Janet Malcolm, who died last month at 86, was known for her work ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’. She was an American journalist who had an eye for detail and used to critically analyze the relationship between the writer and their subject in most of her work.
Malcolm was not ‘just a journalist’. She stood out. Her work was unique, as it was an amalgamation of reporting, forensics, literary criticism, and illuminating stories. A major part of her professional life was attributed, in her words to the ‘moral problem’ of journalism.
Her most famous work, The Journalist and the Murderer begin with, “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.”
After her first piece got published in The New Yorker in 1963, who would have known that it’s a beginning of a life-long relationship with the magazine.
Three years after her husband died, in 1975, she married her editor at the New Yorker Gardner Botsford. The same year, she began on a journey of discovering her style of writing, her voice.
Interestingly, it was in an attempt to quit smoking. Yes, she had a hard time writing without cigarettes. To avoid cigarettes, she started writing a family therapy piece titled ‘The One-Way Mirror’. By the time essay was completed, she overcame the addiction. She could write without cigarettes, also discovered her voice in the process.
Her observational skills were so powerful, that one of the critics wrote, “Don’t ever eat in front of Janet Malcolm; or show her your apartment; or cut tomatoes while she watches,” Her way of adding minor details in the story, with such beauty and precision was class-apart.
Regardless of the subject, Ms. Malcolm was working on, her ‘real’ subject has always been the writing process. She liked exploring the dangers of the writer-subject relationship and the ethical choices writers are bound to make in their jobs.
Soon after her book The Journalism and the Murderer was out there in the market, the journalistic community judged Ms. Malcolm harshly and threw criticism on her for calling them out. In the New York Times in 189, One of them wrote, “She attacks the ethics of all journalists, including herself, and then fails to disclose just how far she has gone in the past in acting the role of the journalistic confidence man.”
On the other hand, writers including Gore Vidal and Nora Ephron came in support of the book. After few decades, this book became a part of media curriculum in most of the western universities.
Her writings were equally harsh and critical towards biographers, as she compared them to “the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away” in her literary biography The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
In 2001, She reflected on her own life ‘Reading Chekhov’, which mingled some scenes from the Russian writer’s life with her travels in Russia.
Malcolm’s love for her craft was evident in her work, she could easily make any subject interesting by highlighting ‘not-so obvious’ minor details. During her initial days at The New Yorker, she wrote A House of One’s Own.
In it, she described, how Virginia Wolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell had transformed a Sussex farmhouse in England into an outpost for celebrated artists’ inner circle in London called Bloomsbury.
In the Paris Review in 2011, Katie Roiphe, “She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript, like a mechanic takes apart a car engine and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players,”
This was her obsession and no one, in the words of Roiphe, “no one could do it on her level.”