“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 journalism’s claims of detachment. Her admissions can be startling: near the end of The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), she writes that when she read letters from Jeffrey MacDonald (the convicted “murderer” of the book’s title) she was “shaken and moved, sometimes to the point of tears.” Coming from another writer, this might be sickly or unconvincing; here it’s almost bizarre, so at odds with the impression of Malcolm that precedes it. As her personal feelings unexpectedly lurch into view, she breaks the spell that her writing has cast until that point, and reminds us that she is less detached than she first appears.
This effect is clearest in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1993), which contains some of her most personal writing (relatively speaking). Malcolm finds herself somewhat infatuated with Hughes, so often cast as the tale’s villain. He refuses to be interviewed by Malcolm—and, in an odd moment, Malcolm stops outside his home during a visit to Devon. She recognises, once again, her “feeling of tenderness” towards him, and admits shame at her “complicity in the chase that has made his life a torment.” Yet she continues to look at the house and snoop around its grounds.
All this testifies to what she writes later in the book: “writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness.” The evenhandedness preached by journalists is a “charade,” for it is only by having some interest in what happens that they can bring themselves to write about it. She probes the implications of this belief across her work, offering an alternative to conventional magazine writing that is both more subtle and more slippery than most “magazine writing.” As she told the Paris Review, she was strongly influenced by deconstruction in literary theory, in particular “the idea that there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer.” It was then that she began to remodel her “I,” which has become her greatest creation.
Like other great non-fiction stylists, Malcolm’s work has been inevitably compared to literature: the New York Times described Psychoanalysis as “journalism become art.” But by stressing the fictional qualities of journalism (and biography, another recurring subject), Malcolm’s writing has helped explode that false distinction between journalism and art. She exposes the sham of the non-fiction writer’s omniscience: he can only tell stories, with the aid of literary devices and tropes. Like professional detectives, journalists may be able to solve a murder; what they cannot necessarily do, however, is explain the motivation behind the crime. They venture into such territory foolishly and so, in The Journalist and the Murderer, Joe McGinniss resorts to crass, far-fetched analysis in his portrayal of a murderer like Jeffrey MacDonald, rendering him, in Malcolm’s words, a “kitsch villain.”
At the end of “A House of One’s Own,” her fine essay (included in the recent collection, Forty One False Starts) on the Bloomsbury group artist Vanessa Bell, Malcolm acknowledges the thin foundations on which such portrayals are built. “Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image,” writes Malcolm. If our understanding of these lives must take the form of stories—and Malcolm’s work concerns storytelling just as much as journalism—that does not make them any less compelling for her. In “A House of One’s Own,” she refers repeatedly to “the novel of Bloomsbury,” our romantic myth of the Bloomsbury group. It’s a myth whose power rivals more conventional literary texts but, as Malcolm notes, this does not derive from anything inherently interesting about the lives of the Bells, the Woolfs and the rest—it is because “they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another.”
Writing helps make some stories better than others, and Malcolm is sensitive to the literary merits of all sorts of texts. She is a connoisseur of letters, and she is at her most enthusiastic when appraising them, whether it is a “lovely” note from Henry James or, extraordinarily, a 45-page diatribe by Peter Swales, an eccentric historian of psychoanalysis who plays a lead role in In the Freud Archives.
In the best letters, says Malcolm, “we feel… the rapture of first-hand encounters with another’s lived experience.” This she contrasts with biography, which lacks life’s charge and texture. This preference helps explain one of the most distinctive features of Malcolm’s books: her reliance on long, extended quotations. Some of her characters speak for pages at a time, and what would otherwise be backstory is infused with their quirks and prejudices; in the process they are prevented from becoming boring. Temporarily handed the narrator’s microphone, their unreliability is part of their appeal—and unlike a straightforward journalist, Malcolm makes little effort to interrogate their motivations or question their credibility.
When these characters’ flaws are uncovered, it is less through Malcolm’s pithy portrayals than their own words and deeds. Soon after we meet Masson in In the Freud Archives, we see him patiently offer to buy a visiting psychoanalyst a special pair of goggles; after they part, he complains about her fussiness to Malcolm. It is these gestures that condemn him just as much as his hilariously hubristic claims (“analysis stands and falls with me now”). Few of Malcolm’s interviewees can weather her scrutiny, seeming to confirm what she writes about what happens when someone talks to a journalist:
“The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”
But Malcolm is not quite so strict or unforgiving as she appears. In an afterword to the British edition of In the Freud Archives, written after Masson had unsuccessfully tried to sue Malcolm, she characterises her attitude towards him in the book as that of “an unillusioned but fond aunt of a gifted but impossible boy.” Like her tears for MacDonald, this is unexpected—reading the book, I felt little fondness for the man. If many of her characters resemble children (and she conveys brilliantly the childishness to which men, especially intellectuals, are prone), like an aunt or even a stern father she is unable to completely withhold her affection.
The intensity of attention gives her subjects plenty of opportunities to slip up, but it means that she grants them their complexity—and this serves as a form of sympathy even if it isn’t recognised by the people in question. “Real people,” she writes in The Journalist and the Murderer, “are so much more complex, ambiguous, unpredictable, and particular than people in novels.” When she fails to discover these qualities, as in her profile of the “exceptionally likable” photographer Thomas Struth, her writing suffers, deprived of tension or shadow.
Sometimes Malcolm’s characters disappoint her; sometimes she seems defeated by them. She worries, for instance, that her portrayal of Joe McGinniss “doesn’t add up.” But when she embraces her subjects’ lack of coherence, she produces some of her best writing: in the essay “Forty-One False Starts,” she collaborates with David Salle’s elusiveness, his art’s refusal to be “any one thing,” by swapping the conventions of a magazine profile for 41 short fragments. This method, for all its showiness, fits the artist’s alienation and the uncertainty in his work.
Malcolm thrives in this territory, and an atmosphere of uncertainty pervades much of her writing, especially The Journalist and the Murderer and The Silent Woman. The latter’s strange structure magnifies the effect. It begins with the hostile reception for Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, Bitter Fame, before Malcolm describes a series of encounters with people who have some connection to Plath, including Stevenson herself. Amidst (and sometimes within) her accounts of these meetings, Malcolm dives into Plath’s life and work, and occasionally memories of her own youth. There is no single, straightforward story to give the book a steady narrative drive, and the reader is never sure quite what he is reading, or where Malcolm is taking him.
The book ends without resolution or clarity—beyond the understanding that neither is possible. Nothing to do with Plath can be resolved at this stage, just as we can never know what really happened in the Jeffrey MacDonald case, nor grasp a personality like David Salle’s. Instead, a writer can only find different ways of telling—and not telling—stories. Unmediated truth is out of reach, and it haunts Malcolm’s work. Yet by recognising these limits to her authority, Malcolm becomes all the more authoritative, and her books’ inconclusiveness lends them their power. They remind us—in ways both remarkable and uncomfortable—that “life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel.”