Czech wit in translation
World War II–era recipes
“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,” Janet Malcolm writes at the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer in the kind of fierce statement that has earned her a reputation as an unswerving truth-teller. Like many of Malcolm’s other nonfiction works, this book, published in 1990, takes a specific event (a murderer suing a journalist) and unpacks it so extensively that the work illuminates a larger topic—in this case, the complex psychological dynamics at the heart of the art of journalism.
Malcolm, who has been publishing pieces that seamlessly combine essay and reportage in the New Yorker since the late seventies, has written eight books, spanning such topics as the politics and pitfalls of the field of psychoanalysis (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981), the problem of biography seen through the lens of Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman, 1994), and a meditation on the life and work of Chekhov (Reading Chekhov, 2001). Others include In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), as well as two collections of essays, The Purloined Clinic (1992) and Diana and Nikon (1980, expanded in 1997). What grabs and regrabs the reader in her writing is its deft commingling of sleuthing and contemplation. Reading Malcolm, one has the sensation of being in the presence of a mind constantly in action on several levels, mediating between external reality (one most often consisting of facts that are at odds with one another) and her own consciousness. With the exception of The Purloined Clinic, none of her books is much more than two hundred pages, but the rigor of her writing gives them the quality of murals painted by a miniaturist.
Malcolm can be unsparing in her portrayals of the people she comes across, but her extraordinary precision does not preclude compassion. Occasionally, Malcolm’s subjects damn themselves, but more often they reveal the vanities, obsessions, and desires that we all share—if to a heightened degree.
Currently at work on a book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Malcolm corresponded with me by email between March and June of this year.
THE BELIEVER: I was thinking, too, about your reputation as a writer for being quite exacting towards, or even tough on, your subjects. The same rigor that thrills some of your readers seems to make others extremely uncomfortable. I wonder if you’ve ever felt that the reception to your work has been colored by the fact that you’re a woman. Are women still meant to be “nicer” as writers, less difficult?
I ask because I think of my own interviewing style, at least in person, as incorporating some stereotypical feminine behavior: slightly low-status and deferential, punctuated by ready laughter, and driven by an accommodating attitude. Later, when I’m writing I feel I’ve acted as something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I remember your description of your “more Japanese technique” in The Journalist and the Murderer, in contrast to the more flat-footed Newsday reporter’s. I have a sense of course, but wondered specifically what you meant by that?
JANET MALCOLM: I really don’t know whether the people who don’t like my writing don’t like it because of their perception of me as a tough, not-nice woman. It seems kind of ridiculous—I think of myself as a completely ordinary harmless person—but what people think of your writing persona is out of your hands. The narrator of my nonfiction pieces is not the same person I am—she is a lot more articulate and thinks of much cleverer things to say than I usually do. I can imagine her coming across as a little insufferable sometimes. But she, too, is out of my hands—I may have invented her, but she is the person who insists on speaking for me.
As for the wolf in sheep’s clothing question, perhaps the way to minimize one’s feeling that one has not been as straightforward with the subject as one should have been, is to be a little more straightforward. To swallow the too-nice thing one is about to say. To remember that the subject is going to say what he or she wants to say no matter what you say or don’t say. You can’t keep your mouth shut all the time, of course, but you do well to keep it shut a lot of the time. If silence falls, let the subject break it—even though that’s a very hard thing to do. By the way, I don’t think the “feminine behavior” you describe is limited to women journalists. Men journalists can be just as ingratiating, deferential, accommodating, and laughter-prone.
When you ask what I mean by the Japanese technique, you are not employing it.
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