Her Hatchet Is More Like an Ax: Renata Adler and the Problem with Critics



The most recently published piece in Renata Adler’s collected nonfiction, After the Tall Timber (New York Review Books), is a curious defense of the serial plagiarizer Jayson Blair by way of an excoriation of The New York Times, the paper that published Blair’s fictions. The article appeared in the American Spectator in 2003. After this, Adler seemed to all but vanish from mainstream journalism, to such an extent that the republication, in 2013, of her two formerly out-of-print novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), was touted as the rediscovery of a long-forgotten author. Shortly before this critical consensus that she was more or less back from the dead, or at least the far periphery of publishing, Adler wrote a book review, her first in a while, for Town & Country. An article in Women’s Wear Daily treated this as breaking news.

Her decade of obscurity marked a change. As late as 2000, Adler’s every move was documented by the media oligarchy, especially The Times. The paper was her employer for about a year in the late ’60s. After Gone, her book about working at the New Yorker, was released in 1999, The Times latched onto an out-of-context aside from the book, and subsequently published eight pieces about Adler, each one singling out a lone sentence critical of Judge Joseph Sirica. The sentence, which referred to Sirica as “corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest,” was “treated as serious news,” in Adler’s words. The paper accused her of waging a “drive-by assault” without the support of “any evidence” (her source for the quote was Sirica’s own autobiography). Soon, the hive of New York media swarmed about frantically. In the spring of 2000, as Adler herself chronicles in a piece of self-absolution originally published in Harper’s that year, Adler found herself at the heart of a news cycle that in the end was of little consequence to anyone. By the time Speedboat and Pitch Dark returned to public consciousness nobody even remembered the controversy. How short the memories—and careers—of journalists.

I understand this disconnect to be mostly superficial: comeback stories sell books. And I’m fine with that because Adler’s books deserve to be read. Before her novels were reissued, Adler was an important writer who resisted easy canonization from the literary establishment, even as her contemporaries—Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, even her former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb—became household names. My takeaway is that one does not claim, as Adler does in this collection, that The Times “declines responsibility for real errors, and creates as well an affinity for all orthodoxies” and get away with it.

I want to set aside Adler’s politics. Adler, who claims civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Parris Moses as her heroes, covered King’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 for the New Yorker. The piece is charming but ultimately forgettable. I really do appreciate Adler documenting Joan Baez, in a velvet dress, breaking into “a rather reverent Frug” during a performance by Len Chandler, but the article is too full of incidental details like this, and reads more like limp event coverage than reporting. Her dispatches from conflict zones—the Six-Day War and Biafra—are similarly marked by halfhearted irreverence, a tone that spills over as well into her close reading of the Starr Report as “prurient gossip raised, for the first time, to the level of constitutional crisis,” which is entertaining but inconsequential.

I want to focus instead on “House Critic,” Adler’s negative appraisal of the work of her New Yorker colleague Pauline Kael, originally published in 1980 under the title “The Perils of Pauline” in the New York Review of Books. The piece embodies all of Adler’s strengths as a writer and provides a sort of template for much of the rest of her journalism: a personal manifesto for writing masquerading as a critique of the insipid doltishness of another person, ultimately serving as an indictment of the culture writ large. The reputation of “House Critic” precedes itself to such an extent that it is the only work here to receive a contemporary introduction from the author, which claims the essay has been discussed so often since its publication that “people who had never read the piece had the strongest possible views of what they thought was in it.” I’ve experienced missing my subway stop in New York City because I was distracted by a book, but “House Critic” led me to get on the wrong train entirely, and end up in a different borough than the one I was headed to. An almost fatalistically unenthusiastic review, it is unrivaled in the genre of hatchet jobs.

A hatchet job can destroy the career of its subject—as Michael Wolff argues, in his preface to Adler’s collection, happened with Kael—though more often it simply makes the career of the critic. Thus Dale Peck calling Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation,” or more recently, James Wolcott saying, in the context of Lena Dunham, “I recognize that humor is subjective, but Jesus.” And yet every year brings a new condemnation to this style as a petty grasp at relevancy by an unfamous critic piggybacking on the success of a well-known author. “It’s easier to be witty when one is being unkind,” Francine Prose wrote last year in The New York Times Book Review, the standard-bearer for literary criticism where likeminded writers endlessly try not to upset one another and only rarely seem to say what they actually think. If all book reviews were polemical, I’d stop reading them entirely, but I do acknowledge the performative negativity of a hatchet job as occasionally necessary ego-busting, and also more pleasurable than the tepid politics of the publishing industry.

