2013 in Books: The Unlikely, Belated Year of Renata Adler


The last time I saw Renata Adler was not when her 2004 book, Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision that Made George W. Bush President, came out, but a year or two later on a rerun of the “Secret Societies” episode of History’s Mysteries on the History Channel. Of course, I recognized Adler’s name, but I wasn’t as familiar with the face, since the acclaimed author had spent the last few years moving further and further away from the public spotlight, producing less and less as the years went on. At the time, her acclaimed 1976 novel Speedboat had been nearing the top of my books-to-read pile, thanks to a suggestion from a friend, and a misplaced hardcover copy I happened upon in the basement of The Strand that was far away from its fellow novels. Seeing Adler wedged in the middle of lizard people conspiracy types like David Icke talking about the Bilderbergers made me wonder whatever happened to Renata Adler: novelist. I’d known about her storied career as a journalist and critic, as well as her middle finger to the current era of the magazine where she made her name, The New Yorker, in her 2001 book about the publication’s “last days,” Gone. She proclaims in the book’s preface, “As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.” It was a bold thing to say, and it made me wonder, while watching her talk on the television show about conspiracy theories, if Adler, and her novels which had massive amounts of acclaim since they were released in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was herself a victim of some sort of conspiracy.

Renata Adler on the cover of New York Magazine, 1983

People love to talk about great authors, from Franz Kafka to Herman Melville, who didn’t gain widespread fame or weren’t recognized as geniuses during their lifetimes. The lack of fulfillment those authors experienced when they were living and breathing hangs over our literary aspirations like those motivational posters high school teachers always have up on the wall—a beautiful landscape or cute animal coupled with a motivational quote. In this case, “Don’t worry: even James Joyce had a hard time making a living as a writer.”

Then there are the writers whose work gets filed away under “lost classics,” whose books may have found an audience only upon their initial release or fell through the cracks even then, and never received the acclaim they truly deserved. One of the best examples of a lost-then-found book is the 1965 novel Stoner, by 1973 National Book Award winner John Williams. The book received even higher praise as a rediscovered classic than upon its publication — to the extent that it even elicited a backlash, with Daily Beast writer Drew Smith taking the literary world to task for what he saw as beating a once-dead, now-zombie literary horse. “Are all these people who are ‘discovering’ Stoner actually just falling in love with an image they have of themselves,” Smith wondered, arguing that once a book has had sufficient time to be rediscovered, it is no longer a “lost classic.”

I respectfully disagree with Smith, since, as even he admits, “[l]iterature is essentially a niche interest” — one that can always use more new fans discovering titles, from Stoner to the book I feel he unfairly compared it to in his piece, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. There are so many great books, and so few people reading them. It is that lack of readership that makes me thankful for presses like Stoner’s latest publisher, NYRB Classics, that put out “lost” and overlooked books on a regular basis.

This year, while some of us were still busy catching up on Stoner (republished in 2006), or writing pieces about it, NYRB Classics was busy with another very important job: reacquainting us with Adler’s novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, as well as announcing a 2015 release of Adler’s essays. And unlike other great writers who weren’t around to enjoy their belated resurgence in popularity, the 75-year-old Adler is still very much alive, and once again the toast of a literary world that she famously looks upon with ambivalence.

While it’s hard to say one writer had a better year than others, with all the Jonathan Franzen bashing and various literary feuds that took place, Adler, with her long gray ponytail (that might actually contain all of the secrets of the universe) and her return to the highest rank of literary celebrity was one of the best things to happen to literature in 2013. From the discussions about her novels’ importance and influence on contemporary writers, to Adler’s image gracing the cover of Bookforum’s Feburary/March issue, it was Adler and her works as not-so-lost lost classics that truly deserved all the reading and celebrating. Adler’s Speedboat protagonist navigating New York City in the 1970s, going to now-closed literary hot spots (“’To Elaine’s,’ I said. That was where we went. To Elaine’s, to the Dow-Jones averages, to the future, then, to preserve the domestic tranquility”) felt as, or in some cases, more contemporary than other novels that debuted in 2013.

Maybe because a book like Rachel Kushner’s mega-successful novel The Flamethrowers (which was released this year, slightly after all the newfound adoration for Adler began going public) also took place around the same time and used the same city Adler wrote about in such dizzying and exciting detail; or possibly it was because, reading Speedboat, one could see the influence Adler had on writers like David Shields and David Foster Wallace. But I’m going to say that, like in the case of Stoner or whatever book from 10, 20, 30… years ago that you just found, Adler’s work is timeless. It’s filled with lines you can’t kick out of your head, that you find yourself rereading over and over, amazed that something so inconsequential as cooking a meal could turn into something so profound:

The onset of the state of mind consisted in a loyalty to objects. She apologized to the egg for having boiled it, to another for not selecting it to boil. Since it was impossible to know with much precision whether an egg prefers to be boiled or not to, she was always in a state of indecision, followed, as soon as she had taken any action, by extreme remorse.

Or just stripped down and honest:

We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought.

In the case of Renata Adler, 2013 — the classic that wasn’t so much lost, as she was hidden for some reason or another — she won. In doing so, she had the sort of year that was long overdue for a writer of her stature, and I’d be very fine with that not stopping anytime soon, because, lost or otherwise, some things just don’t go out of style.