Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm

Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm

The war between democracy and aristocracy in Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts.


In 1979, an Army doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald was tried in federal court for the murder, nine years earlier, of his pregnant wife and two daughters. The case attracted national attention, partly because of MacDonald’s sensational defense, which was finely tuned to the American paranoid hangover of the 1970s. MacDonald claimed that his wife and daughters had been killed by a band of marauding, Manson Family–style hippies, and that he, of Princeton University and the United States Army, had been injured while fighting them off.

Enter Joe McGinniss, a journalist who a decade earlier had humiliated the Nixon campaign with his bestselling book The Selling of the President, 1968. Convinced of MacDonald’s innocence, McGinniss persuaded the defendant and his attorneys to allow him to embed with them during the trial and its aftermath, so that he could write about the case from the defense’s perspective. The trial went badly for MacDonald, who was found guilty of committing all three murders and given three life sentences to be served consecutively. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, appeared in 1983 and was no less condemnatory. Abandoning his original plan, McGinniss depicted MacDonald as a ruthless sociopath, guilty as charged. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud, arguing that long after McGinniss had concluded MacDonald was guilty, he continued to act and talk as if he believed otherwise. McGinniss protected his access to the defense team by pretending he still believed their side, even when he didn’t.

MacDonald v. McGinniss was a journalist’s dream, but some dreams are nightmares. On the one hand, the case had far-reaching First Amendment implications. MacDonald lost—the jury was hung. (He later wangled a settlement from McGinniss’s publisher, who was not eager for a second trial.) But if he had won, reporters would have felt obligated to disclose to their interview subjects their opinions of them, which would have made much investigative journalism, and most profile-writing, impossible to do. On the other hand, McGinniss lied blatantly to MacDonald. “What the fuck were those people thinking of?” McGinniss had written to MacDonald after the trial, in one of many ingratiating letters. “How could twelve people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition but agree, with a man’s life at stake, that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt in six and a half hours?” McGinniss leapt so far overboard with false professions of friendship that it was hard not to feel sympathy for MacDonald. Five of the six jurors did.

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, published in 1990, is a brilliantly clear description of this complex case. It is also a peerless statement of an ethical quandary—and good ethical quandaries, like other good philosophical metaphors, wear well. We may never improve on Plato’s cave; or Philippa Foot’s “trolley problem,” a famous thought experiment in ethics; or the question that can be summed up as “Joe McGinniss: journalist or scoundrel?” The succinct way Malcolm poses the question, and the sureness with which she leads the reader simultaneously through the facts of the case but also its implications, ensures her book’s place on English and journalism syllabuses for many years to come.

But if a writer’s body of work is to remain alive and vigorous, a reader’s first contact must lead to a more ravenous embrace. And many students, having encountered The Journalist and the Murderer, do seek out Malcolm’s other works of what could be called “intellectual orienteering,” in which she plops herself down, armed only with a compass, on a battlefield of ideas. As the adversaries sling accusations and insults at each other from behind trees and dugouts, Malcolm tries to find her way to higher ground, thence to figure out why they’re fighting. Money or lives or possessions may be at stake, but only as a proxy for the real quarry. In the Freud Archives (1984) chronicles a fight over Freud’s papers that is really a fight over his legacy. In The Silent Woman (1994), biographers of Sylvia Plath fight for and about her papers—but at bottom for the right to tell their version of Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes. In The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), a lawyer is charged with being an accomplice to a crime—but really, Malcolm shows, with being too obnoxious, too impossibly zealous, in defense of her client; it’s not Sheila McGough but the easy narratives required by the legal system that should be on trial. With these books, Malcolm has solidified her reputation as a guide who can expertly help readers through, as her New Yorker colleague Ian Frazier writes in the introduction to Forty-One False Starts, “a good big mess.”

