Something Nice to Do: An Interview with Renata Adler

We met one of the most fearless writers of our time to talk about her new collection of essays, Selma versus 'Selma,' and the many absurdities of a life of letters.

Tell a bookish person you're going to interview Renata Adler and you can expect a range of reactions, everything from envy to wariness, to a sort of fear-stricken awe. Many know Adler from her two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, first published in 1976 and 1983, respectively, and both reissued by New York Review Books in 2013 to much acclaim. (I read both of them the week after finishing my first book and felt I had just met an unknown relative, an uncanny feeling confirmed when a review of my novel placed it in Adler's lineage.) But before her novels emerged, Adler was best known for being an incisive critic and essayist for the New Yorker and the New York Times, though she quit her job as film critic for the latter after a year, and later criticized the paper for various editorial offenses in the introduction to her 2001 book, Canaries in the Mineshaft.

Her new book, After the Tall Timber, is a massive collection of greatest hits from her decades of nonfiction, including her most controversial review, a blast on Pauline Kael's collected film criticisms, When the Lights Go Down. (One deliciously blunt and oft-quoted phrase is that the book is "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.") The controversy was mainly about the fact that Kael and Adler were both New Yorker writers at the time and less to do with the actual substance of the review. True to Adler's style, it was unsparing and unafraid to be contentious, but it also backed up each of its claims with quotes from the book itself and expansive arguments about the role of the critic in general. Still, it positioned Adler as a critic to be feared, as if she went around damning books for sport. In 1999, after a long hiatus from publishing, Adler released a memoir titled Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker and critics all over town nearly imploded that someone would actually criticize their beloved magazine so close to its 75th birthday.

Here is a woman who reported the march from Selma to Montgomery at 26 for the New Yorker, who covered Biafra and Vietnam and Black Power demonstrations in Mississippi, who was a speechwriter for the committee chair of Nixon impeachment hearings, who went to Yale Law School at what was arguably the height of her career, who cut her teeth in an era where female reporters—not to mention outspoken, fearless ones—were still relatively rare, and yet so many remember her as the woman who voiced a bracingly honest opinion about a highbrow magazine and another woman's movie reviews.

That a lifetime of such important work has been, to some, eclipsed by a handful of critical opinions about such dominant media powers is repulsive. Take whatever issue you might take with her work, but take it in context. This woman did not burn down New York.

Renata Adler and I met in a noisy coffee shop on the Upper West Side on a bright, near-spring morning. Just before leaving the publicist told us each, individually, to "be nice." And we were.

VICE: When did you want to start publishing essays and being a real, critical voice?
Renata Adler:It happened sort of accidentally. It was a series of accidents. When I first went to the New Yorker, it wasn't as a writer.

What was your job?
It was one of those unclear things they used to hire people for.

I don't think they do that anymore. Was it assisting or fact-checking?
No, no. They said, "It's too bad the only job we have that's suitable for you is fact-checker." But they only had male fact-checkers, but later they had women fact-checkers. That was a first. It was a very big first in the history of the New Yorker.

But my job was one of these strange jobs that weren't entirely clear. Someone would say, "Here are these booklists. Why don't you go and see if there's anything for us in here?"

Is there any advice to give that generation of young essayists and journalists coming up now, when we're supposed to "like" and "share" everything and backlashes can happen so fast?
It's funny because I've actually met some great young writers. And they're very good. Lots of them. But then there are others who have been cheated their whole lives educationally. They've never read anything. I remember saying at the beginning of the year, when I taught at Boston University, "Is there anything you all have read?"

There's much less than there used to be it seems.
Right. There's very little foundation. And then you get the craziest papers. So I had no idea that there are young people that are very, very good at writing. On the other hand, there's all this stuff on the internet about who's now and who's not. It's a very strange period in terms of judgment. But in a way it's not as bad because there's more chaos. You don't get the kind of ganging up that you used to. Or, well, I'm sure you do—

Yes, but it happens faster and you can get lost. There's always something and we can forget who we were supposed to hate last year.
Exactly. What used to be, for me and I think still is, the test of the critic is whether he quotes from the source or not. That's what's fair. I once got a review that said, "She writes so badly that it sets my teeth on edge." And then she quoted stuff. And I thought, Wait a minute. That's the best I can do. If she thinks that's bad, OK. [Laughs] And that's fair.

"The test of the critic is whether he quotes from the source or not."

