Renata Adler returns to the city that made her a literary legend

Though she has been largely absent from the New York literary scene since the late ’70s, novelist and critic Renata Adler has remained emblematic of a specific time in the city and in American letters. At 24, she began a decades-long career as a staff writer for The New Yorker, leaving only briefly to work as The New York Times’ first female film critic from 1968 to 1969, where her negative review of John Wayne’s Green Berets provoked such rage from Strom Thurmond that he entered his complaint into the Congressional Record. Adler is now 74 years old, and has returned to New York to discuss the reissue of two of her books—Speedboat and Pitch Dark—by the publishing arm of The New York Review of Books.

"It wasn’t particularly a female voice they wanted, it was just different."

Often described as an intimidating figure of Sontag-like proportions, Adler greets me on the roof of Manhattan’s Library Hotel with a smile and a handshake before she politely asks if I’d like some coffee from the hotel bar. It is a pleasant surprise to discover that such an intellectual giant, whose name provokes “admiration, anger and, not infrequently, fear,” according to a recent review in The New York Times, is actually a delight in person.

I ask if she ever thought of her early successes in gendered terms. “With the Times job, they wanted to show that there was a change,” Adler says. “It wasn’t particularly a female voice they wanted, it was just different. Arthur Gelb and Abe Rosenthal, who were the last great editors of the Times, were wonderful to me. They were taking a real risk. But it wasn’t a risk on a woman—it was taking a risk on a different level of attack and a different level of address.”

Her experience at the Times came during a well-chronicled tenure at The New Yorker, where she worked under the editorship of William Shawn, and in 1999, Adler published a controversial book about her time there, titled Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker. And although many are still eager to hear about the experiences at the magazine, she is not at all interested in discussing them. “I’d almost talk about anything else other than that book,” she says. “It turned into such a saga of its own. Almost every other piece of nonfiction that I’ve written is about a subject that strikes me as of greater importance.”

It would be difficult to disagree with her. Adler has written about everything from the Civil Rights Movement to the National Guard to America’s most famous libel cases. If you really want to know what she thinks about Mr. Shawn and The New Yorker, you can pick up a copy of Gone—it’s all in there—including details surrounding the epic story of Shawn’s departure from the magazine, with an organized effort by some of the staff to stage a walk-out.

Renata AdlerAdler photographed on the roof of The Library Hotel. 

While she will certainly be remembered for her vast contributions to journalism, Adler will forever be associated with her uncompromising, spirited toughness when it comes to literary criticism. Her 1980 review of Pauline Kael’s work in The New York Review of Books is the stuff of legend. Adler maintains, though, that her Kael review came from a real concern that criticism in general had reached an all-time low. “It went all to hell at a certain moment. Reviewing became tyrannical, wrong-headed,” says Adler. “That notorious Pauline Kael piece, I wrote it carefully and for a reason because I couldn’t believe that this had become the model.”

On the subject of criticism and its itinerant rules, Adler remains steadfast in her belief that the writer can never devolve to a personal level. “If you’re going to write a negative review, your argument has to come from the text. It can’t come from anywhere else,” she explains. But the two books we are there to discuss are novels—her only published fiction.

Speedboat was first published in 1976. The book has no plot, per se, other than the fact that Jen Fain, a young female journalist and cipher for Adler, serves as our narrator. A sequel of sorts, Pitch Dark, then followed in 1983. Although it had more of a typical narrative structure, Pitch Dark received far less attention. When I tell Renata I almost like Pitch Dark better than Speedboat, she responds, laughing, “Well, I almost do too—a lot!”

"If you’re going to write a negative review, your argument has to come from the text. It can’t come from anywhere else."

To wit, Speedboat won the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel in 1976 and, in fact, ever since the book drifted out of print people have been rallying for its return. Among them, Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson Books, who welcomed the appearance of Speedboat back to the shelves, saying, “I have been loving pale imitations of this book all my life.” Reviewers and new readers of the novel, including Eric Dean Wilson at The Millions compared it to the experience of scrolling through someone’s Twitter feed, as the book is made up of brief anecdotes about life in New York and generally strange human behavior.

By most accounts, the book could be described as a New York novel—it features all the glories and indecencies of city life, including rats scurrying across 57th street, drinks at Elaine’s, one-night stands, tennis lessons at the Armory and nights at the opera. When I ask whether she thinks aspiring writers should live in New York, Adler demurs. “If you’re a writer, it goes where you are. Avoid distractions. New York can be very distracting.” That said, until recently, Adler had always kept an apartment in Manhattan. And even as she now spends most of her time in Connecticut, “I certainly need an apartment in the city. All my friends are here.”