Renata Adler, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
In 2013 the author of Speedboat and Pitch Dark talked with Dawn Raffel about transcendent reading, writing a fine sentence, picking a fight, Isaac Babel—and Oprah.
Renata Adler is legendary—revered, feared, debated, emulated, and ultimately uncopiable. A longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, Adler made her mark with her reporting chops, her political passions (elucidated in her book Toward a Radical Middle), and her fierce intellectual curiosity; she also served as the chief film critic at the New York Times for a year. She later famously dismissed a volume of Pauline Kael’s film criticism as “worthless” and set off a firestorm with Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, her 1999 book critical of no small number of powerful people.
That policy of honesty over niceties or “professional courtesy” has been at her own peril and earned her notoriety, but it is for her two shock-to-the-system novels—Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) that Adler remains best known. With crystalline sentences and deliberately fractured composition, Adler created indelible renderings of the inner life and of a particular moment in the culture. The novels, wholly original and at the same time strangely inevitable, were transformative for a generation of adventurous readers.
Adler appeared at the Center for Fiction, in conjunction with the reissue of Speedboat and Pitch Dark. She agreed to meet me for an interview in the reading room at the Library Hotel. Tiny, soft-spoken, and easily recognizable from the iconic photo taken decades earlier by Richard Avedon, Adler settled in for a long talk about creating sentences, weathering controversy, dealing with the necessary annoyance of computers, and being in awe of Isaac Babel, Henry James—and Oprah.
I guess I’ll start by asking—these novels are being republished. How do you regard them now? Are they old friends? Are they antagonists? Are they strangers?
It’s funny, I almost never read stuff after it’s been published, but because they were going to reprint these, I had to. I think my relation to them is about the same as it was then, which is odd. I mean, whatever they were then, they are now. I think I’ve just written another one.
You’ve written another novel?
Oh, that’s exciting.
So it’s funny to have them converge or overlap, but there it is. I don’t know how you feel about publication, but that whole process has so many anxieties of various kinds. But once the books are published, they’re published. There’s nothing you can do about it. You said, how do I—
Do you feel like you’re looking at the work and thinking, “Hey, old friend,” or—
No, I never think, “Hey, old friend.”
Or “Who wrote this?”
Well, sometimes one thinks that. But with these I thought the same form of, “Oh, I see” and “Oh, dear” as I thought at the time.
I feel like the through line in all of your work—the fiction, the nonfiction, the criticism—it’s just fearless. The fiction is like a steel-trap mind and a broken heart.
Oh that’s so nice. And the “fearless” is nice because there is that sort of timid side one has. But this risk and cowardice question—those are very strange questions, aren’t they? Unless you’re a certain kind of writer and you know that people are helpless in a way. In nonfiction particularly, if the writer is with a powerful institution, the writer has the last word in a very scary way. I remember when it was a cultivated thing to do to read The Sunday Times book review or to subscribe, perhaps, to the Book of the Month Club, and perhaps to Reader’s Digest —which is, looking back, the most justifiable of those. [Laughs] But they hadn’t got it right, they just hadn’t got it right. That’s not where I’m going to find it. But for many, many people those things were the last word. It’s like the critics who used to be able to close a show on Broadway. For a lot of people, the last word is what’s published by somebody not fearless but not scared either, just somewhat over-confident, maybe free of doubt. But that’s not us.
But how do you get the courage…you break a lot of rules in your fiction.
Do I? I just wrote and cut and wrote and rewrote and cut and rewrote, and then there’s always that fear, isn’t there, that you’re making it worse when you’re revising. There’s always the fear that maybe an earlier draft was better, and there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s not going to help to hold it up for another year and review it another time because you might make it even worse.
I have a favorite sentence in Pitch Dark, and it’s “Wait, wait, wait, wait.” Every time the word “wait” recurs, it changes, and it becomes a weightier “wait.” I think a serious writer and a serious reader must wait.
