The Severe Brilliance of Janet Malcolm

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
May 3 2013 6:15 AM

I Read Everything Janet Malcolm Ever Published

I’m in awe of her.

Author Janet Malcolm
Author Janet Malcolm

Photo by Kevin Sturman

The most exciting-to-read works of journalism often betray little evidence of how tedious they were to report. Baroque murder trials come with thousands of pages of court transcripts. Corporate fraud is found in boxes full of financial documents. At the heart of high-stakes stories is usually a knot of red tape to untangle, tax records to line-check, reticent witnesses to draw out. Investigative journalism demands tenacity, but also a high tolerance for boredom.

Janet Malcolm is great at being bored, maybe the best. Her books, many of them quite short, take her years to report and entail the sort of dull labor most people would abandon within minutes. For her second book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she listened to hours of strangers’ therapy sessions on tape; her third, In the Freud Archives, sent her to library stacks for months. Both required Malcolm to interview people whose entire professional success rests on them saying as little as possible. Her 1999 book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, tells the story of a disbarred lawyer wrongfully imprisoned for an escrow scam. The racket, which involved the buying and selling of dubious insurance, is a mind-numbing one. Malcolm repeatedly admits this—“I could almost have wept with impatience”—but, as always, ends up writing something riveting. Paperwork aside, it is the tale of one woman’s self-damning inability to tell her own story. A decade later, in an interview with Katie Roiphe for the Paris Review, Malcolm said, “I resented studying such a stupid subject. I felt I could have learned German or flamenco dancing in the time I spent trying to get a handle on the crooked business deals.” Reading those sentences on the heels of all her books brings a great wash of relief. “Phew,” you say to yourself, “she’s human after all.”

Malcolm’s capacity for tedium and her apparently monastic approach to writing prevent her from figuring too heavily in the public imagination. She tends to stay away from news that everyone is already discussing—and though most of her reportage uses the first person, she never offers us a romantic image of the journalist at work. Unlike Joan Didion, who is a worthwhile comparison if only for superficial reasons—they are women of the same age who both write for the New York Review of Books—Malcolm does not inspire young women to write like her, or dress like her, or spend hours looking at pictures of her. Malcolm does not have a fuckyeah Tumblr devoted to her. She does not use the word “gloaming,” nor would she ever pen a grief memoir. Didion has said that her “only advantage as a reporter” is her small physical stature and unobtrusive temperament. Malcolm is also small, but she doesn’t dwell on it. Reading her books, it’s difficult to imagine Malcolm being brassy or loud or anything other than “unobtrusive” herself.

Malcolm’s severity, her terrifying neutrality—like a teacher who is capable of handling even her most despised pupils no differently than the ones she secretly adores—is part of what makes her a brilliant writer. It is also why her writing does not occasion adolescent reverence and why her image is not printed in fashion magazines. You discover Didion in high school and you read her on the beach. Malcolm you discover in college—or after—and read before you do your own work.

Much like her public persona, the worlds Malcolm renders are almost eerily insular, seemingly untainted by pop culture or politics. Malcolm’s single foray into mass entertainment, as far as I can tell, is a New Yorker review of Gossip Girl—the books, not the television series they spawned—but even there she is unable to resist references to Nabokov and Trollope. In The Silent Woman, her biography of Sylvia Plath, Malcolm writes: “London itself had a hushed, emptied-out feeling. The Gulf War had begun a few weeks earlier; terrorism was feared, and travel had halted—my hotel was three-quarters empty.” Reading these two sentences, I feel as though I have just seen my internist at the movies. I can’t recall a single other instance of the real world encroaching on the one Malcolm’s has crafted and presented to us. Malcolm is a priestly figure; an aura of quiet surrounds her work. She is always in control.

*    *    *

Born in Prague in 1934, Malcolm and her family fled the Nazis and moved to New York City in 1939. She attended the University of Michigan, and—in her words—spent her youth running around with “a group of pretentious young persons.” They followed recipes from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, shopped for modern furniture, and wrote “mannered letters to each other modeled on the mannered letters of certain famous literary homosexuals, not then known as such.” She began her journalistic career at The New Yorker, doing small, “female” assignments: covering children’s books and interior decorating; once she published a poem about a Shaker house.

Malcolm’s first reported piece of nonfiction, about the new field of family therapy, appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. “The One-Way Mirror,” like all her writing since, contains long quotations of her subjects and unapologetically highbrow references. The propensity toward quoting at great length reveals Malcolm’s patience and unnervingly focused attention, but the second tendency—that habit of alluding to everything from poststructuralist texts to minor Henry James novels to Italian operas—demonstrates an even more impressive skill. Somehow, against all odds, Malcolm’s erudition is not alienating. Reading even the most cerebral of her sentences, you feel smart by association rather than dumb by comparison. No doubt this indirect flattery comes into play when she interviews someone, too. A person who is made to feel stupid is probably unlikely to tell you much.

