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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Garner Endorses Adler's Snark

Renata Adler (Photo by Ron Galella)
Dwight Garner, in his "'After the Tall Timber,' Renata Adler's Collected Nonfiction" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 23, 2015), says of Adler’s “House Critic,” “That essay holds up in large part, and I say this as a Kael admirer.” What does that mean? In what way does it “hold up”?

“House Critic,” originally titled "The Perils of Pauline" (The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1980), is Adler’s attempted evisceration of Pauline Kael’s great 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down. It’s full of false charges, e.g., “The degree of physical sadism in Mr. Kael’s work is, so far as I know, unique in expository prose,” “She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favourite words,” “She has, in principle, four things she likes.” Its basic approach is the reduction of Kael's work to caricature. To say that it holds up” is to endorse the nasty, bullying, ridiculing smear tactics of low snark. Garner says he's a Kael admirer. Praising Adler's execrable House Critic is a bizarre way of showing it.

Postscript: I'm not alone in finding House Critic” toxic. David Denby, in his “Pauline Kael: A Great Critic and Her Circle” (included in his 2012 essay collection Do The Movies Have a Future?), calls “House Critic” “a notoriously wrongheaded piece.” Craig Seligman, in his Sontag & Kael (2004), calls it a poisonous assessment.

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