Janet Malcolm obituary

Staff writer for the New Yorker who wrote about the practice of journalism, art and biography

Among Janet Malcolm’s many memorable sentences, the one whose repetition wearied her opened a two-part article that was published by the New Yorker magazine in March 1989. The piece’s title was The Journalist and the Murderer and in the following year it appeared as a book – one of several by Malcolm, who has died of lung cancer aged 86, that warned readers of narrative nonfiction, especially journalism and biography, that the truth was never simple; that it wasn’t buried conveniently like treasure, to be discovered and faithfully recounted by some sufficiently inquisitive and all-knowing narrator; that everything was subjective, fluid and incomplete.

“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,” she wrote as her book’s first sentence, and then continued: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse … 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.”

The passage was controversial and angered many journalists, who found her view of their craft hard to comprehend or forgive. Unusually for Malcolm, she wrote too loosely. By journalists she meant her own particular kind: not sports writers, court reporters or foreign correspondents, but the fretting authors of long narratives that attempted to explain a human crisis or disaster, which took time (sometimes years) to research and write and which often depended on the journalist winning the confidence of his subject over many drinks, lunches and intimate conversations – only to betray it when he came to commit words to paper. Then, as Malcolm wrote, the journalist as a stern father-figure replaces the forgiving mother-figure of his (or her) interviews and punishes the subject for his various imperfections.

The New Yorker specialised in such lengthy, well-researched pieces, and Malcolm, a staff writer on the magazine from the 1960s to the 80s, was writing about a familiar kind of dilemma and temptation. Her story examined the case of a triple murderer, the US army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, and his deception by a well-regarded writer, Joe McGinniss, who took a $300,000 publisher’s advance to write an insider account of MacDonald’s trial, befriending him and convincing him that the book would exonerate him of a terrible crime when in fact – a surprise to the murderer long after the court found him guilty – it portrayed him as a psychopathic killer. In a subsequent trial, the murderer sued the writer for fraud, and Malcolm, who attended the court, used the evidence to explore the ethics of what she called “the journalist-subject relationship … the canker that lies at the heart of the rose of journalism”.

Many critics felt – and Malcolm always denied – that her keen appreciation of this canker stemmed from her experience with an earlier book, In the Freud Archives (1984), in which she unravelled a bitter quarrel that had broken out among his followers over Sigmund Freud’s intellectual legacy. During her research she befriended a young, flamboyant analyst, Jeffrey Masson, whose criticisms of orthodox Freudianism lay at the heart of the row. Masson was outraged at her portrait of him, denied statements she attributed to him, and sued for libel. The case lasted several years and went through two courts before Malcolm’s name was finally cleared.

Janet Malcolm book cover

The publicity made her unhappy and she wondered if some people would always see her as “a kind of fallen woman of journalism”. In fact, her book on the McGinniss-MacDonald affair has become one of the most influential texts in the study and practice of modern journalism, as well as a classic of narrative nonfiction.

Malcolm was born Jana Klara Wienoverá to secular Jewish parents – Josef Wiener (who later anglicised his name to Joseph Winn), a psychiatrist, and Hanna (nee Taussig), a lawyer – in Prague, and with them and her sister fled to the US shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. The family settled in New York City. After her school education there, Malcolm studied at the University of Michigan, where she wrote for student magazines and met Donald Malcolm, who reviewed books and theatre for the New Yorker. They married in 1953.

By the 1960s, Malcolm was writing for the New Yorker herself, beginning with a poem published in 1963, soon followed by a column about interior design and, between 1975 and 1981, another about photography. Until her death she continued to be interested in the visual arts; as a collagist and photographer she was also a practitioner of them. Her first book, Diana and Nikon (1980), collected her photography pieces, and most of the 11 books that followed also had their origins in the magazine, though her subject now was the puzzle of human behaviour rather than the meaning of art.

Her books are characterised by their brevity – none of her stories stretched beyond the length of a novella – and the clarity, wit and thoughtfulness of the narration. Beginning with psychoanalysis (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981) she brought the same question-asking techniques to subjects ranging from Chekhov (Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, 2001) to the perplexities of the American courtroom (Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, 2011). She was a very precise writer – details mattered to her and the predicaments she examined were always firmly rooted in the specific.

Janet Malcolm book cover

In her study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (The Silent Woman, 1992), Malcolm wrote that the readers and writers of biography were each impelled by the same “voyeurism and busybodyism … obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity”. For a writer, she had a considerable distrust of writing. When Hughes (to whom Malcolm was sympathetic) complained about some facts in the book, she replied apologetically to say that his letter “was another, and most compelling, illustration of the impossibility of ever getting the hang of it entirely, and the fundamental problem of omniscient narration in nonfiction”.

She separated from Donald Malcolm, and he died in 1975. Later that year, she married Gardner Botsford, formerly the New Yorker’s deputy editor. Botsford died in 2004 and latterly, Malcolm lived alone with her cat in a handsome apartment in Gramercy Park, Lower Manhattan. She was not, as some imagined, censorious and steely. She was generous to her friends, including me, and her reticence came partly out of her dislike of what she termed “auto-novelised” personalities, oven-ready for the next chat show.

She was a slight, rather delicate-looking woman who liked mischief. In one of her last pieces, published by the New York Review of Books last autumn, she confessed that in an afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer she took “a very high tone” about Masson’s then ongoing case against her. “I put myself above the fray; I looked at things from a glacial distance. My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment – and appalled by the stupidity of the approach.”

She is survived by her daughter, Anne, and granddaughter, Sophy, and by her sister, Marie.

• Janet Clara Malcolm, writer, born 8 July 1934; died 16 June 2021


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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