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.

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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.

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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.

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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.