Oh, that’s lovely. There’s a kind of editor and a certain cast of mind that says, “cut.” And so they’d say, “Cut to the first wait,” and “What is this other ‘wait’?” I just wanted those. No fewer, no more. But I could imagine a certain kind of editor saying, “You know, people are very busy and one ‘wait’ can do it.” So then you’re in trouble. I’m very glad you like it, is what I’m trying to say.
You’ve said you cut a lot.
Do you cut a lot between sentences or from drafts?
I cut a lot and then I put a lot in, and then I can’t tell the difference between an earlier draft and this draft, which seemed crucial to me at the time. So that’s a very strange process, which doesn’t work the same way in nonfiction at all.
Well, facts are very helpful.
Facts are very helpful.
Do you think that a fiction writer has a moral responsibility?
Every fiction writer?
Well, do you feel that you do?
A moral responsibility to be on the side of the good guys and not the bad guys? A moral responsibility not to ruin lives, not to do certain kinds of harm? Yes, I do. But are there a whole lot of fiction writers ruining lives? I mean, Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again. They weren’t asking for it, and they minded whatever it was he did. Okay, so there’s one. But then there’s a kind of person who “writes into” a fiction writer’s fiction, who knows perfectly well that the next book better sure be pretty recognizable. In a way, there’s fair warning. I mean, there are some writers where I wouldn’t want to be the latest girl. [laughs.]
Some people mind that less than others. But I’m not that sort of writer.
Some of the pieces in Speedboat were stories first. Did you know it would be a novel?
No, I did not. I’m not sure I knew they would be stories, either. I was just writing fiction for a change. If you look at an Isaac Babel story, for example, it’s between two and three pages, and what he does is a miracle. You can’t doubt that it’s a story, and that’s just wonderful to be able to do, but I couldn’t do that. So there are different ways people write their stories, and some are more clearly units. I was writing in some unit I didn’t know. I was writing fiction and it began here and it ended there, but I mean I couldn’t just keep turning it out like paper towels or something.
When you put together Speedboat did you write it the way it appears, or did you shuffle it in some way?
Oh, I always shuffle. And there, the computer is just a disaster because the only thing I’ve ever been compulsively neat about is typing. I type with two fingers, and so I would always make a mistake near the end of the page, and since White Out is no use, I would throw the thing out and start again at the beginning. Then along came the computer and I thought it was going to help because you can move everything around all the time and you can change every sentence 50 different ways in seconds. But that’s exactly what I don’t want, because then what was I doing? If the computer can shift everything in a split-second, then what am I doing here? That’s what I used to do so carefully. One of the things that’s almost comically a problem is AutoCorrect, and what AutoCorrect thinks I’m saying.
You have another sentence in Pitch Dark that I like, where you describe young women reading the great books with “a transcendent though far from complete comprehension.” Would you say that in every great book there’s no complete comprehension? That’s a wry sentence but…
It’s very interesting that you should say that, because I now remember that sentence, and it has become true in a new way. About two years ago, I started to have various not-so-serious physical problems, but I really had to lie on the floor, and I couldn’t lift books. So I was reading classics on my Kindle, books that had meant a lot to me and that I thought I knew very well. It turned out that some of the things that had meant the most to me, I had completely misunderstood. So now I thought, “What makes me think I get them now?”
Is there ever a complete comprehension?
No, come to think of it. Young people may in some ways understand better. Those might be the best reading years. And if we said to the writer, “Is this what you meant?” the answer’s not going to help us at all.
No. The writer might feel he’s meant something different at a later time.
Yes, and it’s not that important what he meant.
Do you write sentences aloud? Or do you just have a great ear?
I don’t say them aloud but I hear them. There’s a cadence that strikes me as right. Do you get cadences in your head?
Yeah. A lot of the feeling is carried in the language, the rhythm.
Do you write fiction?
