The Untrustworthy Reader
Renata Adler the novelist trusts her readers to sift detail, make inferences, read against the grain of the narrative voice. Renata Adler the journalist expects a reader’s full trust even as her conclusions become increasingly suspect.
In Renata Adler’s introduction to her 2001 nonfiction collection Canaries in the Mineshaft—an essay which now appears in After the Tall Timber, a selection of her nonfiction recently published by New York Review Books—she examines what she understands as failures in the New York Times’s coverage of the government’s case against Taiwanese-American Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. The government suspected Lee of spying for China; the Times reported these suspicions, in Adler’s account, credulously, even eagerly. (Lee was ultimately charged not with spying but with one count of improper handling of restricted data.) Adler objects specifically to the paper’s reliance on “anonymous sources”—indeed she objects to the “anonymous source” as a journalistic device more broadly. “The whole purpose of the ‘anonymous source,’” she writes, “has been precisely reversed. The reason there exists a First Amendment protection for journalists’ confidential sources has always been to permit citizens—the weak, the vulnerable, the isolated—to be heard publicly, without fear of retaliation by the strong—by their employer, for example, or by the forces of government … Instead, almost every ‘anonymous source’ in the press, in recent years, has been an official of some kind, or a person in the course of a vendetta speaking from a potion of power.”
The responsible journalist, in Adler’s view, should proceed “in a more diligent way,” by referencing documents, gathering facts and drawing “reasonable inferences”: “A combination of research and thinking and consulting, if need be, a genuine source—that is, someone who has information and is willing to impart it”—presumably on the record.
Looking for information and trying to draw reasonable inferences from it: This is as succinct an encapsulation of Adler’s theory of journalism as one is likely to find. And it is one that—helpfully, strangely—explains both faces of the two-sided coin that is her nonfiction career. There are the pieces she reported on the ground (largely for The New Yorker, largely in the ’60s and ’70s); and there are the pieces (for The New Yorker, but also for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Harper’s magazine, The New Republic, and The American Spectator, from the latter half of the ’70s through the early 2000s) in which she relies exclusively or almost exclusively on primary source documents: depositions and court transcripts and judicial decisions and committee reports. In the former, the information she gathers is human, personal: she interviews, she observes, she witnesses scenes, she relates anecdotes; in the latter, the information is—pointedly—impersonal: She reads, and she reads, and she reads, and she reads.
More striking than the disparity in the types of sources is the disparity in results. Adler’s on-the-scene reportage is characterized by a stubborn refusal to render judgment; when scouring the written record, however, she does not shy away from analysis. Reporting from Selma, or Biafra, she allows the reader to make up her own mind. Sifting through depositions, congressional committee reports, Supreme Court decisions, Adler insists the reader accept her conclusions. Adler, as she moves away from real live people and toward cold, dead paper, stops trusting the reader and starts demanding the reader trust her.
Adler is not quite the exception that proves Didion’s rule (“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”)—I am in no position to judge how Adler lives—but both her fiction and, more strangely, her traditionally reported pieces, refuse in large part to become “stories” in any conventional sense of the word. She works across an entire plane, rather than along a single line: Instead of taking the reader from point A to point B, she sketches an expanse of territory between those two locations.
Her commitment to (the often otherwise overlooked) detail—whether in the form of snatches of conversation overheard during a civil rights march or the contradictory answer offered during a deposition—is a hallmark of her career as a whole. But in her earlier, on-the-ground efforts, it is the total collection—rather than the careful selection—of detail that impresses.
