About a third of the way through her essay ‘Three Sisters’, Janet Malcolm describes the mysterious allure of bookshops and declares, ‘the association of books with humanistic ideals is deeply entrenched in the public imagination and finds its way into the rueful articles that regularly appear throughout the world, whose own subliminal message is that books are a kind of last bastion against barbarity’. She’s writing here about a bookshop in New York run by a trio of sisters engaged in the funny business of selling antiquarian literature. It’s a safe enough proposition to say Malcolm knows a lot about books: by way of being one of the most celebrated critics and essayists in America.
Sometimes she quite literally tears them into pieces—she’s a collagist, not only in the way she dissects and reassembles her subjects into coolly stylish sentences (likely to fill her subjects with fear) but in the cutting-and-pasting sense. A few years ago, she exhibited a series of collages she’d made with pages from a book on astronomy and another of Emily Dickinson’s diaries from the winter years of the lonely poet’s life. One of these later fragments (though it was not one used by Malcolm) is a scrap of envelope with the first dashed-off draft of what would become the famous line, ‘There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away’. Malcolm, who is 85 now, would know this better than just about anyone.
Janet Malcolm was first published in The New Yorker at the age of 29 while she was with her first husband—who reviewed books for the magazine. She wrote for a decade or so on art and interior design and brought out her first book, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography in 1980, before psychoanalysis became an enduring object of her writerly fascination. And, yes, Malcolm happens to be the daughter of a psychiatrist. The next year she strode like a bull in a china shop into the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, about the pseudonymous Aaron Green, he of the ‘unswervingly classical Freudian sort’ and his gaggle of New York psychoanalysts. Since then she has published nine further books, including three compilations of her writing about people and art and literature, while never forgetting the mind.
She has a deserved reputation as a formidable interviewer and a ferocious portraitist and was once called a vampire (by a fan, no less). Whether that’s fair or not, writing about her feels a bit like trying to get a take on a version of Frankenstein’s monster. Lots of people have tried—and then written about trying—to emulate her, this elusive almost spectral woman who moved from wartime Prague to New York as a girl and who became a great writer while working so much in the negative mode, a celebratory critic who abhors the falsities of fame. It’s a little hard to know where to begin when talking about her, and after 17 failed attempts at a first sentence writing about her, everything starts to feel a bit like putting together a collapsed collage.
Nobody’s Looking at You, published here this year, is a miscellaneous collection comprising Malcolm’s essays from The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. It follows her earlier compilations The Purloined Clinic (1992) and Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (2013). The title essay of the latter details Malcolm’s attempts to write about her interviews with the 1980s star New York artist David Salle in his atelier. She says in it that, to the writer, ‘the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odourless calling. The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.’ On another visit, Malcolm brings along three of her own artworks to show Salle and asks him, ‘Why are your collages art and mine not?’ To which he replies, ‘There’s nothing that says your collages aren’t art if you declare them to be so.’ For what it’s worth, she put one of hers on the book’s cover.
The title Nobody’s Looking at You, on the other hand, comes from a profile on the fashion designer Eileen Fisher in which Malcolm describes with characteristic astuteness the way women who consider themselves serious aspire for the clothes they wear to ‘look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected’. Although the cover image is a photo of Yuja Wang, subject of ‘Performance Artist’, the then 29-year-old piano prodigy, who performs the most complex and difficult pieces of the classical repertoire while wearing staggeringly high heels and short tight dresses that ride up her thighs as she hits the pedals on her Steinway. Wang is a serious reader of Virginia Woolf and Kant but lets Malcolm know that she’s ‘always reading something trashy too’. Wang describes Mozart as a party animal. And Malcolm captures like a dream the way Wang manages the delicate internal balance of being a young woman making her way in the world and the fact that she also happens to be a musical genius. Malcolm describes what it’s like to enter Wang’s apartment: ‘There may be a few stuffed animals on the bed or maybe only a sense of them.’ When the two women strike up a correspondence over email, Wang’s messages are filled with smiley faces and abbreviations like most other 20-somethings … but still.
Speaking of email, there’s a piece from 2007 on a guidebook called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe that has the lovely feel of something joyously passé. Malcolm writes that email ‘is like an appliance that we have been helplessly misusing because it arrived without instructions’; whereas, she says, ‘it is more like a dangerous power tool than like a harmless kitchen appliance’. Shipley and Schwalbe detail email’s potentially mortifying perils (accidentally hitting reply all, foolish spelling of names, the wrong send to address, etc.). The authors characterise the email user as a kind of exuberant puppy whose excited yipping and yelping expresses itself in a liberal use of exclamation marks.
