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An Interview with Renata Adler

I have only ever gone after those who were in positions of power, those who were strong and secure in their status and authority.

On 12/12/12, I had the pleasure of meeting Renata Adler at Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. It was a cold December day, which had become a popular date for weddings and superstitions.

We quickly realized we had made a mistake trying to have a conversation in the impossibly loud lunchtime noise. We attempted to make the best of it by ordering Bloody Marys and some briny mollusks.

After lunch, we packed up our belongings, including a rolling suitcase, and donned our down coats in order to proceed to a quieter cafe for the real interview.

As Adler answered my questions and asked some of her own, her famous braid was coiled on the table like a sleeping snake.

A few days prior, Adler’s first piece to be published in a decade had emerged, a damning review of a biography in the magazine Town & Country.

Her two out-of-print novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, both acclaimed for their first person narration and elliptical writing, were soon to be republished by the New York Review of Books.

In 1983, Adler had achieved notoriety, making the cover of the magazine New York. However, for the past ten years, she had been living in semi-seclusion in Connecticut.

She is both extremely popular and very controversial among bookish circles; her presence is seen as both ethereal and terrifying, and she is often argued about but rarely seen.

Adler, born in 1938, initially began her career in the 1960s as a staff writer for the New Yorker, covering a range of topics such as the civil rights movement and the Sunset Strip, utilizing an authoritative and incisive journalistic style.

Following a sabbatical from the magazine to review films for the New York Times and attending law school at Yale, she went on to write polemics regarding Pauline Kael, Robert Bork, group therapy, and The New Yorker itself.

Her fiction leaves readers questioning if they have ever really taken in the world around them, as if her words are a transcription of a year’s worth of dialogue with only the eloquent, wise, and hypocritical aspects left in the text.

— As articulated by Alice Gregory

I. HE CONSUMED SCOTCH; HE PARTOOK IN SMOKING

THE BELIEVER: Is there a major distinction between authors who begin with writing fiction and then move onto nonfiction, as opposed to those who begin with nonfiction and then switch to writing fiction? Do you believe the sequence is important?

RENATA ADLER remarked that there is a great variety of writers who all happen to share the same title. She recounted a story of dining with Mikhail Baryshnikov, remarking on his otherworldly beauty.

Adler mused that maybe writers come from different planets, not as grandiose as Baryshnikov’s beauty, but some who understand each other in one way and others in another.

Finally, she referred to the great “herd of independent minds.”

BLVR: Which people would you consider to be a part of your group?

RA: To name a few, Janet Malcolm and Donald Barthelme. Also John le Carre’s Smiley or other spy works are noteworthy.

There are quite a few authors who have this same level of insight. Apparently I was oblivious to many of the younger generation of writers due to my own self-withdrawal.

BLVR: Is there a day of the week when you focus on reading and a different day when you focus on writing? I am aware that many folks find it difficult to alternate between the two activities without any lag time.

RA: This past year, I’ve become quite the avid reader, mostly on my Kindle. I decided to read a bunch of classic books that were meaningful to me. The works that really surprised me were titles that I thought had a significant impact on me, but I was mistaken.

Not only did I recall a lot of details incorrectly, but I also didn’t understand them fully. A prime example of this was Ibsen’s Ghosts.

All I remembered about the story was that there was a mention of syphilis and the memorable line at the curtain “Mother, give me the sun”. I misinterpreted it as being a line with a much broader meaning.

I had failed to recognize that the author was trying to convey a very particular idea; that syphilis had already started to affect the son’s brain right there on the stage.

II. IN THE MORNING, HE ATE AN EGG FOR HIS FIRST MEAL

BLVR: Lately, there has been a lot of debate concerning the standards of critique. How harsh can one be? How kind? The internet provides a great degree of visibility into the person being critiqued–causing one to be reluctant to cause them any distress.

While this may be beneficial to the critic’s mental health, it might not be necessarily beneficial to the criticism itself.

RA: Back in the day, a young writer could make it in New York by attacking a widely admired figure in a small, unknown publication. This would get them noticed and build a portfolio they could point to when looking for work.

Nowadays, it’s more like a competition to see who can be the most like the rest, having the same opinions and ideas as everyone else.

I’m uncertain whether it’s better to be too mean or too nice when giving criticism. Positive criticism is beneficial when it brings something to the conversation. However, a lot of the self-proclaimed negative criticism is merely invective and overused cliches.

A good criticism should quote from the work that is being reviewed. I once received a review from a poet who said my writing was so bad it set her teeth on edge. But she also included quotes to support her opinion, which I thought was fair.