There's a part in the introduction to After the Tall Timber that talks about how a writer must have a successful relationship with media power in order to have a financially and emotionally solvent career. Did you think of it that way toward the beginning of your career?
No, but it started to work out that way. Looking back, I don't know. What was I thinking?

I've been very struck by this collection, by looking back at the range of nonfiction that you've written, and noticing how the pieces that people tend to know or get so riled up about are the relatively minor pieces in which you've been openly critical of various media powers—the Kael or New Yorker or the New York Times stuff. I say this is minor only in comparison to the Civil Rights movement or your coverage of Vietnam and Biafra or your working for Watergate or the fact that you went to Yale Law school at a very high point in your career. I find it disappointing that all this has been eclipsed by so little.
It's very strange. And it's funny. I mean, I was going to write a piece for the start of this book. I worked very hard on it and then I thought, No, this isn't done, this isn't done, this isn't done. And I thought it right up past the deadline. Then I thought, This is OK.

So you didn't write any new pieces for this?
I did, but I didn't finish in time. And that was that.

Are you going to publish that anywhere?
I don't know because it was sort of written for here and I can't imagine what else you can do with it. You sort of write into a situation. Now, what does that have to do with what you're interested in?

Well, I was curious about how you made sense of the backlash there was to some of your relatively smaller essays and critiques of the media, how people acted like you had burned down New York.
The thing is, I guess one isn't so aware of it. For various reasons I wrote the Pauline Kael piece. There was no question of bullying somebody. She was so big. She was incredibly powerful.

So it never occurred to me. And then I've thought about this a lot over the years and that is, How do people stand it when everything falls apart? And how does it happen that there's always someone nearby so that we sort of don't notice? It seems to me that in a way you don't notice how exiled they are.

Do you think that you noticed?
No. I mean, I sort of noticed. But then there are these people who say, "Thank god, somebody finally said something." And I couldn't really say to myself, "Poor me." It was funny that I just got asked, "How did you feel when you got fired because of the Pauline Kael piece?" But I left the New Yorker 20 years later, but when I did, it had nothing to do with it. But there wasn't such a big difference between leaving the New Yorker and being there.

Because you were a staff writer?
I was a staff writer, but not on salary. I was teaching so I had a much better insurance policy, but not thanks to them.

These are the tangible things people forget about with a writing career, how you have to be strategic and have a relationship with a media power.
Because [otherwise] you're going to be not eating.

Right, and then it becomes doubly important to still be able to criticize their authority. You don't want to have a situation when the writers are imprisoned in their jobs and have to behave based on what this authority figure wants them to do. It's important to be free to have the discussion, even if people disagree with you.
But it's funny because after a while there is no basis for a discussion anymore. Now it's really hard. That's why I had so much trouble with that piece that didn't make it into the book. It's funny what the media focuses on about the person's situation. One of the things that they focus on is the treatment of reporters. Maybe there's going to be a terrific reporter, maybe there won't.

But you're not seeing that happening now?
No. You?

I don't think people are reading very well. They're reading quickly. They're reading shortly.
I started watching television a little bit. I'm watching stuff I've never watched before, like serials. I started to watch West Wing, because of my son, and it's so good. So incredibly good, I think. And there's a lot to watch because it's already finished.

"There are probably things in common between being a child and being a refugee and being an anthropologist."

Serials can end up substituting for the novel. I'm in the middle of writing a novel right now, so I'm not reading any. But I'm watching House of Cards.
Well, I've been watching that, too, and it's really good.

I find it very interesting because it was sort of going along at the same rhythm as one's own life, except a little slower. I really was just curious as to what was going to happen there today as what was going to happen to me that day. The fiction lover's dream is to keep going. But I wonder how much of people's lives is occupied with this. [Watching a serial] isn't their life in any technical way, and it certainly isn't their public life. That is, you can't do anything about public life. You have these terrible candidates, in my view. You have a 16-year administration which has just come to an end and there's nothing you can do...

So we outsource it to the West Wing and House of Cards.
Well, House of Cards has lost me now. House of Cards has lost me.

I just started the third season.
Well, you see, I cheated. I skip ahead. It's awful. You can't suddenly turn them into nice guys.

Do they become nice people?
Yes! They become suddenly completely confusing. Everything becomes arbitrary. And then I think, Why didn't everything seem arbitrary before? There are different writers now. There's different everybody.