Such flattery might get a subject to act against his own self-interest, something that journalists, according to Malcolm, do constantly. In one of the more famous lines ever published about journalism, she writes, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” That’s the first sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm’s best-known book, published in 1990. On the surface, it’s about the lawsuit filed by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against Joe McGinniss, author of a book about MacDonald’s case. Throughout their interviews and correspondence, McGinniss led MacDonald to believe that the book would prove—or at least make a case for—his innocence. In fact, it did the opposite, suggesting that MacDonald slayed his family in an amphetamine-fueled fit. Malcolm’s book is less about the case itself than what she sees as the depraved nature of all journalistic relationships.

Did she see that story accurately? Malcolm would say that any story—and especially a well-told and well-reported one—is inevitably a distortion. Throughout her career, she has insisted upon this. “The realities of characters in fiction—and of their cousins in journalism—derives precisely from the bold, almost childlike strokes from which they are drawn,” she writes in Reading Chekhov. And in one particularly disputed passage of The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm writes:

The briefest and slightest of inquiries on my part would bring twenty-page replies from MacDonald, and huge packages of corroborating documents. … I was oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office. I have read little of the material he has sent—trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports. ... I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material.

Some find this jaded, postmodern attitude toward veracity appalling. The documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, for instance, has repeatedly taken Malcolm to task for making “an argument for the relativity of truth.” Considering the stakes in the case of a murder trial, it is appalling, quite frankly. But it also makes for consistently provocative reading.

*    *    *

The essay that gives Malcolm’s newest collection its title, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is made up of her own abandoned ledes for a profile of the artist David Salle. Midway through “false-start” No. 35, Malcolm says to Salle, “Something should happen. There has been some action—I’ve been to your studio and your loft and to your drawing show and to the dinner afterward—but I want more.” In so doing, she lays bare an almost infantile need for material; there’s a whiny quality to that “should” and that “want.” She also highlights matter-of-factly the fraudulence of profiles in general: The subject and the journalist construct an event together for the sake of retroactively describing it.

Magazine articles seeking to expose the artifice of magazine articles are much discussed and often beloved. Lately, GQ has been carrying the baton with winking celebrity profiles of actors like Chris Evans and Channing Tatum. An entire chapter of Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is a sendup of this prankish mode. (“Why do I keep mentioning—‘inserting’ as it may seem—myself into this story? Because I’m trying to wrest readable material from a 19-year-old girl who is very, very nice.”) Such articles—“fictional” or otherwise—can be funny and fun to read; there’s a cynical pleasure in ferreting out the phoniness of the form. If Holden Caulfield grew up to become a journalist, these are the sorts of articles he would write. To point out, laugh at, and refuse to indulge conventions are the hallmarks of adolescence. But self-awareness, as most people over 17 know, is not the same thing as absolution. There is almost nothing worse than self-referential prose from writers enchanted by their own cleverness.

But Malcolm never seems self-enchanted. For all her apparent skepticism about the possibilities of her profession, the fact is she has devoted her life to it, and—in nothing I could find at least—has she even once tried to defend her choice to do so. “We are certainly not a ‘helping profession,’ ” she has said. “If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they’re letting us take.” In The Crime of Sheila McGough, Malcolm writes that as a journalist, “You are only pushing a button, turning on a tap.” And in The Silent Woman, she compares biographers to burglars and describes the genre’s readers as voyeuristic. Later, she says of her own writing that the “pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.” What looks at first glance to be a condemnation, is in fact a confession. Throughout her career, Malcolm has unabashedly presented her own petty preoccupations (lost luggage, event-appropriate cookies), shallow assessments (of Sylvia Plath she writes, “All the photographs of her disappoint me”), and vain humiliations (after asking a naïve question of a group of scholars, she reports that she feels “like someone who has ordered a cheeseburger at Lutece”).

Why doesn’t her enthusiasm for convention-dismantling and self-deprecation—a rhetorical ruse if there ever was one—enrage me, the way this sort of thing frequently can? Why isn’t Malcolm’s guile-masked-as-candor embarrassing? Why do I trust her? Why do I even like her? She spends an awful lot of time confessing to her foibles, disparaging her profession, and challenging her readers to call her bluff. In theory, her antics should make us groan in annoyance. And yet Malcolm seems unassailable.