“House Critic” is a special case, though. Adler’s argument about Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic from 1968 to 1991, is that the role of staff critics “is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.” This is the kind of writing that makes me wince even as I revel in it. What member of any editorial staff, tasked with producing a certain amount of words each week, hasn’t come up with the occasional pedestrian idea, lackluster paragraph, or, in this golden age of journalism—an industry that uses the phrase “lots of traffic” as a positive signifier—slideshow package? (I can’t help but feel compassion for the author of “How 8 Art World Power Couples Met and Fell In Love For Valentine’s Day,” which I stumbled upon while writing this.)

Every word of the Kael essay is quotable, but Adler’s most widely circulated sentence from “House Critic” describes Kael’s writing in her collection When the Lights Go Down as “line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” Far more damning is the actual line-by-line analysis. Adler builds her argument mostly through a series of lists comprising Kael’s trademark vituperation. These out-of-context inventories read like rap sheets, an excellent technique that is hard to argue with and could make any writer seem careless. On Kael’s overuse of certain words:

“You want to wipe it off his face.” “You want to kick him.” Your “guts are squeezed.” (Guts appear a lot, in noun, verb, or adjective form: “The film’s discreet, gutted sensitivity,” for instance, “is self-sufficient.” What?) “You are caught up emotionally and flung about the room.” Thirty pages later, “we” are caught “by the throat” and “knocked about the room.” All this, of course, is standard, blurb copy.

(To be fair, everyone has a personal stock vocabulary, and in the 500 pages of this collection, Adler repeats an argument about The Times’ coverage of political prisoner Wen Ho Lee verbatim in two separate pieces.)

Predictably, Adler inspired huge amounts of backlash, including a committee-like response defending Kael published in a later issue of the New York Review of Books. “Can’t the little viper see the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and straight-forwardness in Kael’s critiques?” wrote a “loyal P. Kael fan, age 13” from Des Plaines, Illinois. Adler’s writing has not softened with time, though removed from the contemporaneous media gossip that surrounded the piece when it first arrived—that the New Yorker editor William Shawn secretly commissioned the piece was just one of the false rumors floating around in 1980, according to the introduction—it is easier to approach the essay now simply on the level of writing. In about 8,000 words, Adler managed not only to convince me of Kael’s abundant weakness, she also made me recall numerous repressed, careless sentences I’ve written myself, and, for a moment, made me more nervous than usual about having to face a blank page.

After covering the art world for what feels like a lot longer than five years, it’s difficult not to take Adler’s essay personally. (I’ll mention here that I thought briefly of burning my bridges like my subject and writing this piece by taking an Adler-esque look at Pulitzer Prize–finalist and National Magazine Award–winner Jerry Saltz, probably the most recognizable of all art writers—“Strangest in this strange land is that 123,000 people now follow me,” he wrote in a particularly cloying aw-shucks moment in a column about Instagram last year—but that might have been a little too personal.) Adler’s castigation of Kael still seems relevant, and encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with the media.

And yet I can’t help but feel “House Critic” is unfortunately of its era. No hatchet job since has been so unconcerned with potential professional backlash, and the very fact that the miasma of rhetorical questions that defines contemporary journalism thinks to question the validity of this form at all isn’t a good sign. I can imagine the headlines that would appear if Adler published this piece today: Salon would say something to the affect of “What Renata Adler Gets Wrong about Pauline Kael.” Slate might reply with “Renata Adler Isn’t Wrong. And That’s the Problem.” (And probably a few more pieces —“Why Renata Adler’s Takedown of Pauline Kael Is Less Important Than You Think,” etc.) Buzzfeed would break the article down into 25 sound bites and pair them with GIFs: “Watch These 25 Puppies React to Reading Renata Adler.” In between TV recaps, New York magazine might carve out a few minutes to interview Adler. And The New York Times, as they did with her comment on Judge Sirica, would once again publish a series of articles incriminating Adler for going against accepted wisdom. There would be an op-ed (“Renata Adler and the Critics”), a media story (“With Takedown of Kael, Publishing Industry Reacts to Adler’s Antics”), very possibly an appearance in Thursday Styles (“For Adler, a Moment in the Spotlight That’s a Long Time Coming”). It’s no wonder that Adler’s recent popularity has not produced any new writing from her, but I wish that weren’t the case. We need her now more than ever.

M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.

Correction, 4/1/2015, 4:17 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified Robert Parris Moses.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “Her Hatchet is More Like an Ax.”

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