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Janet Malcolm: ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’

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It has taken me a few days—as I have been wandering in the national capital in search of a new house; a task that was to be achieved towards the end of last year but has dragged on to the new one—to pick a subject for the first piece of the year. In this transition phase I discovered a beautiful article ‘Justice to J.D. Salinger’ by Janet Malcolm and then a great one on her. That set the twin search processes in motion that I completed today.

Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, a 1990 book that first appeared as a two-part article in the New Yorker in 1989. As I started following the links—whenever I got respite from the tedious house hunt—betrayal and justice were the two themes that resonated clearly and loudly in my ears. “Freud said nothing is coincidence.”

The Journalist and the Murderer opens with this stunning line: “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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

In a February 2000 piece for Salon Craig Seligman did justice to Janet Malcolm just as Janet later did to Salinger in her 2001 essay. Craig was aware of the background as he had worked as a fact checker in the New Yorker under William Shawn, a decade before his Salon piece and had even checked some of the facts for Malcolm’s photography pieces. In his article on Janet Malcolm—and the conflicts she got embroiled in—Craig lays bare a stunning story of the inherent contradictions of narrative as Janet sees it and dissects the work of a virtuoso stylist in Malcolm with a refined and amazing style of his own. Craig has not pulled punches while writing about Malcolm but he has given, for lack of a better metaphor, ‘the devil his due’. He shows with precision and clarity that The Journalist and the Murderer is not an attack or a question mark on the ethics of journalists—Malcolm’s point is ‘the canker that lies at the heart of the rose; the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism.’ Which is, as he proves effectively, the case with Malcolm’s writing about biography, psychoanalysis, and judiciary.

Malcolm was born in pre-World War II Prague and moved with her family to New York in 1939, when she was 5 years old; just in time when anti-Semitism was rising in Europe. Janet’s father, not surprisingly, was a psychiatrist. She is an author of eight books and has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963.

“The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.

Yet I can’t deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness—the mellifluous harshness—of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; ‘putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities’ is, in her arid and damning formulation, a ‘journalistic solecism’. Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the ‘vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.’ Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles,” wrote Craig.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

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