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Editor’s Choice: Renata Adler’s ‘After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction’

After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction by Renata Adler, Preface by Michael Woolf; New York Review Books, 515 pages ($29.95). The case for Renata Adler has never been simple or easy. It calls to mind the famous witticism attributed to the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing when told by a friend that imperious conductor George Szell was “his own worst enemy.” “Not while I’m alive,” said Bing.

Szell and Bing are, of course, long and safely dead. One wonders though about those, alive and dead, who’d have greeted the same judgment about Adler – that, all in all, she’s her “own worst enemy” – by lining up to respond “not while I’m alive.” After the Oedipal chaos and editing failures of “Gone,” for instance, her toxic eulogy to a supposedly dead New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik is among those who might wish her no end of ill.

Sadly, the most famous thing she will probably ever write is the judgment in an essay called “House Critic” reprinted here that Pauline Kael’s collection “When the Lights Go Down” is “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture … the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also, of other forms, have been altered for the worse.” Which, as a career judgment – and not on one book – is word for word worthless on the subject of Kael, no matter how savage and detailed the quasi-legal brief Adler constructs to indict her.

What needs to be said about NYRB’s important updating and reissuing of Adler is that it is immensely valuable – the great, whippet-lean novels “Speedboat” and “Pitch Dark,” to start, and now this collection of nonfiction. It is often great and just as often maddening, as the damage she does as her own worst enemy piles up but can never efface the value of the challenge she offers on subjects from Selma to Nixon, from “The Radical Middle” (her useful formulation) to the Starr Report, from the New York Times to Bush v. Gore. We need all the trouble she causes.

– Jeff Simon