Although I have to disagree with Malcolm when she says that ‘email is a medium of bad writing’, at least axiomatically. Some emails (and emailers) manage to strike a balance between typing with idiot abandon and the kind of scrupulous, anxious caution traditionally associated with typing. It is interesting though, Malcolm tells us, that the examples Shipley and Schwalbe chose to illustrate the section ‘How to write a perfect email’ were written by 12-year-olds. ‘As the really young become merely young it will be interesting to see what happens,’ Malcolm says. ‘Will their childish babble evolve into decent writing? Does writing a lot lead to writing well?’ Well, I was 12 when she wrote that. I wonder what she makes of Twitter or Instagram—email exhibits an almost old-world sophistication by comparison.
The American writer Katie Roiphe interviewed Malcolm for a 2014 piece in The Paris Review. Malcolm only agreed to the interview on the condition that the majority of it took place via email. ‘It is nearly impossible to imagine the masterful interviewer chatting unguardedly into a tape recorder, and indeed she prefers not to imagine it,’ Roiphe says. ‘In this way she has refused the role of subject and reverted to the more comfortable role of writer.’ In this respect, Malcolm is a bit like a surgeon who knows just too much about the dangers of going under the scalpel.
Interestingly, Katie Roiphe has gained a degree of notoriety for what was dubbed ‘anti-feminist feminism’. In 2018 she published a piece in Harper’s on what she called the ‘other whisper network’, in which she said women were just too afraid to air publicly their criticisms of the #MeToo movement. And in 1991 she had written a New York Times article declaring that college date-rape fears were all a bit hysterical and panicky. The thought of 1990s feminism and the spectre of sexual harassment—particularly on campuses—calls to mind Helen Garner’s most controversial book, The First Stone (1995)—the one for which she was willing to risk being universally liked.
Garner, like Malcolm, is a master of using a fictional technique to tell a true life story. And in her introduction to Text’s Australian edition of Forty-one False Starts she says Malcolm is the writer who has influenced and taught her more than any other. Malcolm has a piece on The First Stone in Nobody’s Looking at You, in which she calls Garner an ‘unreliable narrator’ and says hers ‘are not the reactions of a seasoned journalist but the ravings of a rejected lover’. She also says, a little unfairly, that Garner’s lack of objectivity amounts to ‘closing ranks with the abuser’. But Malcolm ends with a supremely backhanded compliment, saying the book ‘no more needs defending than our dreams do, with which there is no arguing, and which are always true’. Malcolm once described the journalist as someone who strives to be an ‘ultra-reliable’ narrator, that the ‘I’ in journalism reflects 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’. Garner on the other hand is reliably unreliable, but usually we love her for it. She is the self she dramatises, and part of what we love in her is the courage with which she dramatises her contradictions.
Malcolm is no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson brought a libel case against her for some of her New Yorker articles, as well as for her book In the Freud Archives (1984), arguing that she had fabricated quotes attributed to him in her thriller-like account of him and two other psychoanalysts who were caught up in a very Freudian quarrel (a jury eventually decided in Malcolm’s favour). Then, at the start of her book The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Malcolm said, in what’s become possibly her best-known line, ‘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.’ Here she is examining the case of Joe McGinniss, who wrote a bestseller about a doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald who in 1979 was convicted of the murders of his pregnant wife and his two young daughters. McGinniss followed the trial and became friends with MacDonald, whom, his book reveals, McGinniss thought was a sociopath. Malcolm’s book anatomises the ethics of the relationship between a journalist and her subject. It has received both high praise and, unsurprisingly, criticism for its frankness (or audacity, depending on how you call it) and you can see why—the rest of Malcolm’s opening paragraph goes like this:
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.
Malcolm has been called malicious, aggressive, not nice. When Katie Roiphe asked her about it, Malcolm said, ‘What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession”. If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.’ Whether you agree with her or not, it’s fair to say that any journalist will find herself wondering if she’s standing on shaky moral ground at some point, and that the relationship between writer and subject can be a weird one whether it’s construed as adversarial or parasitic or whatever.
But Janet Malcolm isn’t a neutral character in her stories, nor would she say she was meant to be. We do know what she thinks about a great number of things—she’ll often offer us her two cents or a glimpse of her own psychology or the blackness of her soul. When she visits David Salle and asks him about her collages, she claims she has only brought them to talk about them, she doesn’t really care what he thinks. Looking back, of course, she sees that she brought them so she could be praised. A few pages later, she tells us, in her flat take-that way, ‘I have never found anything an artist has said about his work interesting.’ Instead it’s the conversation around the art (whether it’s piano or television or radio) that gives you the better story. The ‘I’ she uses isn’t autobiographical. She once began and then abandoned an autobiography and said the ‘I’ of journalism wasn’t suited to the form: ‘Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness.’
‘The observing “I” of autobiography tells the story of the observed “I” not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might.’ Then again, if you’re using the ‘I’ it’s hard to avoid revealing the self entirely. A fragment of a potential autobiography emerges over the course of Nobody’s Looking at You. In ‘The Émigré’ she profiles George Jellinek of The Vocal Scene, a classical music radio program of which she is a great admirer. Malcolm tells us that, like Jellinek, she came to New York with her family as a Jewish refugee. Malcolm moved from Prague in 1939 and she says of mastering English:
The pride that my father and his fellow émigrés took in their ability to stroll through the language as if it were a field of wildflowers from which they could gather choice specimens of stale faded expressions and faded slang.
