This Week’s Column:


Dennis Loy Johnson talks with Renata Adler

DJ: You also criticize another journalist who's been extremely influential — Bob Woodward. In the introduction and elsewhere, you criticize him for glamorizing anonymous sources and using them so frequently, and you also include a harsh review of one of his books, "The Bretheren," that you wrote for the Times. Joan Didion's new book, "Political Fictions," is also extremely critical of Woodward. In fact, there's a whole essay, called "Political Pornography," about his books. She talks about the way they're "presented as the insiders' inside story," and she says, "these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent."

RA: The "absence of cerebral activity" is exactly right. For example, as I mentioned in my review of the "The Bretheren," there are those wonderful moments when he repeatedly writes that somebody "vows to himself." Now, it's already one thing to report conversations that you cannot possibly report in quotation marks, that you cannot possibly know the content of, but to report as fact that somebody "vowed" something — "to himself" — is an insider story that is almost, I mean, it's laughable! It's so dumb, it's just so stupid. Also, it's such a cliché. But it cannot possibly be reporting. How does he know what someone vows to himself?

DJ: It seems notable that both you and Didion have come out with books that are similarly critical of the media and yet her book is getting blanket coverage, and uniformly rave reviews, and except for this piece in the Times you seem to be getting ignored. How come Joan Didion can say things that you can't?

RA: Well, it's true we're saying similar things. I mean, I admire Joan enormously. Joan is very, very good. And she's very brave, and I'd point out that Janet Malcolm is similarly brave. She also criticized journalists and paid the price. Perhaps the thing is, you need some institutional support. It does help to have that.

DJ: Do you think there's anything sexist about your treatment in the press? For example, there's the Times magazine profile of you last year, written by Arthur Lubow, that said you obtained your college degrees — from Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Yale and the Sorbonne — as a way of "treading water as she waited, like most women of her generation, to marry."

RA: Oh, that was just silly. That was just so stupid.

DJ: You didn't see that kind of attitude in any of the other commentary?

RA: Well, the thing is, women do it, too, so I don't know. I mean, I suppose it's not unrelated. Kovach, for example, in this new review, used the word "shrill." Well it could be. Who knows whether one is shrill or not? But "shrill" just doesn't seem exactly the right word. I would have thought, perhaps, "pedantic," or, I don't know, but there's nothing particularly high–pitched about the kind of prose I write. I could be wrong about that. But it is a word in the female register, surely. I mean, nobody would call Woodward shrill. You wouldn't call any male shrill, even the most shrill. It does have a sexual connotation. There was another piece, though, by a woman in Slate, who said reading my piece in Harper's was like watching a stripper. That was by Judith Shulevitz, whom the Times just hired. So there you have it: I'm not sure it breaks along male–female lines.

DJ: Why wasn't the book published, as originally scheduled, in 1987?

RA: I didn't realize how late in the process it was. The book, just called "Politics" at the time, was already in bound galleys. I already had two reviews, I think, one in Kirkus, and they were good. I just somehow took against it and I withdrew the bound galleys. Michael Denneny, the editor, was saintly about it.

DJ: So why is it coming out now?

RA: Well, I had published two pieces about the Kenneth Star documents. And there are two pieces in there about the impeachment inquiry with Richard Nixon. There's lots about illegal foreign campaign contributions, about China and so forth. About the Supreme Court. And there's some stuff in there that I wrote twenty years ago about drugs and the logic of trying to interdict them, and the corruption that has brought to everything including the agencies of law enforcement. I mean, a lot of things that are in the book have suddenly come back. There are other things, too — the piece about reporting the Biafra war, a piece about the history of the National Guard, and the television reviews, and I hope people will talk about those pieces, too.
      But I suppose the bottom line question is, Supposing there had been no interaction with the New York Times about a prior book I had written on the New Yorker? And the answer is, I can't imagine that this book would have been much different. Particularly because I think there's been a lot of troubling stuff, at the Times and elsewhere, that I would have felt similarly impelled to comment on. For example, I hope I would have raised the Wen Ho Lee question, in very much the way it says in the book. I think I would have remarked that. You do take your life in your hands when you do it, though, I must say.

Last Week’s Column: WHEN WRITERS ATTACK After B.R. Myers wrote an essay attacking some prominent writers because he didn't like their writing, Judith Shulevitz wrote an essay attacking Myers . . . because, she said, he was born outside the U.S.


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