How can you forget that he's done all these horrible, horrible things?
Right, and now suddenly he's a victim. It may be that in real life people are sometimes OK and sometimes villains. But mostly the good guys are the good guys and the not-good guys are not the good guys. And then other people are just whatever they are.

That could be one of your lines: "Some people are just whatever they are."

You can start a whole novel just on a line.

I feel like you can boil Pitch Dark, down to that one line, "Did I throw the most important thing away?" And I felt like when I was reading it, it landed to that end. And then I read in an interview you brought up that line...
There were one or two others, like, "You are, you were, the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life." I didn't even dare look back because there's a part in Speedboat about a certain academic situation and I thought, Well, nobody's going to believe this, it's so absolutely preposterous. But there was, and it was absolutely true, literally, word for word true.

And then there's another place where, I'm dead serious, there was something brilliant happening. There's a long monologue about synonymy and context. And some words are there for rhythm and some are there for cadence. So I'm carefully going through the German translation because these words are not arbitrary. But I found that they were using the English, but they choose their own words [instead].

I was saying something that has the rhythm of like, motherfucker, and then they were writing something like "robin." [Laughs] It was totally arbitrary. It used to be that virtually everything was translated in Japanese. So I got a note from the Japanese translator and he or she wrote, "I just have a few things remaining." And it turns out that she or he had absolutely no idea what any of it was. So I thought, Leave it. I can't be looking over the Japanese.

You can't be looking after anybody, really. Do you think that your writer DNA was sort of shaped by how your family was displaced by the Nazi regime before you were born?
It's funny that you should mention that because I think it affects a lot else, specifically being a refugee. I wasn't born there. I didn't experience any of it. But they were refugees. So then I was thinking of this business of being a refugee, no matter in what sense.

Prenatal refugee.
Prenatal refugee and actually postnatal refugee. And I thought there are probably things in common between being a child and being a refugee and being an anthropologist.

It gives you a sense of curiosity.
But also a complete displacement. You've got to read the situation. You're the new kid in school all the time. But I wasn't aware of it then. I'm aware of it now because language affects you differently, or not. But I used to talk to [director] Mike Nichols about it because he was a refugee. Do you envision an audience when you write? Do you envision a particular person?

Every once in a while I think: Now, what would Mike say to that?

There's that idea that when you're blocked, you can always just write as if it was a letter to one specific person.
Oh, that's good. That's a wonderful idea. Mine is more in terms of criticism. If someone was to say, "I know what that is. Do you really want to do that?" But anyway, about Mike and his attitude toward language, I remember him saying—it was a question of whether something written was fresh or not—and he would ask, "Why not smell it?" Which, from an English speaker's point of view, is hysterical.

I'm going to take kind of a left turn, but did you see Selma?

Do you have a reason for not seeing it?
Yeah, I think it really is tremendously important to not screw up the Lyndon Johnson thing. I mean the Lyndon Johnson thing is the most amazing thing. It's funny. It seems to me at the time, that I learned only later, it's unprecedented that is to have a collaboration between the government and the revolution in which the government wants civil disobedience, requires civil disobedience. You need cases and consequences. So people would come, civil-rights people, various people and they'd say, "But you're not protecting us." And the government would say 'We can't.' So they had to get into a certain kind of trouble and then provoke a certain kind of reaction and then for various reasons it had to be a governmental reaction. So there it is. You have something really unique in all of history, and Johnson is a hero. Dr. King's another.

But artistic expression does not admit you to say, "On one hand it was Hitler. And on the other hand it was..." It's not fair. It's not fair to miss the whole point of what happened. And it could only have happened because of that business of local law and federal law. OK, the local law says sit on the back of the bus. The federal law says whatever it says. Then there's the other extremely fascinating twist which is the federal judges being appointed for life. If you're president, you appoint someone from your party and in those days since the south was Democratic, Dixiecrats, and they were vicious terrible candidates. And the only totally wonderful judges were Republican judges—it's a fluke—who were appointed by Eisenhower and the reason was that there was an old tradition of being Republican and anybody who's crazy to be Republican was likely to be wonderful. So you had to keep going before these Republican judges, which was a lovable story, because of Frank Johnson (who was the judge in the district court for the Middle District of Alabama during the Selma march). His only son committed suicide and the town people turned over the grave stone and the administration said, would you like to be transferred somewhere else? It's a huge story. You don't have to fix it. The truth is a big help there. To demonize LBJ, which everybody does about the Vietnam war, [sure], but here, from his youth he was a civil-rights person, and it cost him.

