Issue 196, Spring 2011
Though I will make the trip up the elevator to Janet Malcolm’s stately town-house apartment, overlooking Gramercy Park, three times in the course of this unusual interview, the substance of our exchange will take place by e-mail, over three and a half months.
The reason for this is that Janet Malcolm is more naturally the describer than the described. It is nearly impossible to imagine the masterful interviewer chatting unguardedly into a tape recorder, and indeed she prefers not to imagine it. She has agreed to do the interview but only by e-mail: in this way she has politely refused the role of subject and reverted to the more comfortable role of writer. She will be writing her answers—and, to be honest, tinkering gently with the phrasing of some of my questions.
So the true setting of this interview is not the book-lined walls of her living room, where we sit having mint tea, but screens: Malcolm’s twenty-one-and-a-half-inch desktop Mac, with its worn white keyboard; my silver seventeen-inch MacBook, my iPad sometimes. The disadvantage of e-mail is that it seems to breed a kind of formality, but the advantage is the familiarity of being in touch with someone over time. For us, this particular style of communication had the reassuring old-fashioned quality of considered correspondence; it is like Malcolm herself—careful, thorough, a bit elusive.
Malcolm was born in Prague, in 1934, and immigrated to this country when she was five. Her family lived with relatives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for a year while her father, a psychiatrist and neurologist, studied for his medical boards, and then moved to Yorkville, in Manhattan. Malcolm attended the High School of Music and Art, and then went to the University of Michigan, where she began writing for the school paper, The Michigan Daily, and the humor magazine, The Gargoyle, which she later edited. In the years after college she moved to Washington with her husband, Donald Malcolm, and wrote occasional book reviews for The New Republic.
She and her husband moved to New York and, in 1963, had a daughter, Anne. That same year Malcolm’s work first appeared in The New Yorker, where her husband, who died in 1975, was the off-Broadway critic. She began writing in what was then considered the woman’s sphere: annual features on Christmas shopping and children’s books, and a monthly column on design, called “About the House.”
Later, Malcolm married her editor at The New Yorker, Gardner Botsford. She began to do the dense, idiosyncratic writing she is now known for when she quit smoking in 1978: she couldn’t write without cigarettes, so she began reporting a long New Yorker fact piece, on family therapy, called “The One-Way Mirror.” She set off for Philadelphia with a tape recorder—the old-fashioned kind, with tapes, which she uses to this day—and lined Mead composition notebooks with marbleized covers. By the time she finished the long period of reporting, she found she could finally write without smoking, and she had also found her form.
Her ten provocative books, including The Journalist and the Murderer, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, In the Freud Archives, and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, are simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold, highbrow, and controversial. Many people have pointed out that her writing, which is often called journalism, is in fact some other wholly original form of art, some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both. In one of the more colorful episodes of her long career, she was the defendant of a libel trial, brought by one of her subjects, Jeffrey Masson, in 1984; the courts ultimately found in her favor, in 1994, but the charges shadowed her for years, and both during the trial and afterward the journalistic community was not as supportive as one might have thought it would be.
In part this might be because Malcolm had already distanced herself from them. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote in the now-famous opening lines of The Journalist and the Murderer, and in much of her writing Malcolm delves into what she calls the “moral problem” of journalism. One of the most challenging or controversial elements of her work is her persistent and mesmerizing analysis of the relationship between the writer and her subject. (“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness,” she writes in The Silent Woman; and she exposes, over and over, the writer’s prejudices and flaws, including her own.) When The Journalist and the Murderer came out in 1990, it created a stir in the literary world; it antagonized, in other words, precisely those people it was meant to antagonize. But it is now taught to nearly every undergraduate studying journalism, and Malcolm’s fiery comment on the relationship between the journalist and her subject has been assimilated so completely into the larger culture that it has become a truism. Malcolm’s work, then, occupies that strange glittering territory between controversy and the establishment: she is both a grande dame of journalism, and still, somehow, its enfant terrible.
Malcolm is admired for the fierceness of her satire, for the elegance of her writing, for the innovations of her form. She writes, in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” an essay about the New York art world, "Perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss—which are most of the things in the world, the things of ‘good taste’ and fashion and consumerism, the things we see in stores and in one another’s houses. No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal."
No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm. Whether she is writing about biography or a trial or psychoanalysis or Gertrude Stein, her story is the construction of the story, and her influence is so vast that much of the writing world has begun to think in the charged, analytic terms of a Janet Malcolm passage. She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.
Personally, though, she exhibits none of the flamboyance of her prose. Over the course of the interview, Malcolm appears to lack entirely the writer’s natural exhibitionism, the writer’s desire to talk endlessly about herself. If at all possible she will elegantly deflect the conversation away from her journalism to journalism in general; she will often quote, elude, glide over my question, responding instead to something she is comfortable answering. She is, not at all surprisingly, the kind of person who thinks through her revelations, who crafts and shines them so that the self revealed is as graceful and polished as one of her pieces.
Malcolm herself is slight, with glasses and intense brown eyes, something like Harriet the Spy would look like if she had grown to the venerable age of seventy-six and the world had showered her with the success she deserved. Her ambience is controlled, restrained, watchful. You will not, no matter how hard you try, be able to measure the effect of your words on her, and you will never be able to tell, even remotely, how she is reacting to anything you say. Around her it is hard not to feel large, flashy, blowsy, theatrical, reckless. Even though I ostensibly am interviewing her, I am still nervous about what impression I am making on her, still riveted and consumed by the idea of the three penetrating sentences she could make of me should she so desire.
