What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Renata Adler's "The Perils of Pauline": Classic Low Snark

Last year, I posted an article in which I said that there’d never been a more wrong-headed interpretation of Pauline Kael’s work than Louis Menand’s “The Popist: Pauline Kael.” I was wrong. That distinction belongs to Renata Adler’s vile "The Perils of Pauline" (The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1980; included in Adler's 2001 collection Canaries in the Mineshaft under the title "House Critic"). I’d forgotten about Adler’s piece. However, as a result of reading a couple of reviews of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011), namely, Nathan Heller’s "What She Said" (The New Yorker, October 24, 2011) and Richard Schickel’s "Hell To Sit Next To" (Los Angeles Review of Books, November 30, 2011), which mention Adler’s article, my memory of it was quickly rekindled.

I recently reread “The Perils of Pauline.” It’s a lengthy review of Kael’s 1980 collection When The Lights Go Down. Its basic approach is a snarky attempt to reduce Kael’s work to caricature. It asserts that Kael “has, in principle, four things she likes,” that she “has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words,” that her writing consists of a “repertory of devices,” e.g., “the mock rhetorical question,” “the hack carom,” “the structure of spite,” and so on. Most of her claims have been ably rebutted by, among others, Craig Seligman, in his Sontag and Kael (2004). Seligman quotes Adler’s “four things she likes” passage and calls it “grotesque.” I agree. He says her “prissiness is embarrassing.” I agree. But when he writes, “Despite the occasional shoddiness of Adler’s tactics, I wouldn’t accuse her of the bad faith she imputes to Kael,” I demur. Adler knows exactly what she’s doing. Like an overzealous prosecutor, she twists the evidence, quotes out of context, and exaggerates the alleged crime. And what exactly, in Adler’s view, is the alleged crime? It’s that Kael is profane, raucous, lewd and loud. These are the very qualities I admire about her writing. I’m not alone in liking them. Laurie Winer, in her excellent “Taste is the Great Divider” (Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2, 2011) writes:

Adler’s slam echoed the complaints of critic John Simon, who described Kael as a Russian count might describe a clever serf: “She is a lively writer with a lot of common sense, but also one who, in a very disturbing sense, is common.” Adler complained of Kael’s “vulgarity,” and she listed what she thought of as Kael’s worst phrases, among them, “tumescent filmmaking” and “plastic turds.” It’s hard not to laugh now at Adler’s discomfort, at her long lists of Kael’s crimes. It’s also hard not to see this attack as the age-old battle between the keepers of good taste and the antic comic spirit, with Adler taking the role of Margaret Dumont and Kael appearing as Groucho Marx. In the long run, of course, Groucho always wins.

Kael, in her wonderful review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (“The Greening of the Solar System,” The New Yorker, November 28, 1977; collected in When The Lights Go Down), says, “Close Encounters is so generous in its feelings that it makes one feel maternal and protective; there’s also another side of one, which says, ‘I could use a little dirty friction.’” Right there is the side of Kael I love.

Credit: The above portrait of Renata Adler is by David Levine.

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