I met Renata Adler on a cold December day–actually, on 12/12/12, a date that spawned mass weddings and superstitions–at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. We realized within minutes of being seated that the plan was a mistake. Over endlessly echoing, impossibly loud lunchtime noise, we ordered Bloody Marys and the briniest mollusks and agreed to just treat lunch as lunch. We would conduct the real interview after, elsewhere. After lunch, we packed up our belongings— which included a rolling suitcase— shimmied into our down coats, and made our way to a midtown café. As she leaned in to answer my questions (and ask plenty of her own), the tail of Adler’s famous, waist-length braid sat coiled on the table like a sleeping snake.
Earlier that week, her first article in over ten years, a negative review of a biography, had appeared to the delighted surprise of many–in Town & Country of all places. Her two previously out-of-print novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark—both first-person, elliptical and cultishly adored—were on the verge of being reissued by the New York Review of Books. Once a much-talked about media darling (her illustrated portrait graced a cover of New York in 1983), Adler spent the last decade self-secluded in semi-rural Connecticut. She has fervent fans and bitter enemies, probably in equal number, and in certain bookish circles, she looms like an enigmatic specter: terrifying, absent, revered and argued about; not quite of this world.
Born in 1938, Adler began her career in the early 1960s as a New Yorker staff writer, reporting on everything from the civil rights movement to the Sunset Strip, in a journalistic voice that is authoritative and unsparing. She took a sabbatical from the magazine to review films for the New York Times, then again to attend law school at Yale. The targets of her polemics have included Pauline Kael, Robert Bork, group therapy, and The New Yorker itself. Her fiction makes you wonder if you’ve ever truly paid close attention to anything; it’s as if she recorded a year’s worth of ambient conversation, transcribed it, and edited the text so only poetry, wisdom, and human hypocrisy remain.
I. HE DRANK SCOTCH; HE SMOKED
THE BELIEVER: Do you think there’s a difference between people who start off writing fiction and then write nonfiction, versus people who start off writing nonfiction and then write fiction? Do you think the order matters?
RENATA ADLER: There are so many different types of writers. It’s just sheer coincidence that they’re all called writers. I once sat at lunch next to Baryshnikov. He drank scotch; he smoked. Then he got up and did dance steps. It was so beautiful. I thought, “This man is from another planet.” He was just so much more beautiful than anyone else. I think maybe writers come from different planets. I mean, not in any sense as extravagant as Baryshnikov. But there are some writers who understand each other this way and others who understand each other that way. Then there’s this great herd, the “herd of independent minds.”
BLVR: Who would you consider to be from your planet?
RA: Well, Janet Malcolm and in another way Donald Barthelme. John le Carré when he’s writing the Smiley or other spy masterpieces. I mean, there must be, there are, many more writers on the same planet of direct understanding, I’m just not thinking of them. There have always really been quite a few. Now it turns out that there are others, younger, that I just didn’t know about because I so withdrew.
BLVR: Do you devote certain days to reading and other days to writing? I know a lot of people find it hard to switch back and forth too quickly.
RA: Well, this last year I’ve been reading a lot, on my Kindle. Somehow I found myself reading classics that had meant a lot to me. The books that astonished me most were work I’d read that I thought had formed me, but I had it wrong. I mean, not only did I misremember a lot, but I hadn’t understood. For instance, Ibsen’s Ghosts. All I remembered about Ghosts was that there was syphilis, and that incredible curtain line: “Mother, give me the sun.” What power, accusation, range of meaning, there is in that line. I thought of it as universal. I hadn’t realized that what is happening is very specific: syphilis is striking the son’s brain, right there on the stage.
II. FOR BREAKFAST HE HAD AN EGG
BLVR: There has been a lot of talk recently about the rules of criticism. When is it too mean? When is it too nice? The internet makes it so that you’re very much aware of the human you’re writing about—you don’t want to see them in pain. It’s good for the critic’s psychology, but maybe not so great for criticism.
RA: Well, it used to be one way a young writer made it in New York. He would attack, in a small obscure publication, someone very strong, highly regarded, whom a few people may already have hated. Then the young writer might gain a small following. When he looked for a job, an assignment, and an editor asked, “What have you published?” he could reply, “Well, this piece.” The editor might say, “Oh, yeah, that was met with a lot of consternation.” And a portfolio began. This isn’t the way it goes now. More like a race to join the herd of received ideas and agreement.
But, too mean versus too nice? I don’t know. Nice criticism is good when it tells you something. A lot of negative “criticism” isn’t criticism at all: it’s just nasty, “writerly” cliché and invective. You can tell a fair negative critic, a fair polemicist, by whether he or she quotes from the work under review. I received a review once by a poet, a really good poet, who said, “This person writes so badly that it sets your teeth on edge.” Then she quoted what I wrote. And I thought, “Well, those quotes are fair, if someone doesn’t like them, they won’t like the book. That writing, as it happens, is the best I can do.” What set her teeth on edge were some of my favorites lines. So that was better than fair. It was lucky. What isn’t fair is unsupported, adjectival, personal, insulting. Cliché, dead metaphors—you read it and say, “This is the mark of the hack.” There is also constant misuse of words with an aura of the intellectual. Annabel Davis-Goff pointed out, years ago, the idiotic misuse of “irony,” or “ironical,” for work that has no element of irony whatever. “Isn’t it ironic: for breakfast he had an egg. And the irony is, he had already had bacon.” What? Coincidence, humor, sarcasm, deadpan, any relation or none: it was ironic. It was a perfectly good word. Now it’s nearly always hack non-think, and coming from some of the most highly respected writers of our time.