What isn’t fair is when critiques contain unsupported, personal, and insulting remarks.

There has also been a misuse of words with an intellectual flair, such as with the term ‘irony’. Annabel Davis-Goff pointed out this misuse of the word ‘irony’ to describe something that had no relation to the term at all.

This misuse of words has become rampant among respected writers of our time.

BLVR: What piece of writing caused you the most anxiety?

RA: Fear of being published was the primary concern. The material itself never scared me. I never targeted people who were vulnerable–at least, not to my knowledge. I only went after those who were protected by their influential circles, authorities, and private domains.

I never allowed my fear to be a factor. Perhaps I should have.

BLVR: Do you have any regrets about the writing you’ve done?

RA: Not exactly. There are a few alterations I would have made if I had the opportunity. I almost never go back and reread the things I have written and published.

BLVR: Really? You didn’t re-read the two novels that are being released?

RA: I considered if it would be all right since the New York Review Classics was known for being reliable. After that, I had the idea that it would be prudent to look over it myself. When I sat down I was shocked to find an iconic line from Wittgenstein that had been mistranslated.

It was supposed to be “The world is everything that is the case,” but instead the scanner had mistaken the German word “Alles” for “Mies,” which is a Yiddish word meaning “queasy” or “ugly”. It was more than just a typo. I felt a bit uneasy.

BLVR: Was it uncomfortable to review these two books again?

RA: It was a terrible experience. The editors had requested for me to include introductions and I said no, as it would be awkward for the books to be written in the first person singular.

They asked about an afterword instead, but I declined as I felt it was unnecessary for a book that was already narrated in the first person

. I was fearful of editors due to past experiences; for example, my last book Canaries in the Mineshaft had a paperback edition where a word from my essay “which” was on the bottom of one page and was followed by “polenta” on the next page.

As a result, thirty-two pages of the book had been replaced by a cookbook, which made me laugh. Despite this, I was delighted to get a copy of the cookbook which contained the missing thirty-two pages of Canaries in the Mineshaft.

I have always had doubts about editing and publishing, but the editors at New York Review Classics have been great.

Q: Have you ever seen an episode of The Simpsons?

RA: Not me, but my son had the pleasure of experiencing it and he claims it was great.

BLVR: Yep, that’s true. I’m inquiring because if you check out instalments from the initial several seasons, the characters seem distinct. It’s uncanny: they almost appear the same as the characters you know, but not exactly.

RA: Peanuts and its creator, Garry Trudeau, as well as the early Doonesbury comics were staples of our lives for many years, yet we didn’t realize how much they had changed over time, just like people.

BLVR: I’m constantly amazed that cartoonists are able to stick to the same type of drawing style for years. Similarly, authors can manage to keep their writing sounding like their own for decades. It’s incredible that someone can write something and then, thirty years later, produce something else with a similar style.

RA: It’s definitely a peculiar situation, right? Now, was that an inquiry about me or about people in general?

BLVR: You have a very distinctive style of speaking that makes you the ideal person to demonstrate this.

RA: Edmund Wilson shared that he often viewed his older work with varying interpretations; one day he would find it to be “dreadful” and the next he would be in awe of his writing, believing he could never reproduce the same quality.

This sentiment is particularly meaningful to me because of who Wilson was – his writing was so consistent.

III. Should I Preserve It?

BLVR: In Speedboat, there is a lengthy passage that reads: “This is the time of …”, followed by a litany of ideas that encapsulate the era, like “the great chance, the loss of faith, the bureaucrat, and technology”. If you were to rewrite this today, how would it differ?

RA: The list would be more impressive. Conditions have deteriorated severely. This is true in all aspects. That cannot be right. This is impossible to believe, particularly in the medical field. Yes, it is unfortunately true.

BLVR: I believe that Twitter has caused individuals to be more sensitive to brief, poetic phrases, which you frequently create. How much do you use the web?

RA: Not really. I’m not very adept at it. Stuff gets lost. Unfinished emails, sent off sua sponte, frequently get sent. At one point, writing was like having an essay that constantly had to be completed.

When I was not writing, I would often ask myself “Why am I not doing this project instead of something else?”. Nowadays, I’m always writing, but the process is not recognizable. I mean, I’m always sending emails.

I started sending emails to myself because I can never keep up with notes or memos. But then I accidentally clicked and sent these notes to a friend who would not necessarily have been expecting any communication from me at that moment.

BLVR: So you don’t jot anything down?

RA: I had written down my ideas on all sorts of surfaces – checkbooks, books, wrapping paper. I thought that using a computer would put an end to all the randomness, mess, and disorganization. However, from the moment I began using one, it was a catastrophe.

