Janet Malcolm on Non-Fiction Writing

This interview with Janet Malcolm, conducted mostly over email, is pretty incredible and you should read the whole thing. But this section is probably my favorite:

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that for a journalist you use yourself, or the persona of “Janet Malcolm” anyway, more than most journalists. You use and analyze your own reaction to and relationship with many of your subjects, and often ­insert yourself into the drama. How is this “safer” than a more straightforward or autobiographical portrayal of self?

MALCOLM

This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, and actually once wrote about—in the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer. Here’s what I said:

The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.

It occurs to me now that the presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. Compared to this wise and good person the other characters in the story—even the “good” ones—pale. The radiant persona of Joseph Mitchell, the great master of the journalistic “I,” shines out of his works as perhaps no other journalist’s does. In the old days at The New Yorker, every nonfiction writer tried to write like him, and, of course, none of us came anywhere near to doing so. This whole subject may be a good deal more complicated than I made it seem in the afterword. For one thing, Superman is connected to Clark Kent in a rather fundamental, if curious, way.

INTERVIEWER

I think that passage is lovely and convincing, but I wonder if that “I” as overreliable narrator is true of your journalism, or journalism in general. It seems to me that you very deliberately present yourself as something other than “the dispassionate observer.” You often give yourself (or the character of Janet Malcolm in your work) flaws and vanities, and interrogate your own motives and reactions as fiercely as you interrogate other people’s. I make no presumptions, of course, as to how close to you is the Janet Malcolm in your work—who envied Anne Stevenson at college, who is disappointed in Ingrid Sischy. But it does seem to me that the “I” in your work is very deliberately more Clark Kent than Superman.

MALCOLM

You’re right that “dispassionate observer” doesn’t properly describe the character I assume in my nonfiction writing—especially in the writing of recent years. When I first started doing long fact pieces, as they were called at The New Yorker, I modeled my “I” on the stock, civilized, and humane figure that was the New Yorker “I,” but as I went along, I began to tinker with her and make changes in her personality. Yes, I gave her flaws and vanities and, perhaps most significantly, strong opinions. I had her take sides. I was influenced by this thing that was in the air called deconstruction. The idea I took from it was precisely the idea that there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias. Edward Said’s Orientalism made a great impression on me. And yes, probably this did add to the character’s authority.

There’s also a nice bit about feminism and gender in journalism:

INTERVIEWER

This is what I teach, and that’s why I am a little shocked by the story about the fiction class. But I am interested in your use of the phrase “brutal frankness” for this probably misguided teacher. It seems to me that you use that phrase admiringly, and that you admire a kind of frankness that you also perceive as brutal. Am I right? And can you explain your relation to that particular mode of perception?

MALCOLM

That is such an interesting observation. It never occurred to me that “brutal frankness” was such a charged phrase. Of course it is. But it takes someone of your generation to look at it askance. At the time of Allan Seager’s C—the early fifties—a male-chauvinist teacher like Seager (he clearly preferred the boys in the class) was nothing unusual. I came to feminism late. Women who came of age at the time that I did developed aggressive ways to attract the notice of the superior males. The habit of attention getting stays with you. This is just a stab at trying to answer your question, but perhaps it makes sense? Here is something else: during my four years of college I didn’t study with a single woman professor. There weren’t any, as far as I know.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me more about this attention-getting habit. It’s not a hundred percent clear to me what you mean.

MALCOLM

It’s not a hundred percent clear to me, either. In that piece about Vanessa Bell you mentioned earlier, I quote a young Virginia Woolf on the subject of her gay friends. What she called “the society of buggers” has “many advantages—if you are a woman,” she wrote in a memoir called Old Bloomsbury. “It is simple, it is honest, it makes one feel . . . in some respects at one’s ease.” But “it has this drawback—with buggers one cannot, as nurses say, show off. Something is always suppressed, held down. Yet this showing off, which is not copulating, necessarily, nor altogether being in love, is one of the great delights, one of the chief necessities of life.” Showing off to straight men remained a delight and necessity to women of my generation. Those of us who wrote, wrote for men and showed off to them. Our writing had a certain note. I’m not sure I can describe it, but I can hear it. You have led us into deep waters. This is a complex and murky subject. Perhaps we can cut through the haze together.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if part of that note you are talking about is a kind of dazzling sharpness. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Rebecca West wielded a pen as brilliantly as he and “much more savagely,” and H. G. Wells said that she “wrote like God.” Along those same lines, Elizabeth Hardwick writes about how Mary McCarthy is not constrained by feminine “niceness.” Is that fierceness in both West and McCarthy, and even, say, Susan Sontag, part of what you mean by that “showing off” and that “certain note”? Is there something about being a woman writer in a very male field that leads to a kind of brilliant aggression on the page?

