June 2013

Arts & Letters

The queen of not-nice: Janet Malcolm’s ‘Forty-one False Starts’

By Amanda Lohrey
The latest collection of writing from the New Journalism doyenne

One of the most influential genres of writing to emerge in the second half of the 20th century became known as New Journalism. Kickstarted in 1965 by Truman Capote’s crime classic, In Cold Blood, and Hunter S Thompson’s first effort, Hell’s Angels (1966), it seemed a necessary invention if the cultural revolution of the 1960s and  ’70s was to be adequately chronicled. More than any other writing, New Journalism captured the character of those decades, their crazed mood and volatile trajectories. Philip Roth would later famously declare that fiction couldn’t keep up with the new reality while orthodox journalism came under attack as the medium of a phony objectivity that mostly served the ruling elites. Since it was not possible to account for every aspect of the truth of a situation, it followed that even the most dispassionate reportage was unavoidably a constructed “story” and the journalist was obliged to acknowledge this.

The New Journalists responded to the upheaval of their times by borrowing from the techniques of the novel – characterisation, scene-setting, dialogue – to dramatise a truth that factored in the writer’s own prejudices. In the process they created a more vivid and seductive form of nonfiction. At the extreme end of its libertarian spectrum the writer might even became part of the action, which is what the term “Gonzo journalism” came to signify. By the late ’60s, the novelist Norman Mailer had reinvented his stalled career to produce a style of political journalism that culminated in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, an account of the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1968, in which Mailer wrote as much about himself as he did about the presidential nominees. Meanwhile a young Tom Wolfe, flaunting a dandyish persona and manically satirical style, had burst onto the scene with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a zany collection of essays on pop culture.

Though different in their politics and personae, both Mailer and Wolfe were masters of a rambunctiously masculine style of prose that threatened to combust from its own energy. Women writers who excelled in New Journalism opted for a different mode. Among them, Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm emerged as the undisputed doyennes. Both perfected a cool, acerbic style, clinical in its deconstruction of fad and fakery. Both took stylistic risks, not least in cultivating a deadpan tone that occasionally threatened to deflate their tightly constructed forensics. More often it worked to create a heightened tension. Wolfe might be terrific fun, but Didion and Malcolm never. Reading them could feel like walking a tightrope.

Janet Malcolm began modestly in the ’60s by writing articles for the New Yorker on art and interior design. Her first book, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the aesthetic of photography, appeared in 1980 and the visual arts remained an enduring interest. She also retained a fascination with that secular modern religion, psychoanalysis. For Malcolm, not only was every report a constructed story – now a commonplace view – it was a story driven by the unconscious, and the psychoanalytical model of character remained her touchstone. The Czech-born daughter of a New York psychiatrist, she established her reputation with her second, and arguably best, book, Psychoanalysis: The impossible profession, a finely crafted portrait of a leading New York shrink and his claustrophobic milieu. To this work she brought the investigative and writing skills for which she was soon to become famous: a razor-sharp intelligence, a lucid style, a gift for creating a whole world on the page, and above all the skewering of her subjects’ pretensions.

Her unforgiving eye, and pen, often drew accusations of malice but Malcolm was unfazed. Fearlessness was one of the hallmarks of New Journalism. Malcolm might not ride with the Hell’s Angels or ingest Gonzo substances but she stuck her neck out with almost every book. Didion was expert at creating an aura of danger in her writing, but in real life it was Malcolm who took the hits. Her third book, In the Freud Archives, resulted in a decade-long defamation case that damaged her reputation even though the plaintiff ultimately failed. It emerged that Malcolm had befriended Jeffrey Masson, a young Freudian scholar, before portraying him as a deluded narcissist and compulsive womaniser unworthy of his privileged appointment as caretaker of the Freud archives. Her ultimately flip and reductive portraiture made of Archives a lesser book than it otherwise might have been, but like all her work it was compulsively readable. Only Malcolm could make a scholarly dispute read like a crime thriller.

