The Broad Street Review has published my article on Janet Malcolm. It gives writers permission to post their pieces at their own blogs, but I thought it would be interesting to post my piece as I wrote it. BSR's editor, a vastly more experienced journalist than I, made substantial cuts while leaving its essence and arguments intact, and I thought the ability to compare the two pieces would be of interest. So here's the link to where it appeared: http://www.broadstreetreview.com/index.php/main/article/in_defense_of_janet_malcolm
And here's my original article:
Dan Rottenberg, in his recent quartering of David Denby http://www.broadstreetreview. com /index.php/main/article/confessions_of_a_new_yorker__film_critic/, swiped gratuitously at Janet Malcolm. I have no dog in any fight involving David Denby, but Malcolm is a writer I admire enormously. (The extent of this admiration can be measured by my willingness to buy her books upon publication at cover price, even if I have already read most of the contents elsewhere.) So I thought, not that she needs it, the honorable thing to do would be to spring to her defense. (As you can see, these old bones spring slowly.) When I queried Rottenberg regarding his openness to such an effort, he, behaving honorably himself, urged me to make my best pounce.
Rottenberg’s swipe leveled two charges. First, Malcolm is “incurably ditzy” and, second, she “usually wind(s) up reflecting more on her(self) than on her subjects.” Terminal ditziness is a difficult accusation to rebut. For one thing, the adjective appears in neither my Webster’s nor my (admittedly out-dated) Dictionary of American Slang which makes my lawyer-within, accustomed to arguing statutory construction, uneasy . But if one, as I do, associates the appellation with “whacky,” “dizzy,” “fuzzy-headed” (usually) women – think Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby – a look at the topics Malcolm has tackled in her still-mounting-at-age-77 oeuvre should cast reasonable doubt about its applicability in her case. One can hardly imagine Hepburn’s “Susan Vance” producing works on photography, psychoanalysis, Anton Chekhov, Milan Kundera, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, the New York art scene, and the American criminal justice system.
As one whose gorge still rises at the recollection of the reviewer who dissed one of my books more than a decade ago as “annoyingly self-referential,” Rottenberg’s second indictment challenges me more severely. I break it into two parts. Is it true? Does that matter? Let’s look at the numbers. In parsing 16 randomly selected paragraphs (dialogue excluded) from a random selection of Malcolm’s books, I find that in only two her subject is herself – her actions, observations, assessments – while the rest are devoted to her subjects – their projects, disputations, family, character, and furniture. Whether this percentage seems excessively self-centered will depend upon the reader. But statistics can deceive; and I would grant Rottenberg that Malcolm interjects herself into her work more than, say, Walter Lippman or David Halberstam or Bob Woodward. (Whether she in more intrusive than Joan Didion, A.J. Liebling, or George Orwell is a different matter.)
But whatever Malcolm’s degree of personal intrusion, one must ask, “So what?” This failing has not prevented her from having been called “a virtuoso stylist and a subtle exciting thinker” (Salon); “among the most intellectually provocative of authors” (Boston Globe); “the most morally illuminating literary journalist in the country” (Slate); and “completely brilliant” (London Times). So why have Rottenberg – and more than a few others – been saying nasty things about her?
Malcolm’s troubles began when she was sued by the psychoanalyst-in-training Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson for $10,000,000 for defaming him in an article in The New Yorker (re-published in Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives) through the attribution of quotations to him which he had never uttered. Though a decade’s litigation concluded with a jury awarding Masson bupkis, a feeling lingered in some circles, not the least because Malcolm’s portrait of him made Dorian Gray’s seem flattering, that she must have done Masson wrong. (Albert Scardino, a New York Times reporter, went so far as to state that she had admitted under oath to “fabricating quotations and manufacturing dialogue,” an accusation that was not only false, it was utterly and exotically false.)
Malcolm did not improve her standing – particularly in newsrooms – when her next book, The Journalist and the Murderer, appeared. An account of how Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret physician convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters, ages five and two-and-a-half, had obtained a $325,000 settlement from the author Joe McGinnis’s publisher after alleging that McGinness had duped MacDonald into co-operating in the writing of the best seller Fatal Vision by claiming to believe in the doctor’s innocence while intending to prove his guilt, it began “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.” Though this seems a modest re-statement of Didion’s remark in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “Writers are always selling somebody out,” it led to a legion of reporters feeling like someone had planted a spiked heels upon their toes.
Malcolm added to her class of offendees in her Plath book, The Silent Woman, when she likened biographers to “burglar(s) breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers... and bearing (their) loot away.” (If that was not enough, she went on to accuse them of practicing “voyeurism and busybodyism” in order to produce badly written tomes that read like “listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.”) The result of this one-two combination was what Craig Seligman, at Salon.com, called “one of the scandals of American letters.” “What journalist of her caliber,” he asked, “is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith?” (Malcolm, herself, has said, she felt “pilloried by my fellow journalists.”)
