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Inside Janet Malcolm’s mindBY: Dan Rottenberg 01.24.2012
The veteran New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm and I have a great deal in common. Why, then, did I dismiss her recently as “incurably ditzy”? For my money, Malcolm’s oeuvre too often represents a triumph of style over substance, and of the clutter of overwhelming research over simple clarity.
The sound, the fury and the clutter:
The veteran New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm believes there’s more than one way to pursue the truth, which is pretty much what I’ve said during my four-plus decades as a media critic and alternative journalist. She gives short shrift to the narrow strictures of conventional journalism; so do I. She spent years infiltrating the heads of the poet Sylvia Plath, the art editor Ingrid Sischy and the Freudian scholar Jeffrey Masson; I devoted 23 years to the banker Anthony Drexel, 57 years to the Pony Express superintendent Jack Slade, and 36 years (and counting) to the Philadelphia tycoon Albert M. Greenfield.
On that basis, Malcolm and I ought to be soul-siblings. So why, then, did I recently dismiss this controversial writer as “the incurably ditzy Janet Malcolm, whose exhaustively researched exegeses usually wind up reflecting more on her than on her subjects”? (See my Editor’s Notebook, Dec. 13.)
BSR contributor Bob Levin, a Malcolm groupie, properly replied that any writer who has been acclaimed “a virtuoso stylist and a subtle exciting thinker” by Slate and “completely brilliant” by the London Times deserves more than a “gratuitous swipe” from the likes of me. (See “In defense of Janet Malcolm.”) So let me explain.
I readily grant Levin’s contention that Malcolm’s meticulous excursions into everything from photography to psychoanalysis to the American criminal justice system represent exercises in a sort of stylish brilliance that dazzles many readers, Levin apparently included. But I would argue that there is a difference between brilliance and wisdom. For my money, Malcolm’s oeuvre too often represents a triumph of style over substance, and of the clutter of overwhelming research over simple clarity.
Take, for example, Malcolm’s often cited criticisms of her own profession. Malcolm has repeatedly suggested (as she put it in one interview) that “all journalism is manipulation, and all journalists trick people to get what they want.” As Levin acknowledges, she has likened biographers to burglars “breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers.” In her introduction to The Journalist and the Murderer (1989), Malcolm famously (or infamously) declared, “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.”
This decidedly unsubtle cartoon overstatement (every journalist? Wholly indefensible? All con men?) brilliantly seizes your attention while ignoring the essential question: What is a journalist’s role?
Journalism essentially involves finding out what’s going on and communicating those insights to the public. This is a vital communal function— the most vital function, as observers from Jefferson (who said he’d rather have newspapers without government than vice versa) to Walter Lippmann (who said that government, ultimately, is just organized opinion) have recognized. Malcolm herself may agree. Yet in all her critiques of journalists, she never pauses to reflect as to what the world would be like without them.
To me, this sort of thinking is not profound but ditzy. It’s like saying that soldiers kill people, or lawyers are paid to lie, or business executives are greedy, or housewives are really just high-priced prostitutes. To which one must ask: What else is new? And compared to what?
In my long career as a media critic, I’ve often suggested that media consumers should view journalists the way they view their friends and acquaintances: that is, there are some people you trust more than others, and some you don’t trust at all, but no one whom you trust absolutely. Yet this kind of nuance has no place in Malcolm’s garden of sweeping generalizations.
But of course Malcolm’s complaint is not a plea for better journalism; on the contrary, it’s a plea that we tolerate her flouting of journalistic conventions on the ground that everyone else flouts them too.
A cornerstone of Malcolm’s approach to journalism is the notion that objectivity— the approach to a subject with a fair and open mind rather than a preconceived agenda— is humanly impossible, and consequently any journalist who strives for it is sadly deluded. In her own work Malcolm eschews objectivity in favor of being true to her senses, which is all well and good. Yet surely there’s a difference in objectivity levels between, say, the New York Times and Fox News, or between The Economist and The Drudge Report. Just because absolute fairness is impossible, does that mean no one should even attempt it?
All words, Malcolm has suggested, serve the purpose of the person who utters them. Yet one could easily argue the opposite: Our words condemn us. (Critics of, say, Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney have feasted on their memoirs.) My own long career as a free speech advocate has been driven not by any altruistic concern for the rights of despised socialists or Nazis but from my own selfish personal desire to read and evaluate the words of bin Laden, Arafat and Hitler so I can judge them for myself without interference by government censors or the mob. As Emerson (not to mention most psychiatrists) has observed, one’s opinion of others is a reflection on oneself— a notion, again, that seems to have eluded Malcolm.
