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Renata Adler, Taking A Buzz Saw To The 'Tall Timber'

For decades, the name Renata Adler has provoked a host of differing opinions. She's been loved, hated, feared, admired and ostracized by literary institutions for her brazen and uncompromising views on journalism and the role of the journalist. Adler has never been one to succumb to the pressures of the establishment, a fact she has proved through her work time and again — even if it means calling out her employers and colleagues by name.

In After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Wolff assembles a volume of Adler's greatest hits, published between 1965 and 2003. From film criticism to front-line dispatches during the Six-Day War and coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the subject matter is as wide ranging as Adler's arguments are cutting. But before we get to Adler, I have to take issue with Wolff's finger-wagging preface.

Journalism is no longer "a writer's game," he complains, and the language of most journalism today is "dead and meaningless." In exalting Adler's qualities as a reporter and critic, Wolff comes across like a crank who wants the kids to just please turn down their rock 'n' roll for God's sake. His frivolous attack on the state of journalism, sadly, does nothing to elevate the art form he's mourning. Furthermore, comparing someone as exceptional as Adler to "most" other writers — operating in a different era and with different media at their disposal — is unfair.

As for Adler's own words, After the Tall Timber is a mix of poignant and unrelenting. In "The March for Non-Violence from Selma" (originally "Letter from Selma"), she recounts with great detail everything from the "virtually inaudible speeches" to the scuffles between marchers and bystanders. That this year marks the 50th anniversary of that historic five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, and that the struggle for basic civil liberties is in many ways ongoing, makes the piece all the more striking.

"Searching For the Real Nixon Scandal" sharply examines the specifics of President Richard Nixon's impeachment in light of later revelations about his administration's misdeeds. Nixon resigned, she writes, not because of the burglary itself, but to cover up the fact that the burglars were financed with money from foreign accounts. "It was Treason and Bribery. I don't know what follows from it. I think it is the bottom line. It has brought a disorientation beyond reckoning. People died for it. We are going to have to live, I think, with that."

Adler is especially illuminating when she writes about film and the duty of the critic. Perhaps her most famous essay is a scathing indictment of Pauline Kael, then film critic at The New Yorker, and her book When The Lights Go Down.Adler is brutal and convincing in her rebuke of Kael, dissecting her writing at the sentence level and ultimately resolving that the book, a collection of Kael's movie reviews, is "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." Adler's knack for describing the job of the practicing reviewer is at once glorious and convicting. And her assault on Kael and the decline of her writing ("She began less to write than to rule.") shows that no one is exempt from her journalistic side-eye.

It should be noted: After the Tall Timber is not free of daft material. And though it's tempting to exalt a writer of Adler's stature, to regard everything she's done as intellectually superior, following through on that temptation would be doing a disservice to readers. Take "G. Gordon Liddy in America," an essay about the former FBI special agent and leader of the Watergate break-in, which, while occasionally endearing, can read like lifelessly excessive event reportage. Adler's sometimes-difficult writing, with parentheticals frequently spanning entire paragraphs and disrupting the flow of ideas, can be frustrating.

These elements aside, After the Tall Timber is a valuable addition to the library of any working journalist — and anyone willing to glean insight from one of the foremost social and cultural critics now working. For more than 50 years, Adler has shown that bravery is one of the most important qualities a writer can possess. That courage, that commitment to telling the truth at all cost — and with language that is so consistently dazzling — is one of the qualities I respect most about her. It's what has kept me coming back to her work for so many years.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter:@itsjuanlove.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.