So there you are. I stopped reading almost anything contemporary because of not wanting that excuse not to write. That is like having a term paper due, and you think, “Well, I’m just going to read this and then I’ll do it.” Joan Didion once said this wonderful thing, that she’s careful not to read anything she likes when she’s working and would throw it across the room, I think, because that voice gets in your head. I don’t know about you, but almost any excuse will do not to write, and reading is one of the best. I used to think that going for a walk was an excuse not to write, but I see now that I really need to go for a walk. That I can actually write on a walk.
Yes. So you said there’s a new novel.
I think so, yeah. But then why haven’t I turned it in? I imagine a part of it is these reprints. But yes, I think I’ve written another novel.
That’s fantastic. Do you see your influence in other writers?
No. But I wouldn’t know how to look.
Speedboat in particular is like a soul portrait of New York in the 70s. That city is gone. What haunts you?
What haunts me from what’s gone about that city?
Maybe—or what haunts you?
One thing that haunts me that would be true of anybody getting older is that some of the best people are dead and are not replaced. The other thing is, I was very lucky in being alive during the Civil Rights movement in the South. There were people and things working in a way that they haven’t since. I’ve never seen it written anywhere about the cooperation between government and civil disobedience…But that’s not what you asked. What haunts me? What haunts me is not so much the things that no longer exist, but what I should have done differently. Isn’t that what haunts everybody?
When you write fiction is it a different you?
No. It’s a deeper me.
It’s funny, the difference between an interview and a conversation... there are also thoughts that are conversations. There’s the fiction you and the nonfiction you, the doubter, the coach...
You mean it’s an internal conversation.
It’s an internal conversation. Writing nonfiction is a pretty one-sided conversation, and you’ve just got to hope the mistakes are not serious. It isn’t in the same way fiction.
Well, perhaps they’re both problem-solving. You made a lot of people angry with your book about The New Yorker.
Do you feel there will be any residual of that in the response to these books?
Well, yeah. The only reason I published The New Yorker book was that there was already that anger, and other people were writing books and I was appearing in these books. There was already this attack on me, so I thought, “Well, what do I do?” I can’t say this, but I very nearly doubt that the book had much to do with it. Well, of course it had something to do with it.
What do you think it was?
For years, I’d been saying to friends, “Don’t lose your institutional affiliation.” If you’re at Vogue and you’re an artist and you feel people are cutting your artwork to pieces, don’t quit. Do your art somewhere else, but you need the institutional affiliation because otherwise you’re out there, and it’s not safe. So then like a fool I left The New Yorker, although not for no reason. It was very clear that it wasn’t working. I knew that piece of advice: Don’t leave. But I sort of had to. I don’t want to get into that New Yorker stuff, but your question of whether that residual hostility remains—I would be very surprised if it did not. There’s nobody less forgiving as the press, in a certain way.
Do you read The New Yorker now?
No. Well, not nothing ever, but no.
And what about the movies? Why the fascination? I can’t think of anybody whose fiction is less like a movie.
Well, I probably could—I mean, say Alain Robbe-Grillet, but….
I can’t really read Alain Robbe-Grillet. I don’t feel any kinship to whatever sort of modernism or absurdism that is. But movies—I was just somebody who went to movies the way people go to movies and then I had this job as a movie critic. And I almost stopped going to the movies after it. Because movies can do all kinds of things that prose cannot.
And the reverse.
Yeah, sure? That’s the big question because one thing that I’ve thought a lot about over the years is the performing arts as opposed to the arts. For example, a sculpture’s clearly not a performing art. There’s an object. And a screenplay, in a less obvious way, is also an object, and a written thing is also an object, but playing the violin is a performing art. If a great violinist plays Schubert it’s going to affect you emotionally in a certain way. I guess music has qualities that even movies don’t. The composition is the object but the performing artist is not. And then I think there came a moment sometime around the auteur theory time when the audience began to identify with the creator. It’s one thing if the audience is moved by a violinist; it’s another thing if the audience is aware of the director or the writer and identifies with the director or the writer. It’s a real problem. I care a lot what happens to a character in fiction, but I sure don’t want to identify with the writer, because then what are we talking about? That’s a performing arts situation, which is a deep confusion. Does that make any sense?
