Janet Malcolm RIP: “She took special aim at journalism itself, writing that every journalist ‘knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’”

From a New York Times obit by Katharine Q. Seelye headlined “Janet Malcolm, Provocative Journalist With a Piercing Eye, Dies at 86”:

Janet Malcolm, a longtime writer for The New Yorker who was known for her piercing judgments, her novel-like nonfiction and a provocative moral certainty that cast a cold eye on journalism and its practitioners, died on Wednesday in Manhattan….

Over a 55-year career, Ms. Malcolm produced an avalanche of deeply reported, exquisitely crafted articles, essays and books, most devoted to her special interests in literature, biography, photography, psychoanalysis and true crime. Her writing was precise and analytical; her unflinching gaze missed nothing.

“Don’t ever eat in front of Janet Malcolm; or show her your apartment; or cut tomatoes while she watches,” the critic Robert S. Boynton warned. “In fact, it probably isn’t a good idea even to grant her an interview, as your every unflattering gesture and nervous tic will be recorded eventually with devastating precision.”…

Whatever Ms. Malcolm was writing about, her real subject was often the writing process itself — the slipperiness of truth, the perils of the writer-subject relationship, the ethical choices that writers are constantly called to make. One of the through lines in her work was a merciless view of journalism, never mind that she was one of its most prominent practitioners.

“Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades,” she wrote in Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial.  “Malice remains its animating impulse.”

Her most famous work was “The Journalist and the Murderer,” published as a two-part essay in The New Yorker in 1989 and as a book the next year. A forensic examination of the relationship between Joe McGinniss, a best-selling author, and Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor who was convicted of murdering his family, it castigated Mr. McGinniss for pretending to believe in Dr. MacDonald’s innocence long after he was convinced of his guilt. Ms. Malcolm focused less on the murder…than on a lawsuit that Dr. MacDonald had brought against Mr. McGinniss, saying that he had deceived him.

Her essay began with one of the most arresting first sentences in literary 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.”

Her pronouncement enraged the journalistic firmament. Many writers insisted that this was not how they treated their subjects and accused Ms. Malcolm of tarring everyone with the same broad brush.

But what galled some journalists about the piece the most, The Times reported, “was her failure, and that of her magazine, to disclose that Miss Malcolm had been accused of the same kind of behavior, in a lawsuit filed against her by the subject of an earlier New Yorker article.”

That earlier article, a 1983 profile of the flamboyant psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, led to a libel suit against Ms. Malcolm that hung over her during a decade of litigation and clouded her reputation even longer.

The legal allegations were different: The MacDonald suit accused Mr. McGinniss of fraud and breach of contract; the Masson suit accused Ms. Malcolm of libel. But both suits raised serious questions about journalistic ethics — Dr. MacDonald’s about the nature of writers’ obligations to their sources, and Mr. Masson’s about what constitutes quotations and what license, if any, reporters may take with them.

The journalistic community generally judged Ms. Malcolm harshly, mostly for the finding in the Masson case that she had cobbled together 50 or 60 separate conversations with the loquacious Mr. Masson and made them appear as if he had spoken them in a single lunchtime monologue.

“This thing called speech is sloppy, redundant, repetitious, full of uhs and ahs,” Ms. Malcolm testified in 1993 during the first of two jury trials. “I needed to present it in logical, rational order so he would sound like a logical, rational person.”

Among her critics was Anna Quindlen, then a Times columnist, who wrote that Ms. Malcolm’s technique was “beyond the pale.”

“This thing called life is sloppy,” Ms. Quindlen wrote, “and slice-of-life is what a reporter is meant to reflect, not some tidier or more dramatic composite version.”

The MacDonald suit ended in a hung jury. (Dr. MacDonald is still serving three life sentences.) In the Masson suit, the jury ruledthat while two of five disputed quotations that Ms. Malcolm had attributed to Mr. Masson were false and that one of those was defamatory, none were written with reckless disregard of the truth, the standard that would have allowed for libel damages…

Many contemporary writers, reviewing her subsequent work, ignore the lengthy legal and ethical entanglements of the McGinniss and Masson cases and have nothing but praise for Ms. Malcolm’s literary skill.

In a 2019 review in The Times of Ms. Malcolm’s book “Nobody’s Looking at You,” Wyatt Mason referred to the habit of some New Journalists to insert themselves in their stories and noted: “Taking no particular issue with the work of her colleagues, I wish nonetheless to say that Malcolm, line to line, is a more revealing writer, one whose presence in her pieces isn’t meant to advertise the self so much as complicate the subject. And also, line to line, she is a better writer.”

Janet Malcolm was born Jana Klara Wienerova on July 8, 1934, into a well-to-do Jewish family in Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Her mother, Hanna, was a lawyer. Her father, Josef Wiener, was a psychiatrist and neurologist.