Later, she will write to me, "Before I try to answer your question, I want to talk about that moment in our meeting at my apartment last week, when I left the room to find a book and suggested that while I was away you might want to take notes about the living room for the descriptive opening of this interview. Earlier you had made the distinction between writers for whom the physical world is significant and writers for whom it scarcely exists, who live in the world of ideas. You are clearly one of the latter. You obediently took out a notebook, and gave me a rather stricken look, as if I had asked you to do something faintly embarrassing."
I opened the notebook and took out a pen, but I already know that a large part of what is going on in the room, between the journalist, say, and the murderer, won’t quite make it onto the page.
I’ve often noticed how much work your physical descriptions do in your writing, how they make us feel we know and understand the subjects before they begin to speak, and how you impose your very singular interpretation in such an authoritative way that it feels organic, like anyone walking into a room couldn’t help but see it exactly as you do. So how would you describe your apartment if you were the journalist walking into your living room?
My living room has an oak-wood floor, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large ficus and large fern, a fireplace with a group of photographs and drawings over it, a glass-top coffee table with a bowl of dried pomegranates on it, and sofas and chairs covered in off-white linen. If I were a journalist walking into the room, I would immediately start composing a satiric portrait of the New York writer’s apartment with its standard tasteful objects (cat included) and general air of unrelenting Culture.
Interesting, given my own blind spots with visual detail. I would have mentioned the cat, and maybe the decorative French dishes, and the view of the park, but I wouldn’t have gone to satire. I guess if I were doing a close reading of the room I would have gotten “orderly and precise, carefully unpretentious, somehow perfect and comfortable.” I got the impression of a room where no uncivilized scenes occur (revealing, I guess, more about myself than the room).
You underestimate your powers of description. I admire “carefully unpretentious.” That “carefully” has a nice sting. I’m not sure it’s fully merited. The cat deserves some of the credit for the look of shabby chic—the stuffing that is coming out of the sofas and armchairs is entirely his doing. Did you notice the place where I pinned a patch over one of the most viciously clawed places? But, seriously, your generous and appreciative words only confirm my sense of the difficulty of autobiographical writing. If I had said these things about my living room (“somehow perfect and comfortable”) I would have sounded conceited and complacent. The autobiographer works in a treacherous terrain. The journalist has a much safer job.
It seems to me that for a journalist you use yourself, or the persona of “Janet Malcolm” anyway, more than most journalists. You use and analyze your own reaction to and relationship with many of your subjects, and often insert yourself into the drama. How is this “safer” than a more straightforward or autobiographical portrayal of self?
This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, and actually once wrote about—in the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer. Here’s what I said:
The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
It occurs to me now that the presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. Compared to this wise and good person the other characters in the story—even the “good” ones—pale. The radiant persona of Joseph Mitchell, the great master of the journalistic “I,” shines out of his works as perhaps no other journalist’s does. In the old days at The New Yorker, every nonfiction writer tried to write like him, and, of course, none of us came anywhere near to doing so. This whole subject may be a good deal more complicated than I made it seem in the afterword. For one thing, Superman is connected to Clark Kent in a rather fundamental, if curious, way.
I think that passage is lovely and convincing, but I wonder if that “I” as overreliable narrator is true of your journalism, or journalism in general. It seems to me that you very deliberately present yourself as something other than “the dispassionate observer.” You often give yourself (or the character of Janet Malcolm in your work) flaws and vanities, and interrogate your own motives and reactions as fiercely as you interrogate other people’s. I make no presumptions, of course, as to how close to you is the Janet Malcolm in your work—who envied Anne Stevenson at college, who is disappointed in Ingrid Sischy. But it does seem to me that the “I” in your work is very deliberately more Clark Kent than Superman.
You’re right that “dispassionate observer” doesn’t properly describe the character I assume in my nonfiction writing—especially in the writing of recent years. When I first started doing long fact pieces, as they were called at The New Yorker, I modeled my “I” on the stock, civilized, and humane figure that was the New Yorker “I,” but as I went along, I began to tinker with her and make changes in her personality. Yes, I gave her flaws and vanities and, perhaps most significantly, strong opinions. I had her take sides. I was influenced by this thing that was in the air called deconstruction. The idea I took from it was precisely the idea that there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias. Edward Said’s Orientalism made a great impression on me. And yes, probably this did add to the character’s authority.
Is it possible that your construction of an “I,” and your method in general, is also influenced by psychoanalysis? You have chosen psychoanalysis as the subject of several of your books. How has it informed your voice and general approach?
Although psychoanalysis has influenced me personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing. This may be because writers learn from other writers, not from theories. But there are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life. Both pan the surface—yes, surface—for the gold of insight. The metaphor of depth—as in depth psychology—is wrong, as the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer helpfully pointed out. The unconscious is right there on the surface, as in “The Purloined Letter.” Journalism, with its mandate to notice small things, was always congenial to me. I might also have liked being an analyst. But I never would have gotten into medical school, because I couldn’t do math, so it wasn’t an option. I never went to journalism school, either. When I started doing journalism, a degree from a journalism school wasn’t considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky.
Interesting. I do wonder, though, if psychoanalysis might be somehow involved in your unearthing of the hidden aggressions involved in the writing process. One of the most striking elements of your work is the preoccupation with the relationship between the writer and her subject. In a recent New Yorker piece, you say of journalism that “malice remains its animating impulse.” This type of motive searching seems to me to be somehow connected to the habits of mind we associate with psychoanalysis.
I think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America. In Henry James’s satiric novel The Reverberator, a wonderful rascally journalist named George M. Flack appears. I am only one of many contributors to this critique. I am also not the only journalist contributor. Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for instance, have written on the subject. Of course, being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.