An even bigger contretemps was to follow with her next effort. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), perhaps her best-known work and the one commonly regarded as a classic, Malcolm gave an excoriating account of journalist Joe McGinniss’ manipulative attempts to write a true-crime story in the mode of Truman Capote. In the course of writing his bestseller Fatal Vision, McGinniss led his subject, convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, to believe McGinniss thought him innocent when all the while he planned to portray him as guilty. MacDonald sued McGinniss and the case became a crucible of what Malcolm described as the “canker” at the heart of journalism: the “unhealthy” relationship between journalist and subject. In the preamble to her demolition of McGinniss, she opens with one of the most quoted paragraphs in 20th-century nonfiction: “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.” We are all guilty, she seemed to be saying; it’s only a matter of degree. The book caused a sensation and antagonised many of her colleagues for life but Malcolm already had a new target in her sights. Four years later she published The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, a controversial meditation on the pitfalls of biography in which she revealed an unfashionable sympathy for Hughes and his daunting sister, Olwyn. More vitriol followed.

Looking back it seems ironic that of all the New Journalists Malcolm should have become the most embroiled in controversy. Like Mailer, Didion was self-dramatising and not beyond including an extract from her own psychiatric report in an essay, but Malcolm was the most private, the least showy of New Journalism’s leading lights, the ice maiden of the genre. In many ways she was a true east-coast mandarin: composed, inscrutable and the bearer of a certain kind of European sensibility. The problem was that in her cool detachment she could sometimes appear heartless, or in her own words “not nice”. She regarded everyone’s stories as inevitably self-justifying rehashes of events and it was her job to unpick them. Throughout a long career her single-minded obsession has remained the slipperiness of truth: all stories are self-serving and every narrator is unreliable. In Forty-one False Starts: Essays on writers and artists (Text; $32.99), the recently assembled collection of some of her shorter pieces, she describes the journalist as one who strives to be that unlikely witness, the “ultra-reliable” narrator, an “impossibly rational and disinterested person, whose relationship to the subject more often than not resembles the relationship of a judge pronouncing sentence on a guilty defendant”. Certainly this was true of Malcolm. With what Craig Seligman once described as her “remorseless radar” and “natural malice” – and this was in a defence of her work – she developed into a masterly practitioner of the writerly coup de grâce. At the same time, her use of that word “impossibly” suggests she was aware of the Sisyphean nature of the journalist’s task, and it echoes the title of her earlier study of psychoanalysis: both the analyst and the journalist are operating on shifting sands. There is no ultra-reliable narrator.

Janet Malcolm is now nearly 80 and Forty-one False Starts has been published in Australia with an introduction by Helen Garner, who describes Malcolm as the writer who has influenced her more than any other. The collection is not Malcolm’s most compelling work and is largely an assemblage of period pieces. William Shawn and the New Yorker, the novels of Edith Wharton, the photography of Julia Cameron and Edward Weston, Bloomsbury biography and the New York art world of the ’80s are typical subjects and none of these pieces could be regarded as Malcolm classics. For those who have followed her career, the most interesting item occurs at the very end of the book, a two-page fragment written in 2010, ‘Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography’. Here is a terse account of why Malcolm has never ventured into memoir. After a lifelong practice of working with “one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another” (Jeffrey Masson, Joe McGinniss et al.), she lacks the appetite for solitary self-reflection. She is bored with the idea of narrating “Janet Malcolm”, and dismisses her “pitiful” efforts to make herself sound interesting. More tellingly, she describes autobiography as “an exercise in self-forgiveness”, a time when “the older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathising with its sorrows and allowing for its sins”. It’s a sentimental mode that Malcolm is unable to come at: “I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love”, she writes, and puts down her pen. True to her last she remains the austere mandarin. If in the past she hasn’t cut anyone else much slack, she isn’t about to cut herself any either. Not for her the calibrated candour, the subtle self-justifications of Didion’s old-age books on the deaths of her husband and daughter. And hooray for that.

It does not always flatter a writer to rehash their lesser pieces. The essays in Forty-one False Starts are never less than intelligent but much of the time they seem to have been written while in second gear, as if they were treatments for longer and more comprehensive assessments. Any reader encountering Malcolm for the first time here might wonder how she became a cult writer. They should recourse forthwith to the earlier works and switch off their phones. They are in for a treat.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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