Adler, Renata (Vol. 31)
Renata Adler 1938–
American novelist, journalist, critic, and short story writer.
A journalist and critic whose articles have been collected in Toward a Radical Middle (1969) and A Year in the Dark (1970), Adler is also the author of two successful novels. Both Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) are composed of seemingly unconnected passages that challenge readers to find meaning. Like her nonfiction, Adler's novels examine the issues and mores of contemporary life.
Toward a Radical Middle includes essays on national and international social and political issues. Critics applauded the collection, noting that Adler had skillfully chosen details to provide insight into many of the troubling issues of the 1960s and that she had managed to offer meaningful social commentary without intruding on her subject. A Year in the Dark is a compendium of film reviews Adler wrote for The New York Times. Although some critics felt that Adler's lack of formal training in film studies diminished her criticism, it was generally recognized that she had expanded the role of a movie reviewer by writing a wide range of articles, from a report on the arts in Cuba to reviews of pornographic and foreign-language films.
Speedboat, Adler's first novel, met with generally favorable response, even though many critics found it difficult to classify the book. They hesitated to call it a novel because the work comprises short scenes that overlap and recall one another without forming a single narrative line. Other critics maintained that Speedboat was a unified work and praised its mixture of journalistic reportage and autobiography. The success of Speedboat led to great anticipation of Adler's next novel. Pitch Dark is the story of Kate Ennis and her attempt to end a nine-year romance with her married lover. Like Speedboat, Pitch Dark emphasizes particular and apparently disparate moments rather than a sequential narrative. Some critics found Pitch Dark solipsistic and charged that Adler did not finally draw the fragments of the novel into one continuously interesting work. Most, however, concluded that Adler was successful in making the pattern of moments both satisfying and effective.
(See also CLC, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5.)
In excruciating conversations over drinks around the city, during the fourteen months that Renata Adler served as film critic for The New York Times, I often found myself serving, by a whoosh of role suction, as her apologist. When anyone else present seemed prepared to champion her critical honor, I'd find myself laying back. Even after a heavy artillery barrage, my reinforcements were timid and lackluster….
Now Random House has published all her Times stuff (January, 1968–February, 1969) virtually unreedited, in the precise order of its appearance—nearly two hundred complete pieces of writing: daily reviews, Sunday essays, movie-oriented reports from New York, Paris, Rome, Venice, Rochester and Havana—under the title A Year in the Dark.
Reading through her year in a couple of sittings, I became progressively more ashamed of (and bewildered by) my old soft shoe, since it could scarcely be more clear that Miss Adler was not just far and away the best daily movie reviewer we've ever had, but one of the best film critics as well.
She ideally combined the qualities of reviewer and critic. Once you'd got the hang of her, you could tell just how you'd take to a given movie, whatever liberties of association she'd taken….
Even at her shakiest—when she forced tone (over which she exerts exquisite control) to bear the major burden of her response—she had...
(The entire section is 1063 words.)
[In "Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism," a] collection of essays written originally for The New Yorker, [Adler] appears in several roles: reporter, critic, social philosopher. As a reporter, she occasionally suffers from too much courtesy: she hates to criticize her hosts, the people who let her run the tape recorder, and her point comes through rather too lightly. As a critic, she bites as hard as anyone, but always in the service of an idea, which saves her from bitchiness or any kind of nastiness high. As a social philosopher, she binds up her several selves and explains what they are all up to.
In her Introduction, which doubles as the best essay in the book, she explains herself in terms of her generation. If Norman Podhoretz did this, she would call it a dubious universalization of self; and sometimes it is. Since she thinks rather highly of her generation (and makes one feel mightily proud to belong to it), she is reluctant to admit that it is herself alone that she is talking about at least part of the time. (pp. 12, 14)
The model of what Miss Adler thinks we should be doing is conveyed in her long, harrowing account of the 1965 march on Selma: sober, specific action, absolutely free of bombast. What we shouldn't be doing comes up at the end, when she reports on the 1968 New Politics conference in Chicago, where all manner of Spocks and Coffins endorsed a Black Manifesto,...
