On second thought: Renata Adler

In James Wolcott’s Lucking Out and Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, as well as reviews of those books, Renata Adler emerges as the biggest target in contemporary hip bookchat: a chilly clinician with a “bellringer’s braid” (Wolcott’s phrase) whose vituperative essay “House Critic” was received by Kael skeptics then and now as if they’d been lepers cured by St. Damien.

Adler deserves better. A 2001 collection called Canaries in the Mindshaft: Essays on Politics and Media (in which “House Critic” is entombed and on whose dust jacket Alder still sports the fearsome braid) contains several essays that are scrupulous about showing how cant and self-regard work as shields or swords, especially when you’ve got an army servile enough to help with the killing. A self-professed Republican (“all my voting life”), Adler is devastating on forgotten travesties we should revisit: the Bork confirmation hearings, say, for which Adler wrote two New Yorker articles eviscerating both the Reagan administration’s maladroit attempt to sell Bork as a “judicial moderate” and Bork’s authoritarian jurisprudence. Speaking of forgotten absurdities, Adler approaches Bill Clinton with the air of having gotten his number from the start, which made the excitement about the release of the Starr Report all the more invidious. By implication or quoting its own words against them, she exposes the Washington reporting class as slavish to men in power. If you enjoyed Joan Didion’s similar “Vichy Washington” as much as I did, Adler’s prosecutorial verve will not look so jarring: “More disturbing, in spite of what has been at least since Vietnam an almst instinctive press hostility to elected government (an adversarial position that can be healthy in a free society),” Adler writes in the introduction, “the press now has an unmistakeable affinity with official accusers…”

I have nothing to add to the thousands of words devoted to the Adler-Kael fracas. Nor have I read Adler’s fiction (I haven’t read Didion’s either, for that matter). But Canaries in the Mineshaft is essential reading, and can be had for cheap.

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