*    *    *

After reading Janet Malcolm’s 11 books, and all her articles that haven’t yet made it into books, I didn’t know how to answer these questions. And so I proceeded to follow the advice I give friends when they are dumped: I tried to make a mental list of all of Janet Malcolm’s worst qualities in an attempt to turn my simple adoration into a more complicated kind of affection.

There are not many entries in that list, it turns out.

Malcolm does seem almost addicted to simplistic similes. Her books are brimming with analogies to archetypes: evil sisters, dying patients, traveling snake-oil shows, “the idea of a death far away from home.” One could argue that this is a deliberately facile way of presenting the world, but Malcolm, per usual, never stops examining the analogies she employs. As she writes in The Silent Woman: “The narratives of journalism (significantly called ‘stories’), like those of mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm, undeviating sympathies and antipathies.” In this kind of reduction, she is attempting to distill an impossible amount of information, and owning up to it in the process. It is a form of generosity—to the reader, if not to the subject.

Malcolm frequently repeats herself. A quotation from Chekhov’s 1899 story “The Lady With the Dog” animates a section of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, and the same story provides the opening to Reading Chekhov, written more than two decades later. It is also alluded to in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, written 10 years after that. Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin serves her as a point of comparison when describing Seymour Glass in an essay about Salinger and the poet/art critic Rene Ricard in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.” Content from her early books on psychoanalysis routinely appears in later ones. When Malcolm describes a character’s “transformation from a hysterically miserable man who hasn’t fully grown up into an ordinarily unhappy adult,” we know she is thinking of Freud’s definition of goal of psychoanalysis (“to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness”) since she has quoted it in the past. Some readers might see such recurrences as symptoms of a limited imagination. More sympathetically, though, Malcolm’s preoccupations can be considered evidence of developed taste and a coherent mind. 

Malcolm’s persona—as rendered by her—is resistant to mockery, it seems to me. If you attempt to parody Malcolm’s style, you just end up with better sentences. And if Malcolm hasn’t defended her line of work, it’s because she doesn’t need to. Despite all of her meta narratives about the artifice of journalism, she has managed to say true things about the world that her readers either haven’t experienced or haven’t thought critically about. This is her job description, and she fulfills it.

*    *    *

She has also, more recently, worked around it. In her 2011 book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Malcolm writes the story of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a doctor—and Bukharan Jew— who is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband after he is granted custody of their young daughter. Borukhova seems unequivocally guilty, and Malcolm is forced to summarize the case as the paradox it appears to be: “She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” As usual, Malcolm close-reads court transcripts and mannerisms, thereby demolishing both the sanctity of the law and entire personalities all at once. And the setting—both the courtroom and the insular community of Queens, New York, where this tragedy plays out—provides Malcolm yet another opportunity for denigrating journalism. “Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades,” she writes. “Malice remains its animating impulse.”

How much do Malcolm’s critiques of journalism apply to her own work? This is the question one must often swat away when reading her books. The answer mirrors the Borukhova paradox: She couldn’t be implicating herself and she must be implicating herself. 

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is noteworthy for Malcolm’s own involvement in the case, which no one could classify as malicious or morally feeble. The child’s guardian—appointed by the family court—spouts deranged conspiracy theories to Malcolm during an interview, and she proceeds to offer her notes to a defense lawyer. “I did something I have never done before as a journalist,” she writes. “I meddled with the story I was reporting.” This fourth-wall-breaking moment is a testament not just to her allegiance to the truth but also to the idea that doing the morally right thing matters, and is possible even if you’re a journalist. When the stakes are high enough, or less charitably, when her sympathies are whet, Malcolm seems capable of forsaking her clinical detachment and smudging her own picture.

The final essay in her new collection is “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography.” It begins with a disclosure: “I have been aware, as I write this autobiography, of a feeling of boredom with the project.” Malcolm goes on for a few paragraphs about “memory’s autism,” “the atrophying (from disuse) of the journalist’s powers of invention,” and how she has “failed to make [her] young self as interesting as the strangers [she] has written about.” In the last sentence, Malcolm refers to “what follows,” but then there is nothing more. The project, as the title suggests, appears to have been deserted. It’s possible that memoir is precisely where Malcolm’s patience finally sputters out: Only in turning herself into a subject is she bored to a degree profound enough that it paralyzes her. But it’s difficult to read everything Malcolm has ever written and then come upon this orphaned autobiography and not see in it a kind of tease. Malcolm must know that she’s withholding the only thing her fans, at this point, could possibly still want.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

~ Janet Malcolm (author) More about this product
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Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York.

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