A savage family quarrel erupts at The New Yorker
Cries and whispers punctuated the sweltering heat from East Hampton to Greenwich Village last week, as members of the New York literary Mafia exchanged notes on their crowd's bloodiest case of assault and battery in years. The perpetrator: New Yorker Writer Renata Adler, 41. The victim: fellow New Yorker Writer, Film Critic and 1974 National Book Award Winner Pauline Kael, 61.
Reviewing Kael's latest book of movie reviews, When the Lights Go Down (Holt, Rinehart & Winston; $18.95), in the Aug. 14 New York Review of Books, Adler not only calls the volume "worthless," she proceeds to incinerate Kael on the gravest imaginable grounds for a New Yorker writer: vulgarity, shoddy writing and sloppy thinking. Adler admits that until recently she had been an admirer of Kael's because "she was the critic everyone knew and talked about." But on closer analysissomething Adler feels that no one has accorded Kael's writing in yearsa different conclusion emerged. After a promising period "in the late Fifties and early Sixties," says Adler, Kael's style has contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," but has been overloaded with "quirks, mannerisms" and images of "sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation, also of indigestion, elimination, excrement."
To support these claims, Adler marches out dozens of painstakingly excerpted examples from the book: "Swallowing this movie is an unnatural act" (I Will, I Will ...for Now); "a belch from the Nixon era" (Rooster Cogburn); "the same brand of sanctifying horse manure" (Bound for Glory); and "his way of pissing on us" (The Entertainer). Worse, says Adler, long sections of Kael's writing suffer from lapses in logic and an irritating habit of relying on rhetorical questions to make a point. Adler's evidence: 26 examples gleaned from the book: "Is it just the pompadour or is he wearing a false nose?" "Is it relevant that Bertolucci's father's name was Attilio?" "Where was the director?" "Does the cavalry return?" "Whohim?" Finally, Kael is accused of a tendency to wander, hogging space in the magazine until "other pieces, on which serious intermittent writers had worked for years, were being overwhelmed." Why did Adler go to such pains to skewer Kael? Some associates say she merely wants to uphold The New Yorker's usually high standards. Others cite personal differences with Kael. Adler is not talking.