In “The March for Non-Violence From Selma,” (originally published in The New Yorker in 1965 and one of the first pieces in the new collection), Adler sketches a scene that is occasionally inspiring but more often simply boring. Crowds gather in front of a church for the service that is to begin the march, but “for several hours, nothing happened.” She reports “a moment of excitement when Dr. King and other speakers assembled on the steps,” but that moment soon passes: “a succession of long, rhetorical, and, to a certain extent (when press helicopters buzzed too low or when the microphone went dead), inaudible speeches put a damper on that too.” Photographers attempt to snap a shot of civil rights leaders entering the men’s room, prompting an exasperated shout from a reverend: “‘Can’t a man even go the john in peace?’” A 29-year-old white student who has dropped out of graduate school to work for SNCC starts talking at the top of a page—and Adler doesn’t stop quoting him until halfway down the next. Quite apart from the march’s noble purpose, the reader is steeped in its tedium, its disorganization, its dirt. This humdrum backdrop makes the moments of southern white racist grotesquerie, and of genuine sacrifice, exceptionally affecting.
A report on the National Guard, “But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load: The National Guard,” — published after Ohio guardsmen fired on unarmed students at Kent State University, killing four — is a catalog of absurdities that slowly, then all at once, slides into tragedy. Early on, Adler’s target is harmless incompetence: a New York National Guardsman knocks himself unconscious by falling off a tank on his first day of training maneuvers; mothers in the early 1900s are “perennially sending caviar and foie gras to their sons on duty”; one guardsman at the turn of the last century “accidentally [blows] a hole in the ceiling,” during one pistol drill, “and, in the next, [blows] a hole through the floor of the armory.” There is a long, amusing chronology of the National Guard’s domestic assignments since World War II: Units are called up for a “teenage riot” on the beach in Daytona, Florida, and for a “civil disturbance” at a jazz festival in Newport. And then there is this: “In Watts, 13,393 California Guardsmen were called. Four thousand blacks were arrested, several hundred were hurt, and thirty-four were killed … and, as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders … put it, of those thirty-four dead blacks ‘several … were killed by mistake.’ ” There is also this, perhaps of particular interest to the contemporary reader, steeped in dispatches from Ferguson and Baltimore, where a militarized police force responded aggressively to civilian protests: “In state after state, Guardsmen were called out to deal with urban looting and rioting—with tanks, guns, and training designed for waging war against an organized, armed foreign enemy.”
In “Letter From Biafra,” Adler’s 1969 sketch of the war-torn breakaway African republic (which would shortly after be reintegrated into Nigeria), manages, through relentless accretion of detail, to transcend the clichéd categories of war-torn and breakaway African republic. The price of various items at market are noted, local palm-wine bars are named, a dinner at the home of Dr. Fabian Udekwu, head surgeon at a teaching hospital, is described (the bones of the chicken served are, “even in the half-light … picked clean”). “As always in war,” Adler notes, “unless one happens to be at the front and be shot at, or caught in an air raid, there is nothing but a set of symptoms—distortions of peace—to give one a sense of war and its losses.” In other words, life does go on—and the reporter’s job is not merely to report from the front or from the air raid, but to bear witness to the distortions: the prices at market; the bones of the chicken.
The tactics in these reports from the field bear a striking resemblance to her tactics as a novelist. In Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983)—both reissued by NYRB Classics in 2013—the protagonists are revealed not through introspection but through observation. Jen Fain and Kate Ennis, the stand-in characters for Adler, notice things; the reader comes to know them by noticing what they notice.
Adler’s commitment to minutia means that these earlier essays are long and meandering, her novels fragmented and episodic. Deliberately, they can begin to bore. But her dispatches and her novels both also evince a remarkable trust in the reader. Here, Adler lays out her (or her narrator’s) observations; readers are free to puzzle out what they might mean.
But if Adler trusts readers to divine the connection between and significance of the prices of cigarettes at market and the state of the chicken bones at a dinner party, she does not necessarily trust them to understand the logical implications of a series of facts drawn from a binder of depositions, or a stack of committee reports, or the text of a judicial ruling. Here, Adler herself steps in.