I’m not sure I understand. You’re saying that you feel the writer has now become like a performing artist?
There’s a big difference between saying of a writer, “I know just what she’s up to,” and, “I know exactly what she means.” In fact, there’s all the difference in the world. We don’t want to know what she’s up to; we want, “I know what she means.” …. You need to forget the author when you’re reading the book. Of course, if I’m reading Henry James, and I think that he’s brilliant beyond belief, it doesn’t stop me caring about what’s going on in the book, does it? It doesn’t. If I’m reading Jane Austen or John Le Carré it doesn’t stop me caring what’s going on. But you want to be very careful that the writer doesn’t intrude to the point where—well, you don’t want show-offy writing. So then the question is, is this or is this not show-offy?
Yes, because with a very good writer there’s awareness of play. There’s an awareness that somebody has composed this and they’re playing with you, in a way.
In a way. But I hope it’s heartfelt. I don’t just want to be playing.
Maybe I’m defining the word “play” in the wrong way.
No, I know what you mean. That’s what happens with suspense. If I want to sustain the suspense for the end, which I already know, that is playing, is it not? Then there’s a kind of writer who says, “What’s so wonderful is when the book takes over and the characters are doing stuff that I didn’t expect,” and I know what they mean but the surprises for me are not those. You know, I was even trying to write about this a little bit. The move of the chess piece, the horse—that’s such a hard move to explain to somebody in the abstract, but you put it on the chess board and there’s a pleasure in it, right? There’s the bishop in diagonal, and there are the pieces that are allowed to do this and that, but this chess move of the horse—it may also be a narrative device. It’s just so strange where the momentum is. In nonfiction it’s fairly clear. In fiction, unless it’s thrillers, which I love, it’s not so clear. Sometimes the momentum is in the sentences and in the cadences, and sometimes the momentum is in the risks. It’s the writer’s risk—not formal risks, but risks of whatever matters to you, to one.
Is that momentum and energy between the sentences?
I don’t know. Because it doesn’t have to be that the momentum is forward, or does it? Just the act of reading has its own momentum, and so you just keep reading forward, and you may flip back….but I never think like this. It isn’t the kind of thing that makes you want to sit down and write!
Alright, well let me ask you one more thing, which I’ve never asked a writer. I worked for Oprah for seven years. At the end of an interview, she always asked a question, which she actually got from Gene Siskel: What do you know for sure?
Isn’t that a wonderful question? What kind of answers were there? I can’t even imagine among available answers.
All kinds of things.
“I know that my redeemer liveth,” for example, would be one answer. Not mine.
I don’t think anybody answered with that! You know, what’s terrible is I remember the question better than the answers.
That’s a hard one to answer. I’m amazed by the degree to which my response is positive to anything to do with Oprah—what an important figure in doing good! She’s the only Oprah, for sure.
Is that what you know for sure?
Yes. There isn’t a second-best Oprah.
Richard Avedon, Renata Adler, April 1975, Patmos, Greece, © The Richard Avedon Foundation.
Renata Adler was born in Milan and raised in Connecticut. She received a B.A. from Bryn Mawr, an M.A. from Harvard, a D.d’E.S from the Sorbonne, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and an LL.D. (honorary) from Georgetown. Adler became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1963 and, except for a year as the chief film critic of The New York Times, remained at The New Yorker for the next four decades. Her books include A Year in the Dark (1969); Toward a Radical Middle (1970) Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time (1986) Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001) Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (1999) Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and The Decision That Made George W. Bush President (2004); and the novels Speedboat (1976); winner of the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel) and Pitch Dark(1983).
Dawn Raffel's illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Her previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division, which was a Barnes & Noble "Discover" book. Her stories have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, Conjunctions, Black Book, Fence, Open City, The Mississippi Review Prize Anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies—most recently The Best Small Fictions 2015. Her next book, a biography, is under contract at Blue Rider/Penguin.