Malcolm’s thesis about journalism as betrayal was showcased most famously in The Journalist and the Murderer, yet that two-part New Yorker article focused entirely on a single atypical example that hardly involved conventional journalism at all. To wit:
In 1979 the newspaper columnist Joe McGinniss met Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Green Beret doctor who was soon to stand trial for murdering his wife and two young daughters in their home nine years earlier. MacDonald was eager to assert his innocence; McGinniss was casting about for a new book project. The two men reached an agreement: McGinniss would write a book about the trial, sharing some of the proceeds with MacDonald. In return, MacDonald would grant McGinniss exclusive access to him and his lawyers throughout the trial.
MacDonald thought that McGinniss believed in his innocence; yet McGinniss’s subsequent bestseller about the trial, Fatal Vision, concurred with the jury’s guilty verdict. MacDonald felt he’d been duped, and Janet Malcolm agreed: McGinniss, she wrote, had “deceived,” “betrayed” and “devastated” this convicted murderer from the outset.
Such a scenario is possible, of course. But it’s surely not the only one. In the course of their four-year relationship, McGinniss might have changed his mind about MacDonald’s innocence. Or, more crassly, after four years of labor McGinnis might have panicked about the dubious sales prospects of a book defending MacDonald as opposed to the juicier prospects of an insider’s exclusive look inside the mind of a killer.
The Journalist and the Murderer is actually a fascinating and insightful work; it just has little to do with Malcolm’s professed thesis. She thought she had found “a grossly magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter.” Yet the McGinniss-MacDonald agreement was a relatively rare collaboration between a journalist and his subject.
More typically, a journalist’s “clients” are not his subjects but his audience. If a journalist simply passed on the words of politicians or business executives without exercising his own judgment as to their validity, he would betray his clients. Yet Malcolm is preoccupied with the treatment of a journalist’s subject, not his clientele.
To me, The Journalist and the Murderer is really about the ethical challenges involved in writing a book as opposed to a magazine or newspaper article. A book can take years to write, during which time the subject— not to mention the writer’s perceptions and life situation— can change.
Moreover, a book must be sold (and consequently hyped) by itself. A magazine article, by contrast, is sold as part of a larger package, so the writer needn’t worry about marketing it. This is an important and rarely discussed issue, but one that lacks easily identifiable villains. Concocting a conflict between villain and victim, as Malcolm does, is surely more dramatic but also surely less honest and less sophisticated.
McGinniss’s conceit in writing Fatal Vision was his belief that he could take readers inside the mind of a murderer; Malcolm’s conceit in The Journalist and the Murderer was that she could take her readers inside the mind of a journalist. The difference, of course, is that McGinniss observed and interviewed his subject extensively; Malcolm (if McGinniss’s subsequent account is to be believed) conducted a single “extremely peculiar” interview with McGinniss; when he broke off contact with her thereafter, she wrote, “By banishing me, he had freed me from the guilt I would otherwise have felt” for condemning him without talking to him.
So she presumed to know what was going on in McGinniss’s head— what she believes goes on in every journalist’s head— on the basis if what goes on in her head. All of which is useful insight into Malcolm’s mind but not necessarily McGinniss’s.
All that research!
Bob Levin writes admiringly of the extensive research Malcolm devotes to her articles, noting that she interviewed one subject of a New Yorker profile weekly for a year and a half. But the relevant issue here is not the quantity of Malcolm’s research but the quality. Sometimes, the more research you invest in a story, the harder it becomes to admit that there’s no story.
A million times nothing is still nothing. Too often, Malcolm reminds me of the joke about the fellow who drops his keys in a dark alley and then spends hours searching for them under a lamppost down the block because the light is better there.
We journalists may well be con artists, as Malcolm insists, but our annoying presence is also the sign of a healthy society. In places like Russia and China, journalists are harassed, imprisoned and murdered for “betraying” the powers that be. When John Lloyd of the Financial Times raised that point with Malcolm in 2003, she replied, “Of course, I never did that kind of journalism.” In effect she was saying: It’s not about journalism. It’s about me.♦
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