If you were starting your career now, would you have gone to Ferguson?
Oh, that's interesting. Probably, yes. But it's a much more complicated situation. I mean, to think that that whole movement, all those years of incredible progress, incredible risks—no black violence at all. None. They were never wrong about anything. And you can say, "Well, that's too bad and you need to address it another way, but you can't address it by saying Johnson wasn't helpful." Nobody wants to say that stuff. So I don't even want to go see the movie. But I remember a long time ago somebody said to me, "You have to see this movie about the assassination of John Kennedy," and I said, "Oh no, no. It's not right." And they said, "You can't talk to me until you've seen the film." And I said, "Whatever you tell me about the film is fictional and there's all this documentation." It's sort of a dumb thing to say, but it's an OK thing to say. I don't want to see Selma and get all upset.

It's different to see a film of something you've lived through. But I guess the hope is that the some emotional truth of the situation came through.
Yes, but it leads to false analogies. I mean, there's nothing in common between Ferguson, except for some people were white and some people were black, which we knew.

You write about the radical middle in here too, and I think it's so hard to find the middle on these sorts of issues.
Radical Middle was a mistake. Radical Middle was just a joke. It was a temporary title just holding until we found a title. And then it turned out [Random House editor] Joe Fox was taking it seriously and that was the name of the book, Toward a Radical Middle. I used to call it "Radical Muddle." I used to call it all kinds of stuff.

It's very hard. It's particularly hard now because the positions are so false. There is no coherence to what position you hold. Some places you can have racial diversity and some places it's not a value. And you can't say that. You just can't say that.

"Mostly the good guys are the good guys and the not-good guys are not the good guys. And then other people are just whatever they are."

I was always drawn in your books, in your novels, to all the run-ons and commas. That style has always made sense to me, but some people can't stand it. Are there any styles in fiction that just grate on you? And what do you think the purpose of writing in this way is? What purpose does it serve for you?
Are you a great fan of Evelyn Waugh?

I haven't read any of him.
But here is the amazing thing. One of his novels—he's so good, word for word—there is this book where a woman is having an affair and there's a moment when their little boy is killed during the hunt. He falls off his horse and is kicked in the head. I can't remember this exactly, but someone is telling her this because she's out of the country, and she freezes because she's so horrified. And then she learns it's just her little boy and she says, "Oh, thank God." The guy was so funny and so sharp to be able to do that in the middle of the sentence. It's a very different use of language. For example, take Hemingway. Hemingway is also very controlled, but he isn't drilled for precision. Hemingway has just been careful not to go off the rails.

In your work, what do you think the purpose is for letting the language be more associative both in structure and syntax?
Well then, of course, is there any limit? Because you don't want to go off the rails once there is.

Somehow there are rails.
I hope there are rails.

Maybe in editing.
Yes, it's a little bit like tuning. A little tightening over here, a little loosening over here. Do you know what it is?

No, I feel like we'll ask this question forever and not know.
Well, of course there's probably no answer to it. It's sort of like, "What made you say that?" Because up to a point you can trace it back, but you could have said something else.

I feel that if I try to plan what I'm writing, I'm wrong. It ends up something totally different. Do you feel you have more deliberate control?
No, the control thing is so far out. It's quite often happened to me that the whole point of writing something, the punch line, is this one line, but then I never get there. I miss it. I'd like to have got there. And it's a little bit like biting off the thread.

You have to let go of that original impulse sometimes.
That's right. If it's too clear what you're doing, that's trouble. If you're not in the business of suspense narrative, which is why there are always those series, because why do I care at all? I don't care in the slightest. I don't even like these people, and I know the story isn't true so why am I watching it?

Because there's some sense of tension that needs to be resolved.
Exactly, and I can't do that.

But you do know in a different sort of way. There's a tension in your novels of how this person will resolve their questions?
Well, do you have that in life? Are you curious about what will happen next? You're hoping this will happen and not that, which isn't suspense. You don't tune in because you want to know whether you passed the test or whether you'll marry. It's not the same sort of suspense at all.

Why get out of bed in the morning? It's not because you're curious about how the day will end.
Exactly. So, we got out of bed today because the weather was nice or there's something to do.

Renata Adler's After the Tall Timber will be published by New York Review Books on April 7, 2015.

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing and the forthcoming novel, The End of Uncertainty. Follow her on Twitter.