BLVR: What was the thing you were most scared to write?
RA: It has always been more the fear of publication. The content was never frightening. I never attacked anyone weak—that I knew about. Only bullies, secure in their courts, bureaucracies, fiefdoms. Fear didn’t come into it. Maybe it should have.
BLVR: Is there anything that you regret writing?
RA: No. I mean, sort of. There are things that I would have done a little bit differently, a little bit sharper. I almost never reread anything I’ve published.
BLVR: Really? So these two novels that are coming out, you didn’t reread them?
RA: I thought, “It will be all right. New York Review Classics is careful.” Then I thought, “Maybe I’d better proofread it.” I sat down, and this was pretty stunning: there was this famous quote from Wittgenstein: “The world is everything that is the case.” And I had it in German, but the scanner for the E-book or something misread the word “Alles” as “Mies,” a Yiddish word for a certain kind of queasy or ugly. It was beyond a typo. I thought, “Uh oh.”
BLVR: Was it embarrassing to reread these two novels?
RA: Yes, it was terrible. The editors had said we need introductions. I said, “We can’t have introductions. We could have introductions if I were dead. Or if the books weren’t written in the first person singular.” They said, “What about an afterword?” There was this idea to have it be a conversation or an interview. I said, “No. No. You have a book narrated in the first person. Then what? Here she is again? She just won’t shut up.” I had a fear of editors. Things so often go wrong. My last book, Canaries in the Mineshaft, for instance, was a collection of essays. The publisher sent me the paperback edition. I thought, “This looks fine.” Then I flipped to the end. At the bottom of one page there was a word from my essay: “which.” The top of the next page continued: “polenta.” The following thirty-two pages, in place of my essay–my most “controversial” essay, in some ways, closely argued–were clearly from a cookbook. I laughed. I was very eager to get a copy of the cookbook, which would of course have had the last thirty-two pages of Canaries in the Mineshaft. I’ve always been somewhat leery of editing and publication. But the editors at New York Review Classics have been great.
BLVR: Did you ever watch The Simpsons?
RA: No, but my son did. It’s apparently wonderful.
BLVR: Yeah, it is. I’m asking because if you watch episodes from the first few seasons, the characters look different. It’s uncanny: they almost look the characters you know, but not really.
RA: Like Peanuts. Early Peanuts. Garry Trudeau. Early Doonesbury. They changed, as people do. We followed daily for decades and didn’t notice.
BLVR: I’m always surprised that cartoonists can draw in the same way for so long. Or writers, that they can sound like themselves over and over, for decades. You write something, and then thirty years later you write something else that still sounds like you.
RA: It is very strange, isn’t it? Wait, do you mean I do… or one does?
BLVR: One, but you have a very distinctive voice, so you’re a particularly good example of it.
RA: Edmund Wilson said that he would sometimes look at his old work and he would think, “This is dreadful. How could I ever write something so dreadful?” Then another day he’d go to look at the same work and he would say, “This is so good. I could never do it again.” That’s very moving to me because it’s Edmund Wilson. With him the writing is just so steady.
III. SAVE: YES OR NO?
BLVR: There’s a very long passage in Speedboat, where you say, “This is the time of …” and then you list all things the age could be about: “Of the great chance, for instance, and the loss of faith, of the bureaucrat, and of technology.” How would you edit it to reflect today?
RA: The list would be stronger. Things are worse. Way, way, way worse. In every sphere. That can’t be true. It can’t be true, for instance, of medicine. Yes, it can.
BLVR: I think Twitter has made people really attuned to epigrammatic, short, poetic phrases, which you obviously write a lot of. Do you use the internet much?
RA: Hardly. I’m not good at it. Work is lost. Emails, unfinished, unwise, go off sua sponte. Writing used to be like having a term paper hanging over you all the time. When you were not writing, you’d ask yourself, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this instead of work?” Now, you may be writing the whole time but the process is unrecognizable. I mean, you’re writing a lot–a lot of email. I started sending emails to myself. I can never keep proper notes or memos, but I can send myself emails. Then I found myself by mistake clicking and sending these notes to a person just one “Re” ahead of me in the Contacts—a dear friend who had no reason, at that moment, to expect any communication from me, let alone to me.
BLVR: So you don’t take notes?
