If an unremarkable opening sentence is like an escalator that lowers you down into an essay—the trajectory is predictable, the pace regular and slow—Janet Malcolm’s are more like diving boards that plunge you into her essays’ depths with a bracing splash. Not all of them have gone down well. The infamous first sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer (1989), a book-length meditation on the, in Malcolm’s view, morally compromised relationship between journalist and subject, caused uproar in the journalistic community: ‘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.’ The uk-based journalist Lynn Barber—another famously iconoclastic female interviewer, whose blunt style and straightforward conception of her vocation are in stark contrast to Malcolm’s sense of their trade’s tortuous complexities—was incensed by Malcolm’s opening passage. ‘Well!’, Barber exclaimed after quoting it in the course of her review for the lrb. ‘This is certainly what we journos know in the trade as a good opener.’ ‘Unfortunately’, she continues, ‘nothing in the rest of the book lives up to the excitement’, concluding: ‘It is a headline without a story.’
Whether or not Barber is right about the book, the idea that Malcolm’s openers are, like headlines, meant to get your attention and draw you in—and as such, may be designed to provoke, rather than persuade—is a salient one. The frank assertiveness of the opening sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer leaves no room for doubt or objection, though it also invites both, as if at once daring you to disagree and rebuking you if you do: any journalist who objects is ‘stupid’ or ‘full of themselves’. The first item of Malcolm’s latest collection, Nobody’s Looking at You, is a profile of the designer Eileen Fisher, which begins: ‘There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected.’ While there is no explicit accusation of idiocy or conceitedness, there is a faint implication, perhaps only perceptible in the light of its oft-quoted predecessor, that to demur—to protest that not all casually attired women spend anxious hours in the mirror—is to betray one’s naivety or unseriousness. The sentence exudes a confident certainty in its generalizing perception that one associates with certain nineteenth-century novelists, like Austen, for example, or Tolstoy, who applied the ringing tropes of classical oratory to the intimate questions of marriage and domestic life. (Anna Karenina famously begins: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’) The authority of such sentences derives in part from their pre-empting one’s impulse to disagree—a little the way psychoanalysis ingeniously anticipates and theoretically accounts for objections to it in the concept of ‘resistance’; or as Ernest Gellner put it in The Psychoanalytical Movement (1985), the theory ‘contains, as an integral part of itself, an explanation of the occasional failure of [its] ideas to secure conviction.’
Malcolm is often referred to as a ‘journalist’ because she does a lot of the things journalists do—reporting, interviewing, writing for magazines, above all The New Yorker—and has written about the profession at length. The label is at once too general and too narrow, however, failing to capture both the hybridity of her work and its distinctiveness. It is not just that Malcolm has written books on a range of subjects—photography; psychoanalysis; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; Chekhov; Gertrude Stein; a murder trial; a journalist writing a book about a murder trial—but that her books are often innovative fusions of different genres; few are easy to categorize. In Kate Roiphe’s introduction to the interview she conducted with Malcolm for The Paris Review as part of its ‘Art of Nonfiction’ series, she describes Malcolm’s writing as ‘some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both.’
Malcolm is not a biographer either, even though biographical writing has been such a prominent part of her métier, and her New Yorker profiles—‘the lax genre of personality journalism’, in her own description—could be seen as her specialism: many of her books look like biographies—Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes—and are frequently classified that way à défaut de mieux, and even those that don’t often approach their subject through studying a personality (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, for example, explores psychoanalysis through a series of interviews with an analyst). In fact, her books are more like meta-biographies: the ostensible subjects of her subtitles tend to be ciphers, blank centres around which the other interests of the book revolve. Her book on Plath and Hughes, for example, is less about the real couple than their legend, and about those (biographers, literary executors and so on) who construct and control it. Her biographies could even be described as anti-biographies, or perhaps antidotes to them: they are full of reflections on the pitfalls and the hubris of biographical writing. It is partly due to the pervasive self-reflexiveness of Malcolm’s writing that the simple moniker ‘writer’ seems more appropriate, since it alludes to her ongoing concern with the question—literary, but also sometimes moral—of how selves and lives are told, of how stories, especially true ones, are made.
Now in her mid-eighties, Malcolm grew up in New York, having fled from Prague, where she was born in 1934, with her sister and parents on ‘one of the last civilian ships to leave Europe for America before the outbreak of war. We were among the small number of Jews who escaped the fate of the rest by sheer dumb luck’, Malcolm writes in ‘Six Glimpses of the Past’, a recent autobiographical piece. The family was supported by relatives in Brooklyn for their first year while Malcolm’s father, a psychiatrist and neurologist, studied for his medical exams, before settling in Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where her father set up a practice attending to the area’s large working-class Czech population. Though Malcolm’s mother had been a lawyer for a small firm in Prague, she didn’t resume her career in the us.
Malcolm is a New Yorker—‘Natives like us are a rare breed’, she reflects in ‘Three Sisters’, her profile of the family who run an antiquarian bookshop in Manhattan—and has written for its namesake magazine since 1963 (her first published piece was a poem, ‘Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House’—an anomaly). Malcolm has been closely associated with The New Yorker throughout her career (she was even married to her editor there, the late Gardner Botsford) and its liberal political and cultural outlook is very much her own. Many of her books grew out of long, often serialized articles in the plush, art deco-styled weekly. Indeed, although Malcolm’s official degree is from the University of Michigan, The New Yorker is her real alma mater, and an indispensable context for understanding her way of writing and working—she has described William Shawn, editor of the magazine between 1952 and 1987, as a ‘teacher’. Joseph Mitchell, a staff writer at the paper from 1938 to 1996 (though he didn’t publish anything after 1964) was another mentor: ‘my generation of nonfiction writers at The New Yorker have always thought of ourselves’ as Mitchell’s ‘students’. Mitchell, probably best-known today for his 1965 book Joe Gould’s Secret, was a gifted, eccentric practitioner (and perhaps pioneer) of the narrative profile, in many ways the quintessential New Yorker form. ‘Profiles aren’t interviews’, staff writer Joshua Rothman explains, though they are based on them: ‘they’re a distillation of weeks, months, even years of observation and conversation.’
One of the things that distinguishes Malcolm’s profiles is their resemblance to stories. This is partly an effect of the way she makes herself unusually present in them. She records and analyses her preconceptions and reactions, and is as much a character in her profiles as her subjects—though an inscrutable one—such that they are less static portraits than tales of an unfolding relationship, full of moments of interpersonal dissonance as well as genuine affinity. One is as much watching Malcolm watching her subjects as one is watching the subjects themselves—this doubled voyeurism is the source of much of their narrative tension—and so the reader’s interest in Malcolm’s subjects is vicarious, parasitic on Malcolm’s own interest in them. Except that ‘interest’ is not quite the right word for what draws Malcolm to her subjects. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm characterizes the writer’s attraction to her subject as driven by something more—and perhaps less—than sheer curiosity: ‘a crucial element of the transformation from life to literature that the masters of the nonfiction genre achieve’ is ‘the writer’s identification with and affection for the subject, without which the transformation cannot take place’ (Malcolm has also written that one cannot write in a state of ‘desirelessness’). Affectionate proximity rather than intellectual detachment is a precondition for successful biographical writing, in Malcolm’s view. ‘There is no such thing as a dispassionate observer’, she tells Paris Review interviewer Kate Roiphe—the enclosed word ‘passion’ recalling Malcolm’s speaking of ‘affection’ and ‘desire’ to characterize, and perhaps eroticize, journalist–subject relations.