And if that’s a bit wry it’s also rather fond.
In 2018 she wrote a short personal piece for The New Yorker prefaced with an early photograph of herself, in which she talks about the childhood memory of a kindly aunt giving her a basket filled with peony petals. But for her it’s the rose that’s the queen of flowers. We know (because she tells us) that she loves music and thinks common sense is the enemy of art; that she isn’t easily impressed but reveres Rachel Maddow, whose show she calls a ‘piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show’ and ‘TV entertainment at its finest’. Malcolm can seem almost as at home in twenty-first-century pop culture—and just as craftily detached from it—as she was with the 1980s New York art world. She says of reality television, for example, ‘Something always seems a little off … You don’t believe that what you are seeing happened any more than you think that the man in the Magritte was born with an apple attached to his face.’
Here she’s writing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, in which reality star Kate Gosselin and her eight children travel with the infamous Palin family to the Alaskan wilderness. The show also features Palin with her disabled son, Trig, and as the audience watches the mother weeping over her boy, Malcolm says, ‘At this moment, she is not Sarah Palin the wicked witch of the right. She is a woman one pities and sympathises with and, yes, even admires.’ She sums up the nature of this strangest type of TV: ‘What follows is like a scene in a dream—or piece of experimental theatre—where disconnected things happen all at once, very fast and slow (such is the character of this genre), and anxiety covers everything like a sticky paste.’
Malcolm talks about dreams again in her meditation on Anna Karenina. This is tricky, brilliant stuff, but she does it with great lucidity. She says:
As we read Anna Karenina we are under the same illusion of authorlessness we are under as we follow the stories that come to us at night and seem to derive from some ancient hidden reality rather than from our own, so to speak, pens.
And she goes on:
Tolstoy was obviously well acquainted with the guard who stops us at the border of sleep and awakening and confiscates the brilliant, dangerous spoils of our nighttime creations. The capacity to re-create these fictions in the unprotected light of day may be what we mean by literary genius.
Malcolm is capable of this sort of high and mighty criticism and she does it here without guile or cynicism. She loves the Russian classics and devoted a slim book, Reading Chekhov, to the great Russian playwright and short-story writer. In it she visits Chekhov’s houses, his hospital and his cemetery, and walks through Oreanda above the Black Sea. Not surprisingly, she has a low opinion of his biographers. She has always been sceptical of biography, despite her own sleuth-like interest in literary legacies. In her 1995 essay on Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, ‘A House of One’s Own’, she says, ‘We have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty.’ In The Silent Woman—which was first published as an entire issue of The New Yorker in 1993—Malcolm chronicles Sylvia Plath’s post-mortem mythology and the biographers who scrabbled over it, as well as the role played by Plath’s notorious former husband and fellow poet, Ted Hughes.
A few years ago, a friend of mine addressed her fellow first-year literature students with an end-of-semester presentation on The Silent Woman. She quite crudely photoshopped Hughes into a Thrasher jumper and Vans sneakers, gave him a skateboard and called him the ‘ultimate fuckboy’. Malcolm, on the other hand, takes the more unfashionable side in Hughes’s defence. In her latest collection, in the essay ‘A Very Sadistic Man’, she offers an excoriating review of a Ted Hughes biography by the academic Jonathan Bate. She says the question of what Hughes was ‘really’ like ‘remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our business, it is our pathetic native self.’ In The Silent Woman, she quotes Hughes saying of Plath: ‘I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.’ And the word ‘self’ appears dozens of times in her work. What is the self really? What does she make of it, this sly candid journalist who takes people apart but loves the literature that celebrates their humanity?
Janet Malcolm is a dazzlingly clever journalist in the way she can write equally well about the things she sees and the things she only reads about. She has the keenest possible ear for speech and a way of capturing mood with her sharp, empathetic (but also withering) eye. In ‘Three Sisters’, for instance, she writes of visiting the bookshop in the usually frantic shopping week before Christmas only to find the place quiet and the three sisters milling around the shelves with ‘something of the crestfallen air of the hosts of an unsuccessful party, who brighten when a guest comes in and subside into glumness as the evening wears on and the room remains unfilled’.
When you read good writing, you can often imagine everything in it coming to life. With Janet Malcolm it’s like a conversation with a refined, very clever acquaintance whose passionate intellect invites you in and who doesn’t intimidate you (though she could if she tried). In ‘Three Sisters’, Malcolm says good luck to the little bookstore that pushes up towards the sunlight in between the towering New York buildings like a flower growing in a cracked pavement. I reread this one on a morning cold enough to see your breath and was reminded that words can make a book feel like a living thing.
Catie McLeod is a writer and journalist.