MALCOLM

The aggression is coupled with flirtation. That way you get the guys to say you write like God. Maybe we should move on to a new subject.

Read it all.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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7 Responses to Janet Malcolm on Non-Fiction Writing

  1. LC says:

    I read The Journalist and the Murderer in Journalism school and I remember really not liking Malcolm, the character. I do think it was a very good example of the fallacy of the “dispassionate observer”.

    I will have to read that in full later. I’m not sure I agree with her “writing to show off for the men” thing. Or rather, not fully? Lord knows I know men who write to show off for the women, so I’m not sure it is as gendered as she is suggesting, nor perhaps as generational. Do writers not write to show off now? I would think so. (I need to read the whole thing, obviously, though.)

    • Jill says:

      LC, I think that’s a good point, but in the interview Malcolm is talking about a generation of female writers who didn’t have access to mainstream success unless they were essentially given that access by men — so impressing men was crucial. I read her as purposely setting that up as different from the way things work now.

  2. LC says:

    Jill: I read her as purposely setting that up as different from the way things work now.

    Having read it now, I’d agree, although there is this sense of it being something lost? As she herself points out, it is murky waters. There is definitely a distinction being drawn out there, though, in degree if not in kind.

    She’s a fascinating interview subject, which isn’t really surprising given her own long history with literary journalism. I’m very tempted to go back and reread some of her work I haven’t looked at since I graduated.

  3. sophonisba says:

    It’s maybe worth noting that the interviewer here is the none-too-bright Katie Roiphe, and some of what’s going on is Janet Malcolm jerking her around just a little bit in a way that goes straight over her head.

  4. Amgine says:

    sophonisba:
    It’s maybe worth noting … Janet Malcolm jerking her around just a little bit in a way that goes straight over her head.

    Oooooh, yah…. “The aggression is coupled with flirtation.” I think so.

    One thing I’m very intrigued by is the premise of the infallible first person voice for journalism. Is this really assumed by readers? Even readers of Faux news? The more dispassionate and ‘voice of god’-like a journalist sounds, the more I question the article. It really sets my teeth on edge, and I start questioning every bald statement of fact which really needs an authority to support it.

  5. snoe says:

    Delurking cause I love, love Janet Malcolm, and rarely get to talk about her writing.

    Amgine:

    One thing I’m very intrigued by is the premise of the infallible first person voice for journalism. Is this really assumed by readers? Even readers of Faux news? The more dispassionate and ‘voice of god’-like a journalist sounds, the more I question the article. It really sets my teeth on edge, and I start questioning every bald statement of fact which really needs an authority to support it.

    Yeah, the infallible “I” in journalism seems to have largely gone away (for the reasons you cite – maybe also aesthetic ones? The cool factor of gonzo, e.g.?). She -is- talking in that bit about a fairly specific kind of writing, though – Joseph Mitchell, New Yorker, etc – that does/did rely on a kind of authoritativeness. (Grossly overgeneralizing – sorry – I am typing this on my phone, which is saving you the misery of a much longer comment :)

    Anyway, Malcolm’s attacked/subverted other nonfiction genres too – notably biography in The Silent Woman. It’s a pleasure to see her acting out the role of interviewee here – almost a parody of what I’d expect from her. I hold no particular brief for Katie Roiphe, God knows, but it can’t have been an easy interview.

    Can’t recommend Malcolm’s writing enough – The Silent Woman is particularly awesome. (It gets into the historical gender stuff discussed above as well.) Thanks for the post, Jill! And sorry for any typos, y’all. I really should’ve gotten out of bed and used a proper keyboard/screen.

  6. LC says:

    Amgine: One thing I’m very intrigued by is the premise of the infallible first person voice for journalism. Is this really assumed by readers?

    It was for years. It was for journalists as well, in some ways. It still is tried. If you think about it, the very premise of “left-wing media bias” and Fox News is that we are supposed to go back to that.

    Mind you, my recollection is that it was an invention of the AP wire (or another wire service). Since they wanted to sell copy to all sorts of different papers and couldn’t know what bias they had, the wire services sold themselves as flat-neutral reporting of facts, and the cult of “objective journalism” caught on.

    (That’s my vague recollection, anyways.)

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