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Janet Malcolm
June 1, 2011 12:51 PM   Subscribe

The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. ... 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.

Though nowhere near representative of her best work, you can read online Malcolm's essays on J.D. Salinger, Gertrude Stein, and the Gossip Girl books.
posted by Trurl (27 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, in my case the problem is that I keep confusing her with Janet Cooke.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:56 PM on June 1, 2011


I don't know. I've read plenty of Malcolm and I've never thought of her as a virtuoso stylist or subtle, exciting thinker. She isn't a bad writer, but I've always sort of felt she a bit too much of her self and her own genius in mind, without really exhibiting that genius, to be a great journalist.
posted by OmieWise at 12:59 PM on June 1, 2011


It's called "hubris" - in Malcolm's case, her very, very public pronouncements of her own greatness of mind and talent. When one such as she meets her "nemesis," the audience does not rally behind the protagonist, they nod in wise appreciation as she suffers her inevitable fall.

And besides, OmieWise is right: she was never half the writer or thinker she told everyone she was... The only people who ever thought she was a "virtuoso stylist" or a "subtle, exciting thinker" were the editors of the New Yorker.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 1:15 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know this Janet Malcolm person from a hole in the wall, but having read the article, I can say this: she's disliked and accused of bad faith because she strings along her subjects, getting them to think she's on their side, only to publicly pillory them later. Do this enough and everyone gets wary of journalists and their intentions, making every other journalist's job harder, and making the profession look bad.

As an Ethnomusicologist and a researcher, if I did to people I speak to while doing research what Malcolm did to some of her subjects, I would be unceremoniously booted out of my discipline and all my work would subsequently be suspect. I don't know whether I'm more aghast that she's been allowed to get away with this kind of behaviour, or that this fawning piece has been written making out that she's so misunderstood.
posted by LN at 1:36 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


she's disliked and accused of bad faith because she strings along her subjects, getting them to think she's on their side, only to publicly pillory them later. Do this enough and everyone gets wary of journalists and their intentions, making every other journalist's job harder, and making the profession look bad.

She does do this. That said, her book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was brilliant in my mind, though I read it ten years or so ago.
posted by sweetkid at 1:49 PM on June 1, 2011


I'm a fan of Janet Malcolm's writing. And the libel suit is questionable. She basically used the words of her subject to show him to be arrogant. She does have a way of getting to know her subjects and then presenting them in an unflattering light. But I think she is simply unafraid to present people in a way they may not see themselves. If anything it may make people wary of disclosing themselves to her. That is the cost of such reporting.
posted by Rashomon at 1:54 PM on June 1, 2011


She does do this.

Her position is that all journalists do.
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 one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction 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."
posted by Trurl at 1:54 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Her position is that all journalists do.
If all the journalists were interested in was dirty laundry, she would have had a point. But journalism is about much more than just exposing shameful secrets. And tricking the source into trusting you is not the only way of gathering information.
posted by hat_eater at 2:30 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Among journalists I know, she's highly admired and respected. Its true that certain kinds of journalism essentially require that "seduction and betrayal" stuff. Some of those kinds of journalism (exposes of genuine wrongdoing, etc.) are essential; others are sleazy. I personally can't do it so I stick to the type of reporting that doesn't require it. But to deny that it's a key part of journalism is to stick your head in the sand—and people who don't like that (especially those who know they do that kind of work) are made seriously uncomfortable by her.
posted by Maias at 3:06 PM on June 1, 2011


The Journalist and the Murderer is a terrific piece of writing, and sure seems like it would have made her a lot of enemies.
posted by painquale at 3:06 PM on June 1, 2011


> Well, in my case the problem is that I keep confusing her with Janet Cooke.
> posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:56 PM on June 1 [+] [!]

I had been giving her credit for being Janet Flanner, also a New Yorker writer. I will be more careful. It seems unlikely that Ned Rorem will ever set any of Ms. Malcolm's stuff for chorus and orchestra.
posted by jfuller at 3:10 PM on June 1, 2011


The only book by Janet Malcolm that I've read is In The Freud Archives which I adored and have recommended widely. Who she is as a person is about as interesting to me as discussing what actors might be like when they're not in character.
posted by mizrachi at 3:11 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I recall, The Silent Woman contains a careless misreading of a crucial document, which Malcolm corrected in an afterword to the UK edition of the book. We all make mistakes, and if Malcolm had simply held up her hand and admitted her error, I wouldn't have thought any the worse of her. But instead she tried to wriggle out of it with her usual schtick about the 'elusiveness of truth' and how we see the facts through a prism of interpretation. Nothing I've read by Malcolm since then has caused me to alter my opinion of her as a brilliantly gifted, formidably intelligent and fatally inaccurate writer.
posted by verstegan at 3:56 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


tricking the source into trusting you is not the only way of gathering information.

