Essays By Renata Adler Pose A Persistent Question: 'What's Going On Here?'
“What does it mean to have a collection?”
Writer Renata Adler considered that question one recent morning, passing her fingers down the long braid that drapes over her right shoulder, much the same as in the 1978 Richard Avedon photo of her that graces the cover of her latest book. “I guess I haven’t really thought about that,” she answered.
It is a question worth asking, though, as After The Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction by Ms Adler was released April 7, and is now available at amazon.com “or randomly, in independent book stores,” she said.
After The Tall Timber brings together essays from Ms Adler’s 40 years as a writer for The New Yorker, as well as pieces published in The New York Times and other prestigious publications. From the first-hand account of the March in Selma, Ala., written in 1965, to the stinging 1980 review of the biography of Pauline Kael, the influential movie reviewer of the 1960s and 1970s, to her assessment of the ruling in the Supreme Court Bush v Gore in the 2001 “Irreparable Harm,” the essays, Ms Adler believes, will still feel relevant to new readers, and, as the pieces did upon initial publication, continue to keep people thinking.
A resident of Newtown since 1978 and a member of the town’s Fairfield Hills Authority, Ms Adler was born in Milan and raised in Danbury. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, majoring in philosophy and German literature, and a MA from Harvard, in comparative literature. She graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris with a D.d’ES, and received her JD from Yale Law School. In 1963, Ms Adler joined the staff of The New Yorker (“an interesting place”). Taking a one-year sabbatical, she served as chief film critic for The New York Times from 1968 to 1969. Her book, A Year in the Dark, chronicles that experience.
Ms Adler is also the author of Toward A Radical Middle (1970); Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v CBS et al, Sharon v Time (1986), which was the case that revealed to her, she said, how the press had “gone the other way from free speech”; Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001); Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker (1999); and Irreparable Harm: The US Supreme Court and the Decision That Made George W. Bush President (2004). Her novels include Speedboat (1976), for which she was awarded the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel; and its follow-up, Pitch Dark (1983).
Her ascent as a writer was nearly accidental, Ms Adler said. Hired as an editor at The New Yorker, she became a reader of unsolicited manuscripts without agents, after two readers there married and a decision was made that a couple should not both be readers. She wrote a piece on pop music in the Southeast, which, while never published, resulted in an offer for her to move to a position as a writer.
“At The New Yorker, [writing] was very gradual. It’s surprising, this drifting thing. [Becoming a writer] was passive, until I got there. True of writing as well as life,” she said, “is where it takes you, and we get rather more emphatic when we get there.”
Her first pieces were brief, unsigned book reviews; then longer signed book reviews. Admiring the reporters at The New Yorker, Ms Adler finally asked if she could go to Selma to cover events, and was granted permission.
“I started writing longer pieces,” she said, and her mark was left on the literary world.
Finding A New Audience
Ms Adler has published less aggressively in recent years, but at the suggestion of the New York Review Books, her early novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, were rereleased in 2013. The books were embraced by the younger generation, much to her surprise, she said. Considered unconventional in style for the times, they hold a fascination that has led to success, then and now. Writer Michael Wolff, in his preface to After The Tall Timber, goes so far as to call the author “a cult figure for a new generation of literary minded young women,” an idea that Ms Adler dismisses.
“There’s nothing culty about me,” she declared. “I just got lucky with young people. Something about the writing speaks to them,” she said.
The attention the rerelease of the novels received led the publisher to reach out once again to Ms Adler, suggesting a collection of much of her life’s work.
How the new collection will be received by this young generation remains to be seen, she said.
“Nonfiction is something entirely different. For young people [these pieces are] very old,” Ms Adler pointed out.
What she hopes is that new readers will appreciate the articles that looked beyond the headlines, as she sought to tell what she saw as the real story. It was a tactic that gained her recognition, but eventually did not endear her to the literary world. (“Contrarian pieces,” she called them, “that got me in trouble.”) She does not, however, expect After The Tall Timber to raise many hackles.
“A piece addresses a situation. It is quite different to say what he is, now, than to be saying this is what he was,” she said. “The situation has changed.” As a collection of essays spanning four decades, the pieces are, perhaps, she noted, more balanced than when the essays first appeared.
The collection also serves as a means of tracking the author’s growth and her growing dismay with what she perceives as a failure of the press. “The pack instinct in establishment press is a real threat to the system,” she said. “You can’t get the story.”
Experiences shaped her as a writer, but Ms Adler also counted writers Evelyn Waugh (“He writes so exactly and precisely.”), Henry James, and Joseph Conrad as inspirations to her own writing. She cites writer Ivy Compton Burnett as another writer she admires for her “exactness in what she says.”
Two Danbury High School teachers from her youth also shaped who she became, said Ms Adler. “They were Alice Culhane and Wally Parkhurst,” she said, and both exuded the “something” in teaching that made them stand out from the others. “They were able to convey excitement about their subjects,” she said.
The essays in After The Tall Timber (the title refers to the last of the “greats”
and is a term Ms Adler said she had liked since first hearing it in the eulogy by Mary McCarthy for writer Harold Rosenberg in 1978) were jointly selected by Ms Adler and the publisher, and she appreciates the great amount of input allowed by the publisher as to what would be included.
“There were some [essays] to leave out, some that I cut out at the last minute,” she said. There were those that she felt must be part of the collection, said Ms Adler. “One was about the Starr Report, and also one about the decision in the Bush v Gore case. And strangely,” she said, “there was the one about the Sunset Strip. There were these dear young people floating around. I was very worried about them,” she said. So much so, that she misunderstood when one young man told her he was worried about being sent to jail for being desolate. It was a good catch by the lawyer at The New Yorker that what he had most likely said was dissolute — immoral — rather than desolate — lonely, or forlorn — better explaining the fear. “But ‘desolate’ was how they seemed to me,” she said.
Other essays, including one on soap operas and one on disc jockeys, she wished she had included. “But it was getting just too long,” she admitted.
Getting It Right
What is presented in this collection of essays is the truth, “so far as I could make it true,” said Ms Adler. “I tried hard to get it right. It’s not so bad every now and then to say something new,” she said, and she is hopeful that the older pieces will have something new to say to those who never saw the essays in their original iterations.
“I like to think that if you believe in ‘voice’ at all, that this is a fairly reliable voice. And I’d like it to be a not uninteresting voice,” Ms Adler said. “I’m excited to have [the collection] out there.”
Ms Adler is currently writing a novel, following upon her earlier two. Describing it as “more focused on suspense, plot, and character,” and “maybe more conventional,” she has not yet submitted it for publication.
What does it mean to have a collection? There is importance in looking back at the stories that make up the collection, Ms Adler decided. For instance, she said, everyone has probably forgotten about Biafra (“Letter From Biafra,” The New Yorker, 1969). Rereading it, she said, “It probably shows a very early existence of the Islamist state… the persecution of people because they were not Islamic.”
The essays expose the curiosity that propelled her pieces, “the things that have sides,” and, she said, still strive to answer, “What’s going on here?”