I decided to become a biographer when I was 21. My college thesis was a 60-page-ish piece of life writing on a semi-obscure mid-century academic named Fred Millett, and I landed on him for no other reason than the fact that his papers were available, thousands and thousands of them, lying in rows and rows of boxes in the basement beneath the library. The librarian said Millett, who died in 1976, bequeathed them all to Wesleyan, where he taught for many years and where I was a student. They made up a huge collection for a rather unknown person — but more than that, they were unprocessed, meaning no employee of the library, no archivist, and no researcher had gone through them. “There could be anything in there,” she said dramatically one day on a tour of the special collections. That was the part when I started paying attention.
It was a voyeuristic impulse the late Janet Malcolm would have recognized. A snooping, self-possessed student, titillated by the opportunity to go through someone’s personal items, a precocious little explorer — the character falls right in line with the many archetypes of biographers and journalists made famous in Malcolm’s treatises on their inherent evils.
If you know anything about Janet Malcolm, who died last week at age 86, you probably know that she famously despised her own profession. There are too many of her acerbic adages to list, but I can start with the appropriately killer opening of The Journalist and the Murderer: “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.” There’s the part of her book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman, where she compares a biographer to a “professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” And this line, from courtroom drama Iphigenia in Forest Hills, about the practice of reporting: “Malice remains its animating impulse.”
Imagine the horror I felt reading sentences like these when I, a good biographer in training, picked up my first Malcolm work on my professor’s suggestion. I was expecting to be intellectually rewarded for my trips to the archive. Instead, reading Janet Malcolm as a budding writer was like putting above my desk a flashing neon sign that read “What You Are Doing Is Not Noble.”
But it was a cold, curative ice bath on my inflamed ego, which is how so many journalists in the generations after Malcolm look to her uncompromised prose, which is so excellent it’s almost cruel. When she first wrote her excoriations of the journalistic profession, in the ’80s and ’90s, it had become a booming mass market, a way to get rich (hard to imagine now), and she scandalized the community by talking about its foibles, contradictions, and depravities.
By the time I was writing my thesis, nearly 30 years later, Malcolm’s metatextual reflections on the form defined the best nonfiction writing. In grad school, where I continued the project for a dissertation, I wondered if some of the people in my course would strike her as vultures, emblematic of journalism’s worst exploitative tendencies: the woman writing about the Holocaust survivor who kept accidentally revealing that he was probably too old to know what he was participating in. The travel writer who conjured racist, raunchy sex scenes with locals wherever she seemed to go. They were like proof of Malcolm’s theories about this kind of work, her notion that it generates a combination of sanctimony and high comedy: What journalists do is very serious (trespassing on real people and their lives), but journalists themselves are deeply unserious, because they don’t understand that. She was like a talisman for me, warding off embarrassment.
Later, when I started writing full time, she was a buoy of shrewdness and self-effacement in a sea of self-centered essays and criticism. In an era when everything had become territory for earnest, lofty, “political” reflection, every cultural object treated as an “act of defiance,” she remained steadfastly cynical. Her writing on the Gossip Girl books is one of my favorites for this reason, because it refused to see anything more meaningful in the book’s pleasure than was really there, a bulwark against scores and scores of criticism that would do the opposite: “If the book has any redeeming social value, it is as an education in label recognition,” she said, comparing Gossip Girl to a Twinkie or caviar. A few days ago, when the director of the new Gossip Girl reboot gave an interview in which he said the characters would “wrestle with their privilege,” I thought immediately of her. She would have been so bored.
In the last few years, Malcolm seemed to be aware of the limitations of her vision. “My analysis of journalistic betrayal was seen as betrayal of journalism itself as well as a piece of royal chutzpah,” she said in 2011. “Today, my critique seems obvious, even banal. No one argues with it, and yes, it has degenerated — as critiques do — into a sort of lame excuse.” It’s true that we seem to have reached a point where self-deprecation, or self-disclosure, is a familiar crouch for a writer, a way to absolve oneself of whatever moral quandaries one might be complicit in by simply naming them. It can become its own pose of detachment and self-awareness, bordering on nihilism. There is danger in going full-throttle Malcolm: A journalist so ensconced in her own honesty about herself can lose sight of her subjects.
In that same interview in 2011, Malcolm said journalism is not a “helping profession.” “If we help anyone, it is ourselves,” she told Katie Roiphe, “to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.” But that’s not entirely right — not even for Malcolm, who in the few revealing, vulnerable moments in her work did seem to want to help. The best known may be when, covering the trial of a woman accused of conspiracy to murder for Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she gave an alarming piece of evidence she discovered to the defense team. She wrote her book on Plath and Hughes because she was so disgusted with the ways competing parties had used their sad lives and memories for their own gain. In Malcolm’s work, those times when she takes a side are thrilling, and often more brave than yet another arch description of a pitiful showboat or denouncement of the act of writing.
There is a reason that, even as she wrote over and over again that journalism is reprehensible, Janet Malcolm didn’t do anything else. She didn’t become an artist or a psychoanalyst or an interior designer. Language and story were her tools, and they are inadequate and slippery and treacherous, but they are what human beings have. Clearly, Malcolm didn’t choose silence. “We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others,” she wrote in her book on psychoanalysis. “We cannot see each other plain.” Writing about other people had undeniable value for her, even if she didn’t care to articulate it as loudly as the perils. I sometimes wish she had, but that’s okay. One thing Malcolm would absolutely hate to be is overrated.