But if you're good at it, it's a really effective one. I knew a journalist who was really good at that, and her advice to me was, "When a journalist reaches out to you, think twice about reaching back, because the most likely outcome is that they will chop your hand off."

Scandal and controversy sell, propping up the creditability of a relative unknown does not.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:08 PM on June 1, 2011


I haven't read any of Janet Malcolm's work but the article makes an interesting point that I think has been overlooked so far. According to Seligman's reading of Malcolm, it is not getting the subject to trust you and then turn on them that she says all journalists do, it is that there is inevitably and inherently in the journalist-subject relationship, a disjoint.
"No, no, no, no, no. "The Journalist and the Murderer" is not an attack on the ethics of journalists. True, the worst-case scenario that Malcolm chose to illustrate her argument teetered on the dubious end of the ethical spectrum; its stark colors were what made her choose it. But her point is "the canker that lies at the heart of the rose," the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism; it doesn't matter whether the ("good enough") reporter in question is McGinniss or Malcolm or one of Fred Friendly's paragons of virtue. The journalist-subject relationship, like the analyst-patient relationship, is fraught with "abnormality, contradictoriness, and strain,..." "
I can relate to this, as a amateur journalist (I've published some articles in a free newspaper). I've often felt that when looking for a story, I am stepping out of the "in-it-together" honest relationship of shared experience, and instead taking a role of interpreter, or even definer. Unless its explicitly agreed upon to be a co-authored project, the journalist is the one who's understanding of the subject must take priority in the article or book. The strain may be that the subject is often unsuspecting of this.
posted by sulphur at 4:21 PM on June 1, 2011


On reflection I admit that she has a point, or at least half of it - her method is effective and plenty of succesful professionals in the field use it. It's just that such generalizations as "all journalist do it" raise my hackles instantly.
I'm a journalist and I don't betray the trust of my sources. If I missed a chance to make a name for myself, well, so be it. But I like what I see in the mirror.
posted by hat_eater at 4:23 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


All right, I'll go and read the article (grumbles)
posted by hat_eater at 4:25 PM on June 1, 2011


A paper he delivered in New Haven in 1981 was the final straw. Early on Freud had attributed the sexual hysteria of a number of his patients to childhood sexual abuse; he later came to believe that this abuse had been imagined, and in abandoning the so-called seduction theory he opened the door to the theory of the Oedipus complex and to the whole new field of psychoanalysis. Masson accused the master of ignoring cases of actual abuse.
Malcolm is the daughter of a psychiatrist. She murdered her father (in Masson) while pretending to defend him (as the old-guard "purist" tradition of the Church of Psychoanalysis.) Same pattern with "Aaron Green." Unresolved Oedipal issues for starters and she disqualify herself from writing about shrinks.

Her assassination of Masson (give me more rope) was part of a rear-guard action against the failure of analysis to deal with issues of trauma (the blindspot/lacunae in Freud's rejection of the reality of his observations). Masson, for all his faults (see Malcolm for a description of his analyst) was on the right wide of history.

Assault on Truth (1984); Freud Archives (1984).

Judith Herman's Father-Daughter Incest was published in 1981.

Psychoanalysis is at a dead-end, and hasn't contributed anything to theory or practice in decades. We've moved on to Prozac and DBT and methods of treatment that acknowledge abuse and neglect.

Seligman's (fascinating insider-view with its own acknowledged bias) article made me more sympathetic to Malcolm, whom I abandoned after Freud Archives, which I found both in bad faith and immoral.
posted by psyche7 at 4:31 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism" is what, in Malcolm's view, "gives journalism its authenticity and vitality." And she capped her argument with a zinger: "Journalists who swallow the subject's account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.
I guess this quote from the Seligman's article wouldn't generate nearly as lively response as one would be hard pressed to find somebody who disagrees with it.
On a side note: the divagations about psychoanalysis give the whole piece strong moldy smell.