In July 1939, when Janet was almost 5 and her sister, Marie, was a toddler, her parents scraped together enough money to bribe Nazis officials for an exit visa…The family traveled by train to Hamburg, then to New York on one of the last civilian ships to leave Europe for America before the outbreak of World War II. Upon arrival, they changed their surname to Winn; Jana Klara became Janet Clara.

They initially stayed with relatives in Brooklyn, while her father studied for his medical boards. In 1940 they moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where her father in effect became a village doctor to the large working-class Czech population that lived in the East 70s. Janet’s mother, by then known as Joan, worked for the Voice of America.

In kindergarten in Brooklyn, Janet had felt lost and stymied by her inability to comprehend English. But she quickly picked up the new language during her early years of schooling in Manhattan, although when her father’s mother moved in with them in 1941 they still spoke Czech at home for her benefit….

Janet attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, then headed for the University of Michigan. She wrote for the school paper, The Michigan Daily, and the campus humor magazine Gargoyle, where, as managing editor, she produced a parody of The New Yorker.

“Her keen sense of parody has caught the attention of the campus,” wrote The Michigan Daily. “Many people consider the Gargoyle ‘New Yorker’ parody the finest issue of a college humor magazine ever published.” She graduated in 1955 with a degree in English.

While in college, she met and married Donald Malcolm. He, too, was a writer, and they moved to Washington, where they both wrote for The New Republic. When he joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1957, they moved to New York. He later became the magazine’s first Off Broadway drama critic and then a book reviewer. The New Yorker published Ms. Malcolm’s first piece, a six-stanza poem titled “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House,” in 1963.

Shortly thereafter, her husband, at the age of 32, acquired an unexplained illness that dragged on for years and from which he never recovered….He died in 1975 at 43. In an obituary in The New Yorker, William Shawn, the magazine’s legendary editor, wrote that Mr. Malcolm had been an “immaculate” writer, adding: “Word by word, sentence by sentence, piece by piece, he tried to achieve something flawless, and most of the time he succeeded.”

At The New Yorker, Ms. Malcolm started by writing on “women’s” topics….She also wrote “About the House,” a monthly column on interiors and design….

Among Ms. Malcolm’s first editors at The New Yorker was Gardner Botsford. The intensity of the editing process drew them together, and they married in 1975, after both of their spouses had died. Mr. Botsford, whose stable of New Yorker writers included Roger Angell, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, died in 2004 at 87….

At her husband’s memorial service, Ms. Malcolm said that during their first editing session, he “transformed bumpy writing into polished prose.” She became so reliant on his deft red pencil, she said, that over the years “I became more blasé about his editing, as one does about indoor plumbing.”

Another influence on her as a writer stemmed from her decision to give up smoking in 1978. She realized that she couldn’t write without cigarettes, so she avoided writing by immersing herself instead in researching and reporting. The result was a lengthy article called “The One-Way Mirror,” about family therapy.

“By the time she finished the long period of reporting,” Ms. Roiphe wrote in The Paris Review, “she found she could finally write without smoking, and she had also found her form.”

That idiosyncratic form has been described in different ways by different writers. Ms. Roiphe put it this way: “She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.”

Katharine Q. “Kit” Seelye is a Times obituary writer. She was previously the paper’s New England bureau chief, based in Boston. She worked in The Times’s Washington bureau for 12 years, has covered six presidential campaigns and pioneered The Times’s online coverage of politics.

Also see the Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Janet Malcolm, elegant and incisive writer for the New Yorker, dies at 86.” The opening grafs:

Janet Malcolm, a journalist and critic whose elegant and incisive articles for the New Yorker explored issues of truth, objectivity, self-deceit and betrayal, most notably in the fraught relationship between writers and their subjects, died June 16 at a hospital in New York City.

Ms. Malcolm combined meticulous reporting with a ruminative and slashing style, illuminating her subjects’ personalities and pretensions while also revealing her own eye for detail. Her stories variously described a journalist who chopped tomatoes “with agonizing slowness,” a pianist who dressed for a concert “like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant” and a psychiatrist who decorated his office “like a Victorian parlor — or perhaps like a stage set for one.”

In magazine articles and a dozen books, she examined topics ranging from psychoanalysis and photography to Russian literature and the Gossip Girl novels. Much of her work focused on the contrast between the messiness of real life and the tidy narratives offered by lawyers in the courtroom and by journalists and biographers on the page.

She argued that the latter two were the literary equivalent of burglars and con artists, pilfering material from their subjects’ lives and gaining the trust of people who often felt disappointed or even betrayed by the results.

“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,” Ms. Malcolm wrote in the opening lines of her 1990 book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” to a chorus of gasps and howls from some of her fellow writers. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”…

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