RIP Janet Malcolm, America’s finest nonfiction writer who detailed the failings of others alongside her own

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: George Nikitin/AP</span>
Photograph: George Nikitin/AP

‘Nothing connects with anything else and everything looks as though it might disappear overnight”; the writer Janet Malcolm, who died last week, was describing the mysterious and forgotten corners of New York, but she might also have been talking about the process and experience of writing.

She produced little, indeed, which did not touch on the ambiguity, the uncanniness and the deep psychodrama of generating words and the fragile, contingent way that those words themselves generate meaning.

The description above comes from the opening of a 1994 profile of painter David Salle for the New Yorker, the magazine for which she wrote from 1963 until her death. It’s entitled Forty-One False Starts and consists of that number of paragraphs, a kind of mimetic homage to Salle’s fragmentary method and, perhaps, an acknowledgement of her own. Malcolm was also a collagist for pleasure and in a wonderful passage recounts showing him three of her projects, assuring him that she doesn’t want praise but merely an honest opinion.

Later, she confides to the reader: “Looking back on the incident, I see that Salle had also seen what any first-year student of psychology would have seen – that, for all my protests to the contrary, I had brought my art to him to be praised. Every amateur harbours the fantasy that his work is only waiting to be discovered and acclaimed; a second fantasy – that the established contemporary artists must (also) be frauds – is a necessary corollary.”

Malcolm’s great subject – and the reason that her work remains thrillingly instructive – is what we show of ourselves to one another, often in spite of our best efforts, or of our conscious awareness. It is the cat-and-mouse game that informs her best writing, most notably her account of her encounter with Joe McGinniss, who was the subject of a lawsuit by a convicted triple murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, after he had written a book about him.

At its heart was MacDonald’s contention that McGinniss had deceived him, pretending to believe that he was innocent of the killing of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, and declaring himself outraged by the verdict that consigned the man to life imprisonment, while all the time planning to publish Fatal Vision, which argued the complete opposite. The court case, which called on writers William F Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh in arguments over a journalist’s right to lie in pursuit of a greater truth that verged on the ontological and metaphysical, ended in a mistrial.

Malcolm’s subsequent book, The Journalist and the Murderer, is celebrated not simply because of its ambivalent apprehension of the characters involved – the writer on the make, the alleged killer who might be a psychopathic narcissist or a rather mundane, inarticulate innocent – but because Malcolm explored the extent to which she herself was implicated.

Were the ingratiating letters that McGinniss had sent to his target so much worse than those she had written? After all, she experienced the “gratified vanity” that her research prompted, the hint of a love affair about the excitement she felt when the project was going well.

A key problem, she noted, was that journalists were so often let down by real people, who fail to act as dynamically and vividly as literary characters; paradoxically, it is the unpredictability and ambiguity of real people, the “abyss of unmediated individuality and idiosyncrasy”, which make them less attractive than those who are made up.

The Journalist and the Murderer was published in 1989, but only last year Malcolm returned to it in a piece she wrote for the New York Review of Books about a court case in which she was in the dock, being sued for libel by the psychotherapist Jeffrey Masson over her article-turned-book In the Freud Archives. In 1989, Malcolm had written about the case in an afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer; in 2020, she noted: “My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was.”

Malcolm argues that we consistently tell on ourselves; we allow our fantasies to show through, to give the lie to our insistence that analysis can be objective, clear-eyed, freed from the interplay of individual hang-ups and desires. But while such ideas seem accepted, inarguable, largely uncontroversial, often we seem only to pay lip service to them.

In the world of entrenched opinion, of hot-tempered, hastily constructed positions masquerading as debate, of disagreement that swiftly turns to denunciation, we carefully elide the possibility of our own impure motivation.

One of the tenets of the current discourse is that of good and bad faith. People dismiss others’ arguments and challenges because they are in bad faith, as though they had x-ray specs that enabled them to see directly into another’s intentions, as though they themselves were incapable of acting similarly.

But it is not so easy to discern instances of good and bad faith, perhaps especially in oneself. It is not so easy to cauterise one’s opinions, and their expression, to seal them off from messier influences; from aggression or disappointment, anger or envy, egotism or resentment. It is not so easy to admit the lure of the put-down, the quick win, the impeccable playing of a good hand of cards.

But we make a potentially catastrophic mistake when we separate discussions of, for example, structural inequality and privilege, prejudice and bigotry, politics and power from the capriciousness of subjectivity. If this sounds lame – a way of smuggling in a “both sides” perspective, of refusing to embrace conviction and principle and act on them – I prefer to think of it as a rejection of naivety, a facing up to one’s own weaknesses.

The recognition that moral double-binds are not simply what happen to other people is what made Malcolm such an intensely brilliant writer; let’s learn from her.

• Alex Clark writes for the Observer and the Guardian

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