posted by hat_eater at 4:50 PM on June 1, 2011


Seems to me that Seligman answers his own question:
But Masson had liberated her, too, by letting her discover the vein of gold in her natural malice. Her next major piece for the New Yorker, a 1986 profile of Ingrid Sischy -- then the editor of Artforum, now the editor of Interview -- is a textbook demonstration of the way a malicious reporter can pulp her subjects simply by describing their apartments. (Sischy is practically the only art-world figure who walks out of it unflattened.) In "The Window Washer," a 1990 memoir of a return trip to her native Prague, Malcolm is brutal in her depiction of a professor and his wife who invite her into their home for not one but two meals. The transgression of hospitality -- the slap in the face of her hosts -- is so disturbing that it threatens to wreck what is overall a touching celebration of the newly liberated city.

Why is she so hard on these people? I think it has something to do with a blurring of the line between reportage and criticism. She nods approvingly, in a review of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," at Milan Kundera's observation that "none among us is superhuman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition." Yet she has remorseless radar for the kitsch in her subjects' lives, and she uses it against them. I shudder sometimes at the awful fantasy of Malcolm visiting my house, which I love and have put a lot of thought into making my own, and telling the world, in a few dismissive phrases, what a shabby and affected place it is.
That's a pretty good description of a bully, and Seligman himself is fairly brutal in his assessment of Malcolm's afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer: "A more stupefying specimen of bullshit would be hard to find -- though there's also something reassuring, even endearing, in this demonstration that Malcolm can be just as neurotic and self-deceiving as the rest of us."
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:19 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Janet Malcolm wrote the only thing I've ever read that made me want to defend Sarah Palin: "Special Needs".

The condescension, the provincialism, the monstrously ingrown ego--it's all there, and all Malcolm's. She's the right-wing parody of New Yorkers, and she has no idea.
posted by dogrose at 5:24 PM on June 1, 2011


On non-preview:

That's a pretty good description of a bully

Exactly.
posted by dogrose at 5:27 PM on June 1, 2011


She basically used the words of her subject to show him to be arrogant

Malcolm did nothing of the sort. In fact, reading through the libel suit I felt she was given more leniency than she deserved. She specifically put words in the mouth of her subject, Masson, that he not only never said, but which altered the meaning to make him appear arrogant and pompous.

For example, within one long statement set apart in quotation marks as a direct quote from Masson, she just threw in the term, "Intellectual gigolo," which (while a nice turn of phrase) was never uttered,aaa proven by her own recordings. That added phrase left the erroneous implication that Masson jumped from theory to theory and was disdained by the Freuds for this reason, while Masson actually explained, quite elegantly, that he did not yet rank high enough in the psychological hierarchy for them to defer to him.

Masson also mentioned that his interest in the Freud household was based on the volume of knowledge contained in the library there and Malcolm tagged on an unrelated quote and fiddled with the wording of that quote to give the impression that Masson wanted the house for boozing and sex with lots of women.

I'd have sued her on those two passages alone.
posted by misha at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2011


I shudder sometimes at the awful fantasy of Malcolm visiting my house, which I love and have put a lot of thought into making my own, and telling the world, in a few dismissive phrases, what a shabby and affected place it is.

---

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. - Eleanor Roosevelt
posted by Trurl at 5:34 PM on June 1, 2011


aaa=as

stupid phone.
posted by misha at 5:35 PM on June 1, 2011


No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Maybe not, but a sufficiently popular journalist can make everyone else think that you're inferior.

A friend of mine has had some run-ins with journos lately and now deals with them in spirit of the adage the journalist is not your friend. They may be interested in your story, they may even write an article that comes out on your side, but they are not your friend and you should never treat them as if they were. Much less trust them in any way.

I am endlessly grateful to my late teenaged/early 20s self for resisting the temptation to go into journalism as a career.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:26 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I recall few things from my undergraduate 20th century poetry class:
  • Ezra Pound was batshit insane and there seemed to be a twinge of misogyny in his reaction to Amy Lowell.
  • Reading The Silent Woman and being annoyed at the unctuousness of it. All of her skill and rhetorical prowess seemed focused on leading the reader to the conclusions she wanted, without it looking so obvious. I felt handled after reading it.
  • My essays never lived up to their titles. They were always things like Using the Tape Flags, Show in the Book Where the Bad Lady Touched You: Janet Malcolm and Rhetorical Sincerity, followed by 5-10 pages of tedious ramblings peppered with irrelevant citations.
posted by eisbaer at 7:28 PM on June 3, 2011


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