That a writer would insist on advancing a particular set of inferences based on her study of texts or a set of data points is hardly unusual. But such insistence only seems reasonable if the reader trusts that the writer has based her interpretation on the relevant facts. Readers must believe that the writer is offering a fair evaluation of the texts at hand; this is possible only if they believe she has made no distorting omissions.
And one does trust Adler’s interpretations of, for example, Pauline Kael’s criticism in “House Critic,” which makes a broader argument about what happens when a critic is made to react forcefully to often mediocre art week after week (spoiler alert: nothing good). The evidence Adler marshals of Kael’s indifferent prose is so impressive in both quality and quantity that by the time she concludes, “I now think that no one has looked at the meaning of these sentences, or at their intellectual quality, in many years,” it seems impossible to disagree. One trusts Adler on, say, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, which she picks apart in another review collected in After the Tall Timber. One trusts her in these essays because they’re well argued; because she provides ample evidence; because her logic reads cleanly, seems sound. But in the background, there’s also a sense that if one did doubt Adler’s interpretations, one could read Kael’s book, or Woodward’s. One could, in other words, see for oneself.
This is less possible when Adler is analyzing the Church Committee report and its bearing on the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry, and Nixon’s resignation; or the Starr report; or two libel cases, Westmoreland v. CBS et al. and Sharon v. Time. (Her accounts of these latter two form the text of a separate volume, Reckless Disregard and are not included in After the Tall Timber.) The impeachment inquiry produced “thirty-odd staff volumes”; the Starr report is in six volumes, the Referral, plus five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials; the trial records in Sharon and Westmoreland run to 4,180 and 9,745 pages, respectively. Even an avid reader could never hope to see for herself if Adler’s analysis holds up, if the quotations she has selected and upon which she has built her case are representative, or anywhere contradicted. In short, the reader’s trust must be greater.
Another of Adler’s hallmarks is her concern with imprecise or euphemistic or self-contradictory language. The vigor of her frustration—evident both in reviews like “House Critic,” and in her reported pieces—and her reliance, as a kind of counterbalance, on cold hard logic, can be refreshing, even relieving. Her dispatch from the 1967 National New Politics Convention (“Radicalism in Debacle: The Palmer House”) first cites “the convention’s persistent debasement of language” as one reason for “the complete disintegration of the New Politics,” and then documents it to devastating effect. (“By Wednesday noon,” she notes, “Resolutions had abolished the capitalist system.”) “When words are used so cheaply,” Adler asserts, “experience becomes surreal; acts are unhinged from consequences and all sense of personal responsibility is lost.”
But the force of the inferences Adler presents as logical begins to provoke more anxiety than relief as our trust in her falters—when, in a handful of places, a handful of smaller conclusions she draws about people’s motives seem incorrect. In “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal”: “As there continue to be revelations of abuses of and by the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the military, and officials at every level of government and corporate enterprise, in the remote as well as the immediate past, it becomes less and less clear why the Nixon presidency in particular had to end.” The fact that we caught Nixon red-handed—as we did not catch those in the remote or immediate past—seems to clarify things considerably.
In the same essay, Adler remarks on the almost literally incredible incompetence of Nixon’s legal team: “Why,” she wonders, did the lawyers “turn over to the House Judiciary Committee what were obviously doctored transcripts of tapes, the originals of which the inquiry staff already had? Why not record, and find, and turn over to the committee a single tape on which the President looked good?” These actions are incomprehensible, she argues—unless they conceal a hidden motive. Probably so. And yet the underlying assumption—that everyone acts not only logically but intelligently—seems not universally applicable.
In Adler’s discussion of the Westmoreland case, in which the general sued CBS for linking him in a 90-minute documentary to a conspiracy “to deceive the American people, Congress, the Joint Chiefs and the President of the United States about the strength, in numbers, of the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong,” she wonders “what motive would a general have to underestimate to his commanders the size and strength of the enemy when his every interest and inclination would fall more naturally on the other side: to overestimate, in order to make whatever victories there were heroic and whatever defeats explicable, and to sustain a demand for more troops of his own?” She neglects to consider that a general fighting an undeclared and increasingly unpopular war of attrition would certainly have had reason to underestimate the size and strength of the enemy: to attempt to convince his commanders that victory might be just around the corner.
