“This is what it is the business of the artist to do. Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” — Janet Malcolm

It’s her birthday today. She died in 2021.

No matter the subject, I would read her. If a piece had her byline? I’m clearing the deck to read it. Her books? I started out with The Silent Woman, her book on the challenges of writing about Sylvia Plath, particularly in lieu of the draconian estate, run – Shakespearean-ly – by Ted Hughes’ sister Olwyn. It’s a fascinating and very troubling book about the issues of legacy, of narrative, of who gets to tell whose story, of who “holds” the story, and also the upsetting fact that through all of this melodrama, Sylvia Plath has been “silenced”. