is her source -- implying a misunderstanding of Adler's methods, and a full belief in the notion of the vindictive anonymous source as what dictates the narratives writers commit to posterity. This is one of Adler's other objections to the idea of the celebrity reporter -- that it coincides with the rise of the anonymous informant, which is now not a tool to avoid the reprisals of the powerful, but as another means for the powerful to get out the stories they want to tell, with the reporter used as a smokescreen to hide their intentions.

This piece is, in a way, the climax of the book, if a selection of various pieces culled from the course of a career can be said to have a climax. That Gone was written at all seems to stem from that earlier employment as the Times's film critic, when her contrarian impulses kept her from falling prey to the trap of wanting to be found by posterity to be on the right side of cultural consensus. (The introduction to the collection of those pieces, included here, has her saying what a particularly weak year it was for film. Not reprinted here is her piece blasting Stanley Kubrick's 2001.) Instead, this time seems to have instilled the crucial skill of reading a text, and seeing things for what they mean.

During this era of her career, she was able to travel to Cuba during a time when the International desk had to deal with a yearlong ban. In the pieces collected here under the title "Three Cuban Cultural Reports with Films Somewhere in Them," she speaks of their film industry, and the competing impulses at work as filmmakers attempt to avoid making propaganda even as they are nonetheless controlled by the Cuban Culture Council. "The most distinctive films in Cuba are still documentaries -- nearly all made with Álvarez-like juxtapositions of fact, with a strong, unpolitical sense of human misery, and the most blatant ideology." A paragraph later she writes, "The parodistic sense in Cuban films is so strong and so deadpan that it is not always possible to tell when it unambiguously exists." Most Americans would see film being made by Cubans during this time with the assumption of a propagandistic undercurrent, but not all would anthologize their work with this view enshrined as representative of what exactly their work is.

In another piece, she demolishes a book of reviews written by Pauline Kael -- a chief sculptor of the dominant narrative of what films were good, and probably someone who would argue for 1968 being a great year for film -- for how clichéd her writing has become, how tic-ridden, how lazy, and, essentially, how mean it is. She draws this distinction: "And, like the physical attacks and sneers, the mock rhetorical questions are rarely saying anything. They are simply doing something. Bullying, presuming, insulting, frightening, enlisting, intruding, dunning, rallying." Adler seems disinterested in shutting down any discussion, even as she writes a piece like this, so full of fury. She seems surprised that anyone cared about it at all. Its appearance carries with it a "note by the author" which refers to Adler in third person, and notes the controversy with less a sense of satisfaction in having stirred it than a slight bafflement that she could make such an impression on such a large figure.

The introduction to After the Tall Timber, written by Michael Woolf, says that: "She was unreadable, said Adler; and indeed, Kael is unread now," which is patently untrue. Indeed, it was Adler who was the lesser read of the two until two years ago, when NYRB rereleased her novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark. Those are incredible books, utilizing a journalistic attention to detail to catch small things in the ambient chatter of daily life, and a worldly, well-traveled background to feel large in scale even though nothing really happens. There, her language possesses a wisdom that occasionally presses against the edge of aphorism, but keeps going with the restlessness of its thought process to undermine anything that feels easy. Speedboat's first paragraph ends "Some people are indifferent to dislike, even relish it. Hardly anyone I know." This seems subtly predictive of the professional resentments that would follow her. The follow-up, Pitch Dark, concludes with a newly acquired knowledge of the law stemming from a time spent at Yale Law School that finds echoes in contemporaneous work collected here, speaking about the Supreme Court and Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to serve on it.

Those novels are winning and charming and easily described as "ahead of their time," because, while they might have shirked the expectations of plot development people have for a novel, the fragmented nature of them, not too far off from Mary Robison's more recent novels, make sense in the context of the sort of writing encouraged to flower on the internet. They digress and zigzag, never making explicit arguments, but the bulk of observations into human nature make the reader intuit what is being said. As it ranges all over the world, it feels united only by voice, creating intimacy with the reader even as it is often distant from the things it describes. These books are beautifully voice-driven in a way where a reader might want to hear her take on just about anything.

It is maybe a little surprising, although completely rewarding, to see that the nonfiction where Adler learned her craft diverges from what it seems like the collective mass of readers won over might have projected onto it. There is nothing of the personal essay in the work collected here. Unlike so many writers popular today, she does not assume her readers are fans of her cult of personality; and the weird groupthink of the internet is the very opposite of her contrarianism, which is too researched to be dismissed with the label of "hot take." She is also, refreshingly, unfashionably distant from youth culture. She comes off as much closer to G. Gordon Liddy after his release from prison than she does to the teenagers of the Sunset Strip, circa 1967. She relishes that generation gap, that marks her as older than the baby boomers, defining those of her age as being marked for their degree of loneliness that manifested in reading a great many books, and so being that much smarter than the rock listeners and drug users that she sees as two separate groups that just happen to get along swimmingly.

That she distinguishes between these sets of youth rather than group them under the broader label of "the counterculture" comes from her sense of specificity, her mastery of word choice. She is a very precise writer, an exquisite crafter of sentences and paragraphs. She is unforgiving of people whose own approach to the written word lacks comparative clarity. Where I might see a poorly worded sentence and accept that I understand what the person is trying to say, Adler insists: Why not just say it, then, when the alternative is this string of clichés and received thinking that edifies no one? Her own writing avoids all these pitfalls, and holding others to her stringent standard is what enables her to see their lapses. This approach is heroic, inspiring, and very rare.

If this book disappoints its audience, which it can be assumed is younger than the 76-year-old Adler, it is because of a collective wish for a guru, and the desire for wisdom that applies to the contemporary moment. I want to know how someone who described their politics as moderate in the late sixties and early seventies would define themselves now, after thirty-plus years of the political culture drifting to the right. I, perhaps narcissistically, want an introduction by Adler that contextualizes her work, with all of its returns to the long shadow left by Watergate, in the present. I am saddened by the extent to which the restoring of her reputation, after alienating old employers decades ago, has not led to anyone hiring her to write new work. I want to hear what someone who covered the peace march in Selma has to say about what happened in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown. I want to hear what she has to say about Hillary Clinton. I suspect, in that instance, she might have nothing to say at this point in time. She waits for the story to manifest itself, and does not editorialize before the fact.

One of the refrains that floats through Pitch Dark is, "You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life." Here there is a piece called "Searching For The Real Nixon Scandal," which argues that the case against Nixon, based on what we knew, was really rather thin, and was, at least, not grounds for impeachment. She then does the work to infer what she believes the real story was, that Gerald Ford's full pardon stopped a real investigation from ever sussing out. She does not object at length to anything that happened during the Bush presidency, instead arguing that the Supreme Court case that led to his inauguration should never have taken place in the first case. My own lack of real legal knowledge has me reading all that's here and wishing to appoint her to the Supreme Court.

After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction by Renata Adler
New York Review of Books
ISBN: 978-1590178799
528 Pages