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It was a big mistake for the New York Times to ask Renata Adler to replace Bosley Crowther as the paper's movie critic in 1967, and a small disaster for Miss Adler (or Renata, as she became known to the thousands who started following her daily mistakes, laxities of prose, insights and oversights, in a cliffhanging "Perils of Renata" that was usually resolved by Miss Adler's falling off her critical or rhetorical cliff) to have accepted. Somebody at the Times must have heard that movies were fashionable, and thought to bestow a little cultural respectability on a medium it had previously recognized mainly as an advertiser….
What nobody seemed to notice was that Renata didn't know much about movies, didn't care much about them, and didn't care to write much about them. At a time when there were far more interested, interesting film critics around (and the Times could have had any of them for the asking), the paper chose to use the movies as a guinea pig on which to experiment with someone who was less a New Journalist than a novice. Film 1968 went largely unappraised in the Times (except by second-stringer Vincent Canby) as Renata attempted on the job to develop a prose style and a film attitude. Gradually, an Adlerian style was discerned. First paragraph: summation. Second paragraph: list of good things in movie. Third paragraph: list of bad things in movie. Final paragraph: critical appraisal of...
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The last ten or fifteen years have been marked by two prominent notions among intellectuals. Many writers have felt that the essence of the period has been the eruption of hot issues through the fissures and seams of American political compromises. Current political language often sounds like a new geometry developed to measure gaps and distances between groups of people. Without a climate of compromise, politically conscious writers are more often than not compelled to take a position and hold ground as if under attack. Thus, Renata Adler entitled her book of reportage Toward a Radical Middle, which says very little about her work in the sixties but quite a bit about the need to locate on the generational battlefield. (p. 580)
The problem of assessing one's own past writings is often as difficult as the actual writing about one's experience. Renata Adler's fourteen pieces of reporting and criticism from 1963 to 1968, despite what she says in her introductory essay, do not amount to a defense of language and nuance, nor offer much proof that the "System" has accommodated anyone out of the ordinary in the past decade, nor that it is getting "better." In fact, Adler is a far better writer than she is a polemicist for the radical middle. Her essays simply do not add up to the position for which she claims to be a spokesman.
If anything, Adler's political position is slightly off center. At her best, as in "The...
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[Speedboat, Renata Adler's first novel,] was a wonderfully fresh and thoughtful book, written as if the author neither knew nor cared how other people wrote; she would proceed in her own remarkable way.
Her second novel [Pitch Dark] necessarily lacks that element of surprise; we know her by now. But it conveys the same sense of freshness, or originality practiced not for its own sake but because the author is absolutely desperate to tell us how things are just as forthrightly and truthfully as possible. Or maybe it's not so much how things are as what is felt—what her heroine feels upon arriving at the frayed, sad, uncertain end of a love affair.
Even with her opening remarks, Kate—who is the narrator as well as the heroine—shows herself obsessed with getting this story across to us exactly right. Where to start? we hear her wondering, and she begins first one way and then another, discarding whole paragraphs as they prove unsatisfactory….
But she doesn't get them straight; that's not her style. Instead, she presents us with a scattering of fragments, stray bits and pieces that she trusts will come to have meaning for us. Some of the fragments float past over and over, at first unexplained—brief sentences like "Quanta, Amy said, on the train," and "Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret," and "What do you tell the Sanger people? Lily asked." Eventually these sentences are...
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Peter S. Prescott
"Pitch Dark" has its clever moments and, in its central section, something that resembles a story, but it's not the witty virtuoso performance that "Speedboat" was. The earlier book was put together like a collage of file cards on which Adler had scribbled whatever jokes, anecdotes and scraps of conversation she could use to define a contemporary sensibility. The architecture of this one is visibly more ambitious, more ambiguous. It is, I think, an anorectic novel: its class, its intelligence and the high seriousness of its intentions don't quite justify its lack of flesh.