Back then, whenever that was, when I wanted to turn off the machine, the bottom of the screen would have a fuzzy message that read SAVE: YES/OR NO? Who would contemplate SAVE: YES/OR NO? It was just to turn the device off.

Who would assume the answer was No? The computer assumed No. After spending days and days working on something, it would then be gone. Horrible.

IV. CEZANNE, SASSETA, EAKINS, WATTEAU, AND THEIR WORK

The fourth section focuses on the works of Cezanne, Sasseta, Eakins, and Watteau. These artists and their works are explored in this section.

BLVR: Do you have many recollections of the information you learned while you were young?

RA: Indeed, a lot of memorization used to occur. We would learn these awful poems and the term “memorize” was a common one. However, children take pleasure in learning by heart.

They liked chants, songs, and lines. It’s the learning mindset. We all had to say “Horatio At the Bridge”–a long and tedious poem–that every middle class child was required to remember.

One Christmas, my father gave me a Book of the Month Club set of booklets from the Metropolitan Museum with a spot for a postage stamp of each painting. I made sure I knew them in order so I memorized them: Cezanne, Sasseta, Eakins, Watteau, About.

A year ago, I was wondering if there was ever an artist named “About”. People would often refer to the date of a painting using this name, such as “About 1810”.

I decided to research it online, and to my surprise I found the painting from the Metropolitan Museum Collection in the Book of the Month Club. I was astonished that even the unknown name “About” was found.

Technology has certainly improved research, but it has taken away our memory. People used to remember commercial jingles and slogans, and I used to contemplate the amount of knowledge we all had in common.

BLVR: Are there any connections between the recurring phrases in both Speedboat and Pitch Dark?

RA: I had never considered that before, but the answer is affirmative.

BLVR: Did you have the repeated phrases in your mind before beginning to write, or did it only seem appropriate to repeat them after writing them down?

RA: I can’t recall the exact incident, however, I have experienced something similar to this before. It was a tale that I was told, not one of my own; it had certain phrases that I felt were noteworthy and wanted to utilize.

My friend cautioned me, “No way, you can’t do that!” and I asked why. The response I got was, “You cannot risk having everyone mad at you again! You have to stop!” To which I replied, “But it’s fiction.

Maybe no one will recognize it.” Unfortunately, the lines were taken from a newspaper article, clearly a public source. He said, “No, you cannot use those lines.” He was right, I definitely do not want to have powerful people angry with me again.

V. STERN’S SHOPPING CENTER

  1. Stern’s is a retail establishment offering an array of merchandise to the public. Customers can find a variety of products such as clothing, shoes, accessories, and home goods. The store is well-known for its wide selection of items and competitive prices.

BLVR: In Pitch Dark, there is a phrase that speaks to the notion of being both a successful and unsuccessful citizen of one’s time. Considering that, would you agree that you too have experienced this duality?

RA: Speaking off the top of my head? Definitely. It’s interesting – some lines hold more significance to one person than another.

The line at the forefront of my mind is, “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” Yet, if I were to write non-fiction, I’d have to adjust the grammar to “Have I thrown…”. But this wouldn’t have worked in the novel due to the wrong tone.

BLVR: Could you tell me a bit about what you have been occupied with lately?

RA: I had the ambition to write a third novel and now, having completed it, I’m eager to return to crafting nonfiction. Although I’m not in a position to do so at this moment.

BLVR: When I consider the foremost authors of the late 1960s and 1970s, I find that a lot of their work appears to be quite diagnostic. It feels like they were pondering, “What is the situation of this era?” Is it plausible that the most talented writers are always those capable of recognizing the intangible aspects of their period, aspects that are noticeable to everyone but not necessarily verbalized?

RA: When I began working on these books, I anticipated having a classic narrative. But, that was not the outcome. I was writing on the matter of Modernism and Feeling, which is not related to free-association or stream of consciousness.

Also, I had previously published a book of New Yorker reporting articles, which included an introduction regarding our generation. When I take a look at it now, I can see how I was somewhat wrong and full of confidence.

It is essential that you remain so.

RA: It was a rare occurrence to have the federal government and people engaging in civil disobedience work together so effectively as it did during the civil rights movement in the South. This made it quite easy to distinguish between the good and smart people.

It was a blessing to have such a guaranteed, honorable recognition of rightness, which was unprecedented historically. You can be right when you argue for an art movement and point out the artists, but it is a privilege to have such certainty.

BLVR: Was it possible to discern who had the correct opinion and who was in the wrong?

RA: Absolutely, and to be certain.

Other Options You Might Enjoy

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