“I had a kind of bad feeling afterward. I felt inadequate,” says one of Janet Malcolm’s subjects, the artist David Salle, after an interview with her. He isn’t the only one. Few people come out of a Janet Malcolm article well—including, at times, Malcolm herself. Her work is filled with bad feeling: between writers, artists, rivals and criminals. It is a battleground of egos, weirdos and visionaries, which Malcolm surveys with unstinting clarity.
Malcolm has spent her professional career at the New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. She started writing for the magazine in the 1960s, and her early contributions included “About the House,” a monthly column on design (descriptions of interiors would continue to feature, often tellingly, in her portraits). Yet she is best known for her eight full-length books, each of which first appeared as a series of articles in the New Yorker. The first of these was Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, published in 1981; she returned to the subject, entertainingly, in In the Freud Archives (1984), and since then her books have taken on such subjects as Chekhov, Sylvia Plath, murder trials and journalism itself.
It isn’t easy, when reading Malcolm, to get a handle on just what kind of a journalist she is. In an essay last year, Gideon Lewis-Kraus distinguished between magazine writing and what John Jeremiah Sullivan calls “magazine writing.” The former is exemplified by such “consummate professionals” as New Yorker staff writers David Grann and Katherine Boo, while the “faux amateurs” that practice the latter include Elif Batuman and Sullivan himself. These writers are differentiated by what Lewis-Kraus calls “disproportionate anxiety.” While the first group “just get on with the task at hand,” the others “fret about how it’s even possible to do so.” Malcolm is so unusual because she has a foot in each camp, and the tension between those two tendencies can make reading her an odd, even unsettling experience.
At first, you are struck by Malcolm’s authority. Her tone is steely and detached. She draws on references and comparisons from myth and European literature. In much of her writing she resembles the “kind of ultra-reliable narrator and impossibly rational and disinterested person” that, in Malcolm’s view, characterises the “the ‘I’ of journalism.”
But when Malcolm moves into the first person she punctures…