Plot and character are for other people's novels; "Pitch Dark" presents a situation that Adler develops by theme and variations. The narrator, Kate Ennis, may be a newspaperwoman in her 40s, but the important thing about her is her tone of voice, her diffidence about telling her story ("I don't know where it begins. It is where I am"), her habit of interrupting herself to repeat obscure sentences as if they were refrains from some as yet unwritten dirge….
Adler's idea of how to build a novel is to make it as fragmented as the lives it reflects. I suspect the easiest way to like "Pitch Dark" is to examine its parts and not worry long about the overall design. Kate's protestations that she doesn't know how to begin her story don't excuse Adler's own early stumblings. Her numbing repetition of perhaps a dozen significant sentences quickly becomes...
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Plot and characterization are barely bothered with in Pitch Dark. The breakup is a foregone conclusion—no suspense there. Adler refuses to begin her novel in any conventional manner. "It's not what I know how to do," she has Kate tell us. She appears anxious to distinguish her writing from the kind of tale where, as Kate remarks with fine scorn, "somebody loves and somebody doesn't, or loves less, or loves someone else, or someone is a good soul and someone is a villain…." This dismissive attitude is problematic. No really great novel has been without these essential ingredients. Nor is Pitch Dark, which is not a great novel, free of them: Jack is a kind of villain, the book is filled with love and its diminishment, and Kate, despite her self-deprecation, is meant to seem, and regard herself (especially in comparison to others) as a good enough soul.
There is in Adler a recognizably American wish to write as if the desires of others, the very fact of others, were not constraining on the self and its experience. True, the disquisitions on modern life have a determined, almost dutiful, outward bearing and significance. But parts of the book give one the feeling that the wish to float free had compulsive force. Kate's flight across Ireland is an illustration: The reader can only believe in the symbolic resonances of the events, what they reveal about Kate's state of mind, not in the people she flees from or in her...
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Nature abhors a vacuum—at least in the little nook of the universe we inhabit. According to continuities and correspondences we cannot easily explain, the descriptive power of that statement appears to extend to some areas of art….
[This is true of] some advanced areas of literature. For a number of years I have kept a list of devices and terms proposed from many sides to replace unity as the central organizing principle, particularly in the novel: digression, parody, marginal discourse, reflexivity, fragment, miscellany, theme and variations, écriture, palimpsest, and many more. The peculiar quality of Renata Adler's latest book, like the earlier Speedboat, is that, while adopting several of these devices, it insists on describing the vacuum itself. Pitch Dark injects into the seemingly vacant life of the author's surrogate narrator-protagonist enough dye to give the emptiness shape and visibility. The dye is compounded of short anecdotes, comic asides, deadpan refrains, and dissertations on far-fetched topics. It shows up the vacant space without filling it, and the resultant style veers rapidly between liveliness and diagnosis….
Pitch Dark is a Book of Questions, often without the usual punctuation, suggesting they seek no answer. Speculation is called for here more than interrogation or detection….
These questions and these brooding, intermittent memories...
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I do not have the attention span to sustain a lengthy depression, but I have of late been reading two novelists who do: Renata Adler and Joan Didion. I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining…. They seem, these two writers, not really happy unless they are sad. They keep, to alter the line from an old song, a frown on their page for the whole modern age. (p. 62)
Of the two, Renata Adler is the less practiced novelist. She has written, in fact, two novels but no narratives. Speedboat, her first novel, and Pitch Dark, her second, are both composed for the most part of short, journal-like entries, which, in the modernist spirit, a reader has rather to assemble on his own. Speedboat, published in 1976, was much praised; it won the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel of the year in which it was published. Reading it today, one notices certain affinities with the work of Ann Beattie: a flatness of expression meant to convey a deep spiritual fatigue. On the formal level, the novel seems Barthelmystically influenced, though without Barthelme's intellectual playfulness. (p. 63)
Miss Adler is not telling a story in Speedboat; instead she is trying to create a feeling through the thoughts, incidents, and odd happenings that occur to the presence at the center of her book, Jen Fain, who is a working journalist also teaching a film course at...
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