As Rottenberg’s remarks indicate, this dislike has not abated. Not that Malcolm has made it easy for her critics to find forgiveness in their hearts or ink cartridges. She has spoken openly about the”timorousness,” “aggression and malice... (and) rascality of journalists.” In her most recent book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she broke one of her craft’s cardinal rules, involving herself in her story to an even-for-Malcolm unprecedented extent. Having interviewed a key prosecution witness in the trial of Mazeltov Borukhova, a physician from Uzbekistan and an Orthodox Jew of the off-beat Bukharan persuasion, who had been accused of murdering her husband, and heard this witness reveal himself as delusional, paranoid, and, quite likely, “nuts,” Malcolm passed this information to Borukova’s’s attorney hoping to have the witness’s testimony discredited. Malcolm was sympathetic to the defendant, confiding to Katie Roiphe in a Paris Review interview, that, if a member of the jury, she would have voted “Not Guilty”; and I wonder whether, had she turned up proof tending to establish Borukhova’s guilt, Malcolm would have as easily shared this with the prosecution. It does make me think, however – recalling an ethical question that popped up a half-century ago – that had she been the Mondo Cane cameraman who filmed the birth of the sea turtles, some of whom headed down the beach toward the ocean and life and others inland and doom, Malcolm would have turned the mis-oriented around. At least those she took a shine to.
Overall, Malcolm’s work has been shaped by her acute awareness of the malleability of narrative and the Silly Putty quality to “truth.” (It stretches; it snaps; it sags; it bounces high; it picks up coloration easily; and, when heated, it emits offensive fumes.) All words serve the purpose of the person who utters them. They fail the standards set by God or Plato or Anthony Scalia. Journalists seek to win the trust of people they interview to adduce from them quotes that will support the story the journalist wishes to tell, not the story the speaker hopes to seduce the journalist into printing. Attorneys garb their witnesses and guide their declamations to advance the version of events they wish twelve-men-tried-and-true to believe. Biographers scour discarded drafts, once-locked diaries, and the recollections of offended relatives, cast aside friends, and discarded lovers for the nuggets that will attract, like a hooker’s red leather mini, attention and shoppers.
Malcolm’s response to this realization has been to lay her beliefs about narrative and truth directly on the page. She recognizes that as a journalist whose work – lengthy, exhaustively researched, and designed for sustained reading and reflection – she is similar to an expert testifying in court. Each has a point-of-view to sell, though the journalist is not expected to favor the line advanced by the side paying her bill. And as all forensic experts must expose their credentials so their testimony’s strength can be weighed and their biases measured, similarly, a journalist, who is being honest, will reveal to her readers where she is coming from. The “self” Malcolm bares is a step toward meeting this end. (Malcolm, who once wrote that, in journalism, “The ‘I’ character is almost pure invention,” told Roiphe she now agrees that “there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer... every narrator is infected by the narrator’s bias.”) When she writes about “Janet Malcolm,” she is also writing about her subject since this “subject” is what this “Malcolm” created.
Malcolm believes that writers have the obligation to probe and the duty to judge. She researches extensively. (One subject of a New Yorker profile says Malcolm interviewed her weekly for a year-and-a-half.) If one gains such extensive knowledge and the insights that follow it, the quality of Malcolm’s work asks, why should one not share it. And why should the conclusions the author has drawn be masked by a pose of objectivity, the “neutral” tone, the “balanced” points-of-view, while subtly revealed by the details and quotes selected for recording, the placement of paragraphs, the last words allowed.
As befits one who has had the temerity to judge Chekhov and Stein, Kundera and Plath, Malcolm has imposed high standards upon herself. She reaches to render characters, as the director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, Robert S. Boynton put it, “akin to that of the great figures in literature.” She plumbs them to the depths of their drives and desires and presses these against the walls of their times and worlds. She loves the ephemeral dance of ideas and the exposure of the idiocy of certain of their concretized realizations. She honors those of excellence and good heart and condemns the foolish and mean. In her hands, Joseph Adelson concludes in The New York Times Book Review, “journalism becomes art.”
That is the macro view. In my view, in the micro of her word-by-word, sentence-after-sentence construction, Malcolm achieves a perfection of pitch and cadence and needle-in-the-eye-and/or-ear excellence, that, impaled through the heart by my own literary limitations, I am continually dropping the page to whisper worshipful “Wow”s.
Causes Bob Levin Supports
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, PEN, Berkeley Emergency Food & Housing Project.