These apparent errors of interpretation would be less surprising—feel less like a betrayal—if Adler’s rhetoric were more obviously tendentious. But Adler’s manner in these essays is resolutely cool, her tone careful and even. And this creates the impression that her account is unbiased, motivated by nothing more than curiosity and a desire to reveal the truth—that anyone with a sharp mind and the time to comb through 13,925 pages of depositions would reach the same conclusion. These missteps suggest that might not be the case; they suggest the presence of something like an agenda.
I might not have noticed these logical lapses if I hadn’t earlier sensed in Adler an essential conservatism, a faith in the system, that made me uncomfortable. “The very fact,” she writes in her introduction to Towards A Radical Middle, “that radicalism leans so comfortably, half-consciously, upon the System and its laws, goes on almost risk-free, beside [the soap opera] Another World, confirms that the System’s thrust is still, on an unprecedented scale, democratic and benign.” Reading her account of the faux revolutionaries of the 1967 New Politics Convention, one understands why the System, flawed though it might have been, would have seemed preferable to the New Left’s orgy of self-righteous chaos. But then there is this: “No famous or privileged white revolutionaries have gone to jail for long just yet. But obscure and black radicals have, in numbers—which raises questions, I think, not so much of politics as of fame, privilege and the inauthentic revolutionary.” True. But it might also raise questions about whether the System might be “democratic and benign” for white radicals and not for their black counterparts.
Near the beginning of Reckless Disregard, which was published in 1986, Adler claims that “with few and small exceptions . . . an American no longer expects from his source of news a political viewpoint that comports with his own. His expectation, as in no other country and at no other time in history, is rather this: that given the technology of news gathering and dissemination, given also the scale, the news is going to be, honestly and within human limits, factual.”
In 2015, it is much more obvious that many Americans cannot agree on what is or is not factual. It is not that we now expect our news sources to comport with our political viewpoints; it is that we understand the news sources we favor to be true and believe the sources our opponents rely on are false.
This is why trust—in the reporter, the writer—is so important. There are too many facts out there for all of them to be reported as news. Gone are days, which Adler mourns, “when the Times still published transcripts [and] the reader could have judged for himself.” Now who would decide which transcripts to publish? We need someone to choose for us. And we need to trust the person who does the choosing.
Adler, by positioning herself merely a relater of information, a drawer of logical conclusions—rather than a person with an opinion—moves to elide that fact. She demands the reader’s trust while implying that trust isn’t necessary. When the reader catches her drawing an illogical conclusion, catches her revealing not truth but bias, her pretense to objectivity is unveiled as just that—a pretense. And at that same moment, the reader’s trust in Adler’s ability, generally, to fairly evaluate the texts at hand—the trust that exists precisely because no one can truly be objective—falters.
As both a person and a reader, I am uncomfortable with certainty. I am myself rarely certain, am rarely close to other humans (or texts) who profess to be. This discomfort informs both my affection for and unease with Adler’s work. As a novelist, as a reporter on the ground, her approach is fundamentally skeptical: Merely by observing with an exceptionally keen critical eye, she is able to highlight hypocrisy, skewer conventional wisdom. The strongest impression one gets, in Speedboat, say, or in “The March for Non-Violence From Selma,” is of an intelligent woman bewildered by the lunacy of the world in which she is unfortunately immersed. She asks questions but rarely supplies answers. This, to my mind, is a virtue. But at some point, she does begin supplying answers. She begins writing not as a person endowed with skepticism and curiosity but rather as one whose skepticism and curiosity have granted her privileged access to the truth. She begins writing with certainty. About this certainty, I have my doubts.