But like music fans seeking out lost singles and album rarities, or film buffs buying DVDs for the director’s cut, hard-core readers want access to the early work, the old articles, the occasional pieces, the feuilletons, the moldy tear sheets once lost and just found. Forty-One False Starts is Malcolm’s third collection of shorter pieces, and these essays, all of them about writers and artists, are quite unlike Malcolm’s big-mess books. Many readers, including young ones who may know Malcolm only from her books, will be, if not disappointed, a bit discombobulated. She began writing long pieces about photography for The New Yorker in 1975, and she continues to write about it and other arts. (Her first contribution to the magazine, in 1963, was a poem, “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House,” which includes the line, “One thinks of busy little souls/ Bent over little wooden bowls.”) Malcolm was the magazine’s first dedicated photography critic. Given the venue, and her avidity and talent, she made friends, enemies and waves, as a good critic should. Diana & Nikon, her 1980 collection of New Yorker photography essays and reviews, is as readable and engaging as anything this ignorant observer has read about the form. Forty-One False Starts includes, alas, no pieces from that collection, but it does contain, in addition to more recent photography essays, some very fine writing about literature, including essays on J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle, and the Gossip Girl novels.

Yet there is the problem. Certain works of journalism, like In Cold Blood, J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground and The Journalist and the Murderer, are perennially interesting by virtue of their subject. By contrast, criticism dates almost immediately, most of its subjects rendered obsolete by the iron judgment of time. If in the year 2050 someone who reads The Journalist and the Murderer goes looking for other Malcolm books, she will find that The Crime of Sheila McGough and The Silent Woman still pay handsome rewards, perhaps with compound interest: the problems they describe will still seem fresh, and the books will double as quick, elegant histories of times gone by. If, however, she happens upon Malcolm’s 1994 profile of the artist David Salle, the title piece in Forty-One False Starts, she will probably be overcome by bafflement and ennui. Malcolm quotes a critic who, in 1993, wrote of Salle, a star artist of the 1980s, “He is definitely out. Like fern bars and quiche.” Twenty years on, does the critic look any less silly than Salle? Who is the fern bar now?

Despite the occasional serving of quiche, however, there are still good reasons to read this collection. One is the sheer pleasure of her rich descriptive power, her sentences turned like spindles on a lathe. There is the historical interest: reminders of who was once fashionable, should one care. There is the cruelly perfect aim of her insults. But there is, above all, the unequaled glimpse into the mind of Malcolm the critic, which is as close as we’re likely to get to the mind of Malcolm, one of our smartest, best writers, someone whose personal inscrutability and elusiveness I regret all the time. The less we care about the art discussed, the more we are free to care about the writer.

* * *

If Malcolm the journalist is always inserting herself into wars fought by others, Malcolm the critic is at war with herself. The two warring impulses are democracy and aristocracy. She is a snob, but wishes she weren’t. That’s a fair description of most Western liberals, I think. In principle, we believe in equality, but not really, not entirely. And the question of art is particularly difficult for the democrat, because talent is not distributed equally or fairly. (That’s why it’s talent.) What’s more, taste is by definition arbitrary, so to like one work more than another is as random as assigning somebody to a high or low caste, and can seem as unjust. Finally, the commercial art world depends on the artificial value created by trends and fashions, which are more arbitrary and less just still.

At her best, Malcolm is a fearless crusader for democracy. In 1976, she wrote in the essay “Diana and Nikon” that the curator John Szarkowski’s 1966 volume, which juxtaposed old amateur snapshots with iconic professional photographs, had effectively dethroned art photographers. “The ‘functional’ photographs in his book not only are the aesthetic peers of the ‘fine-art’ photographs but are in every other way indistinguishable from them,” Malcolm wrote. “Where other mediums offer clear stylistic distinctions between their academic, folk, and vernacular productions—a Rousseau and a Hicks have their special quality as primitives that set them apart from a Rembrandt and a Cézanne; thatched huts are different in kind from skyscrapers; the folk song is distinct from the art song—photography has neither a primitive style nor a reportorial style nor a child’s style.” In other words, “If every family album and historical society and old copy of Life is a source of art photography (and every camera a potential source), then what is all the trade in, study of, fuss over, writing on, pains taken with photography about?”