RA: Well, I did. On the backs of checkbooks, in books that have nothing to do with what I’m writing, on wrapping paper. I thought a computer would eliminate all that randomness, loss and disorder. But from the first day it was disaster. In those days, whenever those days were, even just to turn the computer off, the lower part of the screen had this question in its fuzzy way—SAVE: YES/OR NO? Who thinks about SAVE: YES/OR NO? You’re just turning the thing off. Who would assume No? The computer assumed No. Here you are working on something for days and days and days and then it’s gone. Awful.
IV. CEZANNE, SASSETA, EAKINS, WATTEAU, ABOUT
BLVR: Do you remember much of what you memorized as a child?
RA: Oh, yes. A lot. We used to have to memorize these terrible poems, but still—even that word “memorize” is not so great. It was called “learning by heart” or “committing to memory.” They were dreadful poems, but kids really like to learn things by heart. Not multiplication tables, but chants, songs, lines. They really love it. It’s the learning mind. We all used have to recite “Horatio At the Bridge”—a very long, very boring poem. Every middle class child knew it by heart. Forever. One Christmas, my father gave me something from the Book of the Month Club, which was a set of booklets from the Metropolitan Museum. It had spaces for a sort of postage stamp of great paintings on every page. You were supposed to remember the painting and the artist, lick the stamp, and put it in its proper place, with the correct caption. To be sure that I could identify these things in order, I accidentally memorized them: Cezanne, Sasseta, Eakins, Watteau, About.
And then one year ago, it occurred to me that there never was a painter called “About.” When they didn’t know the name of the painter, they were giving the year, saying “About 1810” or something. So then, just for the hell of it, I googled it. I wrote in, “Cezanne, Sasseta, Eakins, Watteau, About.” Bingo! Google said, “From the Metropolitan Museum Collection. Book of the Month Club.” I thought, “That’s really something.” That form of memory is now gone. The machine has taken it. Even the “About” was in there. Research may be improved, but memory is gone. Commercials, songs. Everyone knew so many, many things by heart. Ads: “Ring around the collar.” I used to wonder how many things we all knew in common, everyone, everywhere.
BLVR: In both Speedboat and Pitch Dark, there are these repeating lines, these refrains. Do you think there’s a relation?
RA: I’ve never thought about it before, but yes. Yes.
BLVR: Were the lines that were repeated ones you had in your head before you started writing, or was it rather that once you wrote them down, you felt as though they should be echoed?
RA: I don’t remember. But it’s happened to me—about a story told me in real life, not my story—that certain lines struck me as memorable, and I needed to use them. My friend said, “No, under no circumstances may you use them.” I asked why. He said, “You can’t just get into trouble with everyone anymore! You must stop doing that!” And I said, “But it’s fiction. Maybe nobody will notice.” You see, the lines are wonderful, but unfortunately they came from a newspaper story, unmistakably public. He said, “You can’t use those lines.” It’s true. I don’t want to have powerful, vengeful people mad at me any more.
V. STERN’S DEPARTMENT STORE
BLVR: There’s a refrain in Pitch Dark — “how I both was and failed to be a citizen of my time”—and I wouldn’t want to totally conflate you and the narrator, but do you also feel as though you’ve simultaneously succeeded and failed at being a citizen of your time?
RA: Off the top of my head? Yes. It’s funny, there are lines that matter to one more than other lines. The line that matters most to me might be, “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” And of course if I were a writing non-fiction, the grammar would be, “Have I thrown …” I couldn’t correct it to that in the novel, though. The wrong voice.
BLVR: Can you talk at all about what you’ve been working on most recently?
RA: I want there to be a third novel. So I guess this is it, if there is one. I have finished it. I would like to go back, also, to writing nonfiction, but I’m not in a place to do it.
BLVR: I’m thinking of the best writing from the late 1960s and 1970s, and it all seems to be so diagnostic. It all seems to be asking, “What are these times?” Do you think it’s true that the best writers are always the ones who are able to get a read on ineffable things about their era, things that are obvious to everyone but for whatever reason are not articulated?
RA: Well, I don’t know. As I was working on these books, I was sure I’d land on a traditional narrative. I was sure of it. That is not what happened. I had no wish to wind up with this at all. I’ve been writing a piece about Modernism and Feeling–whatever we mean by Modernism. It’s not free-association or stream of consciousness. In my case at least, it isn’t. But I didn’t mean to write anything “about this time.” Long ago, I published a book of some of my New Yorker reporting pieces, and I wrote an introduction about our generation. I look at it now, and boy, was I wrong. Not so wrong, but pretty wrong. And pretty confident, in this sort of bravado way.
BLVR: But you have to be.
RA: You do. And there had been the civil rights movement in the South, which there had never been anything like before—the federal government working in tandem with people in civil disobedience in a totally effective way. It was really easy to know who you were down there. There were just good folks and smart folks working in tandem. It was amazing. And that’s a very lucky thing to have. You can be in favor of an art movement. You can say, “These are the artists, you idiot, don’t you see that!” and you can be right. But this indisputable, honorable rightness was historically lucky, a real luxury.
BLVR: To know who was right and who was wrong?
RA: Yes, and to know to a virtual certainty.