(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jacob Brackman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1063 words.)

Wilfrid Sheed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Richard Corliss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

James Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 entire section is 392 words.)

Oliver Conant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Roger Shattuck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2366 words.)