Back in the 1990s, when I was in grad school at Columbia University, Janet Malcolm was at the center of the ongoing debate regarding the ethics and responsibilities of journalists. Her controversial essays and profiles were so much the center of the debate that there was very little discussion of her technique or even, at times, her subjects. The conversation was always about Janet Malcolm. What did her latest piece reveal...about her? Where her choices moral? Was she fair?
I hadn't thought much about her until recently, when something brought her to mind and decided to include her work in the reading list for my upcoming essay course on Ruzuku. And it turns out she has a new collection out, Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers. How timely! The New York Times Book Review offers a great assessment of why Malcolm is so interesting, and in the case of my class, worthy of discussion on a craft level even if she may not be a writer we all want to emulate: "...what the reader remembers is Janet Malcolm: her cool
intelligence, her psychoanalytic knack for noticing and her talent for
withdrawing in order to let her subjects hang themselves with their own
The first line in her book The Journalist and the Murderer: "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 goes on to detail the ways in which author Joe McGuinness gained the cooperation of Jeffery McDonald by convincing him that his book Fatal Vision would exonerate him of the murders for which he was accused. Instead, it did the opposite. How did Malcolm get her material for this book? By turning McGuinness's own tricks on him.
I'm still reformulating my opinion of Malcolm. What are her crimes? It seems to me she, on one hand, elevates herself above her subjects, while on the other, she lowers herself beneath them. In doing so, she allows readers to call her motives into question. But is she, maybe, more willfully transparent than other writers in the way she presents herself to readers? And if so, is that wrong?