This essay is not included in Forty-One False Starts, which is unfortunate. But Malcolm’s pugnacious, contrarian impulse is easy to locate, right at the outset, in the essay about David Salle. First, she quotes the art critic Robert Hughes, who had asked in his column in Time if there was “a duller or more formula-ridden artist in America” than Salle; then she quotes the art critic and New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer, who had written, in a review of a Salle exhibition, that “we hardly know whether to laugh or cry.” In her rejoinder, Malcolm takes the side not so much of the artist as the aspiring consumer: “This kind of insult of the consumer has no equivalent in book or theater or movie reviewing. That is probably because the book/play/film reviewer has some fellow feeling with the buyers of books and theater and film tickets, whereas the art reviewer usually has no idea what it is like to buy a costly painting or sculpture.”

But there’s a paradox: if Malcolm’s implication is that art critics should have more skin in the game, then what’s needed are even richer art critics, the kind who might possibly bid on the works they cover. This is taking the populism of critics like Pauline Kael—who defined democracy downward, to encourage identification with the trashy and lowbrow—and turning it upside down: in the art world, what’s represented in the marketplace is the populism of plutocrats. The art critic Dave Hickey has argued that too much visual art is supported by government grants and instead might be better tested in the marketplace—but he meant the less cloistered realm of the small regional gallery, not the speculative SoHo bubble. 

That paradox, what might be called Malcolm’s populism of the snobs, is apparent too in her writing on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle. “Were their lives really so fascinating,” Malcolm asks, “or is it simply because they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another that we find them so? Well, the latter, of course. No life is more interesting than any other life; everybody’s life takes place in the same twenty-four hours of consciousness and sleep; we are all locked into our subjectivity, and who is to say that the thoughts of a person gazing into the vertiginous depths of a volcano in Sumatra are more objectively interesting than those of a person trying on a dress at Bloomingdale’s?” But if we are all equal, why spend forty pages inspecting the aliens from Planet Bloomsbury? “What makes Bloomsbury,” she says, “of such continuing interest to us—why we emit the obligatory groan when the word is uttered but then go out and buy the latest book about Virginia and Vanessa and Leonard and Clive and Lytton and Roger and the rest—is that these people are so alive.”

Malcolm values the Woolf circle for their apparent resemblance to the rest of us, which as a reason to love celebrities is far better than, say, their Kardashianite differences. But there is still that “we,” as in “We find them so [fascinating]” or “What makes Bloomsbury of such continuing interest to us”? Bloomsbury is not important to me, nor, come to think of it, to anyone I know, save perhaps my friend Aaron, who teaches modernist literature. I know people who love the novels of Virginia Woolf, but even they don’t care much about the assorted other Woolfs and Stephens, except perhaps as real-life contemporaries to the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. So who is this “us”?

* * *

People like Malcolm, that’s who. People like her are the only people here. They are immensely cultivated, with vocabularies of unusual breadth (Malcolm uses “rum” as an adjective). They keep their distance from lowbrow culture and therefore can write of a painting that it is “a small nude owned by a film actor”—as if the owner, Steve Martin, wasn’t the world’s most famous comic at the time Janet Malcolm began writing about photography. And yet they are never so entranced by high art that they allow aestheticism to entirely obliterate morality. The democratic impulse, so good at fighting off snobbery, can also yield compassion.

