Janet Malcolm’s Provocations

Janet Malcolm’s Provocations

Her writing cut through propriety and pretentiousness and revealed us for who we are: desiring creatures, complicated and simple at once.


This past spring, halfway through a course on writing biographies, I gave my students an excerpt from Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, her study of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s marriage and the challenges it posed to Plath biographers. During our discussion of the excerpt, we all paused on Malcolm’s description of the biographer, a description very different from anything we’d read previously in the course: “The biographer at work, indeed, is like 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.” The “transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged,” Malcolm explained, “but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.”

The passage was typical of Malcolm’s work: assertive, provocative, full of images that would either amuse or outrage you, depending on your relationship to the activity described. Just as in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, where she put her own profession under the microscope and suggested it justifies “treachery,” here too she took a seemingly noble pursuit—biography writing—and revealed its more sordid aspects.

My biographers-in-training were displeased. They had spent the previous six weeks reading Robert Caro, Leon Edel, and Hermione Lee. And now here was this writer—notably not a biographer—who was out to ruin their high-minded discussions. They defended the craft against the writer’s absurd charges. Caro, the nice man who wore a suit every day to his office, a burglar? Please.

Had Malcolm been around and interested enough to observe our class, she might have noted that the students’ resistance was a sign of just how accurate her assessment was. My students’ defensiveness was born out of guilt about their true motives for writing biography. Given her general skepticism and her psychoanalytic bent, she might also have wondered about my motives in assigning this excerpt, since she wouldn’t have taken it for granted that I was simply challenging my students, or expanding their concept of the genre. Was I, a biographer, exacting a revenge against one of biography’s critics? And was I forcing my students to fight my battles for me? As she acknowledges in The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), the relationship between teacher and student, like the one between journalist and subject or between lawyer and client, is always more complicated than it seems.

Malcolm would have been right about much of what was going on in my classroom; she was almost always right. I have disagreed with many of her arguments, but never without the gut feeling that I was simply protecting myself against uncomfortable truths. Uncovering these kinds of truths, in fact, was a hallmark of her journalism, from her book-length studies of criminal cases and intra-professional disputes to her New Yorker profiles of creative and intellectual types. Reading Malcolm, one could feel dismayed, or guilty, or momentarily paralyzed. But if we pushed through our defensiveness and read on, we also might become better readers of texts and of each other.

I first encountered Malcolm’s work one summer, when I was staying in an apartment in Brooklyn. In just a few weeks, I worked through all the Malcolm books on this apartment’s shelves, reading one after the other late into the night: The Journalist and the Murderer, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, In the Freud Archives. It was hard not to be drawn to her characters. Who could forget Jeffrey Masson, the “intellectual gigolo” of The Freud Archives who went from being the golden boy of the psychoanalytic establishment to persona non grata when he posited that Freud had overlooked evidence in developing his “seduction theory”? (He also memorably sued Malcolm for libel.) But I was fascinated, too, by her work’s form: the long monologues, the interpolated texts, the way Malcolm was present in each narrative, not as herself but rather as an ideal reader, reading symptomatically and poking at the seams of a text. Reading a book by Malcolm was like reading the best parts of a 19th-century novel—with its complex characters and moral transgressions—combined with the best parts of literary theory.

I could enjoy the books because I was not yet one of the “players at table” who were “oppressed by the game,” as Malcolm put it in The Silent Woman. When I began writing a biography about a group of women writers and artists, I picked up a copy of The Silent Woman, excited to read Malcom’s take on controlling literary estates. Nine pages in, I read with dismay that the very form of writing I had chosen was an act of “busybodyism” only “obscured by an apparatus of scholarship.” “The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking,” Malcolm wrote.

The book became radioactive. I put it down, and I didn’t take it up again until my manuscript had been safely delivered. At that point, I felt sufficient shame about the whole undertaking, as I imagine many writers feel upon completing a book in any genre, and I was ready for a scolding. I reread the first 10 pages and read on until the end. What I found in the rest of the book was a sensitive discussion of privacy and loyalty and, as always in Malcolm’s work, desire.

The Silent Woman does not explain “what really happened” in Hughes and Plath’s marriage. For Malcolm, “what really happened” was never the point. She wanted to know what different people thought had happened, and why they thought that, and what they were willing to do to get their version of a story out there. Like an analyst, she perceived the importance of the stray detail: the crabmeat pie made by the journalist Joe McGinnis, the cat outside Eileen Fisher’s home. She uncovered the baser desires behind her subject’s rational arguments: desires for fame, money, vengeance, sex, sympathy, love.

As other readers have noted, Malcolm was a writer who was at ease with contradiction and complexity. Her interest in finding out “the truth” was really a way of showing us how unstable truth was, how it changes from person to person and from moment to moment. Sometimes, reading one of Malcolm’s books, I’m reminded of Monet’s Les Meules à Giverny: the same image over and over, rendered entirely different thanks to a shift in the light.

For all her interest in complexity, though, Malcolm had a way of taking complicated stories and showing that they were actually shockingly simple. In her work, people are creatures of appetite, not argument. They are usually, though not always, acting out of self-interest, or out of a desire to protect their loved ones. (That Sheila McGough was not acting out of self-interest was one of her confounding mysteries.) People usually misapprehend each other, and enemies might be more similar than they would care to admit. “We cannot know each other,” Malcolm wrote in “The Impossible Profession,” her 1980 New Yorker article about psychoanalysis that later became a book. “We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others.”

This groping around might seem like a rather dark view, but it is also a bracing one, like a cold-water swim. Malcolm’s writing cuts through propriety and pretentiousness and reveals us as we are: desiring creatures, complicated and simple at once. If there’s an optimism in Malcolm’s writing, it may be that by recognizing our desires, we may conduct ourselves more honestly, if not always more sensitively. “The journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy,” she wrote near the end of The Journalist and the Murderer. As journalists, or perhaps simply as people trying to relate to each other, we might not be able to escape this state. But thanks to Malcolm’s honest work, we just might be able to abide it.

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