One benefit of an essay collection is that its presentation of many pieces written over many years can reveal a tendency the writer may not have known she had. Malcolm probably does not fancy herself very sentimental, let alone familial, least of all maternal: until 2010, when The New Yorker published her article “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” about a custody dispute that led to an alleged contract killing in the Bukharan Jewish community of Queens, New York, no child had been a main character in her books. Her own daughter is almost entirely absent from her work (to be fair, her two husbands are as well). One can admire the purity of her reticence, although because she uses the first person liberally elsewhere—the essay “The Window Washer,” collected in The Purloined Clinic (1992), is a very personal tale of returning to the Prague her family fled when she was a child—her loud silence about her family is a bit ostentatious. Yet there are two pieces, residing near each other in Forty-One False Starts, that show her heart nearly besting her brain.

Near the end of her essay on Bloomsbury, Malcolm discusses Deceived With Kindness, a 1985 memoir by Virginia Woolf’s niece Angelica Garnett, who does not share Malcolm’s easy, warm enthusiasm for the Woolf/Stephen family tree. Garnett writes that her mother, Woolf’s sister, was inadequate, and her childhood pained and difficult. Her book clearly upsets Malcolm. Before its arrival, the Bloomsbury legend “had a smooth, unbroken surface”—one that Malcolm clearly enjoys polishing. “But Angelica’s attack from within,” she writes, “is something else. It is a primary document; it cannot be pushed aside, unpleasant and distasteful though it is to see a minor character arise from her corner and proceed to put herself in the center of a rather marvelous story that now threatens to become ugly.”

Malcolm inhabits a voice here—that of a reader seeking light fare who is betrayed by an author with dark intentions. She almost sounds like someone disappointed by a romantic comedy that turns out to be cruel and brooding. But Malcolm herself really seems to mean it; she is not affecting annoyance. “More than anything else, it is the tone of Angelica’s book that sets it apart from other Bloomsbury texts,” Malcolm writes. “The note of irony—perhaps because it resounded too insistently in her ears when she was growing up—is entirely absent from her text.” When we read Garnett, “we withhold our sympathy”—once again, that “we”—“not because her grievance is without merit, but because her language is without force.”

Malcolm never says that bad writing is a moral failing, and that Garnett thus deserved whatever she got, but I’m not sure she thinks otherwise. If she does, however, she at least knows that she ought not. She concludes the section with a neutral meditation on how different voices and various perspectives make it impossible to get at the truth, making it clear that we must listen to Garnett, even if, given our druthers, “we” would rather not. Garnett’s half-brother, Quentin Bell, did not agree with his sister’s version of their childhood, and he did his best to mitigate her book’s claims. Malcolm clearly prefers the elegant, erudite Bell.

Uncannily, a similar brother/sister contest arises in another of Malcolm’s essays, a captivating piece about J.D. Salinger (there’s nobody like Malcolm to make you want to pull from the shelf a forgotten book from your youth). Near the end, Malcolm turns to the publication in 2000 of Dream Catcher, a vengeful memoir by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, accusing her parents of abuse. This time, Malcolm does not even deign to quote the offending memoir, blindsiding the book by quoting Margaret’s brother, Matt, who responded to it in a letter to The New York Observer. “I do not remember even one instance of my mother hitting either my sister or me,” Matt Salinger writes. “Not one…. She remembers a father who couldn’t ‘tie his own shoe-laces’ and I remember a man who helped me learn how to tie mine, and even—specifically—how to close off the end of a lace again once the plastic had worn away.”

Here is how Malcolm adjudicates the bout: “What is astonishing, almost eerie, about the letter is the sound that comes out of it—the singular and instantly recognizable sound of Salinger, which we haven’t heard for nearly forty years (and to which the daughter’s heavy drone could not be more unrelated).” The sin of inferior writing, perpetrated by an ungrateful daughter!

* * *

Does Malcolm indulge Margaret Salinger less than Angelica Garnett because she loves J.D. Salinger even more than she does Bloomsbury? One cannot say. Malcolm has a singular talent for nondisclosure, as evidenced by the last essay in this collection, “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography,” an anticlimactic, self-defeating page that discloses absolutely nothing about Malcolm. The impression is of a woman whose basic conflict—the fight against her own snobbery—subsumes many smaller, more quotidian agons. She has been a wife, a daughter and mother to a daughter, but she prefers men. She is an introvert; she finds art invigorating, people exhausting. She is drawn to Jews, but rarely to observant or even robustly Jewish Jews: her work is almost comically peopled with half-Jews, ex-Jews, crypto-Jews, conflicted Jews, self-loathing Jews, the Jewishly curious, and that category of Jews unlike anyone else Jewish or otherwise, psychoanalysts. From this collection alone: David Salle, Leonard Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Diane Arbus, Ingrid Sischy, Allen Shawn and William Shawn. Elsewhere in her work: Gertrude Stein, Jeffrey Masson, Daniel Kumermann, Sigmund Freud—the list could go on.

My favorite paragraph in this entire collection comes from Malcolm’s review of a memoir by the composer Allen Shawn, the son of Malcolm’s late New Yorker editor, William Shawn:

The Shawns needed to deny harsh realities and paper over unpleasant ones. It was evidently not pleasant to be Jewish. “Being Jewish was also a matter for some distant uneasiness, at least enough for it to be fun for my brother to begin a dining table discussion, ‘Well, we Jews …’” (The mischievous brother is Wallace Shawn, the playwright and actor, who is five years older than Allen and was a kindly, protective presence throughout his childhood.) On the matter of the family’s Jew-phobia, Allen Shawn cannot resist a dig at his father: “When a minister friend of my brother’s visited the house and said a prayer at Thanksgiving dinner, he was deeply moved, but it is hard to picture him being as moved if the friend had been a rabbi.”

What’s appealing about the passage is the easy rapport between Malcolm and her subjects. Allen seems to love Wallace, and Malcolm seems to love Allen, and all of them are having a little fun—compassionate fun—at the expense of the self-loathing Jew, Allen’s dad. The passage feels profoundly decent, and I think decency is something that Malcolm, like all of us who aren’t good enough people, is always questing after. She spends so much of her time around people who are cruel, self-important and buffoonish—traits that unite the subjects of her books (with their murderers, vain academics and lawyers) and her subjects from the art world—that decency always arrives like spring break, desperately needed and just in time.

To understand Malcolm, it is worth considering that the only piece from The Purloined Clinic collected again in Forty-One False Starts, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” amounts to a treatise on decency. In her sprawling 1986 portrait of Artforum magazine and its young editor, Ingrid Sischy, Malcolm cinches the bag at the end with a peroration on Sischy’s fundamental character. After quoting G.K. Chesterton on the subject of “virtue,” which he compares to shining white chalk, Malcolm writes: “Since Chesterton wrote those buoyant words, the world has seen two world wars and a holocaust, and God seems to have switched to gray as the color of virtue—or decency, as we are now content to call it. The heroes and heroines of our time are the quiet, serious, obsessively hardworking people”—she means people like Sischy—“whose cumbersome abstentions from wrongdoing and sober avoidances of personal display have a seemliness that is like the wearing of drab colors to a funeral.”

Of course, earlier in the essay, Malcolm elaborates on that “seemliness” with her own display of extraordinary unseemliness, calling Sischy “a kind of reverse Jewish princess: she goes through life gratefully accepting the pleasures and amenities that come her way, and if they are not the particular pleasures and amenities she ordered—well, so much the better.” It’s really ugly that such a sentence could have come from Malcolm’s pen; that it could have made it past all the editors at The New Yorker, in the year 1986; and that Malcolm apparently did not have to worry about her standing, either in the real New York or in the New York of her mind, filled with readers and colleagues whose opinions she must value. But it makes me want to read more, not less, of her criticism, because it’s in these pieces about art and artists that she reveals her prejudices and betrays what she’s thinking. She wants decency; she cannot attain it. She loves the people; she loathes them. Writing about art, she can be quite artless. It’s hard to look away.

Miriam Markowiz reviewed Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial in the June 6, 2011, issue.

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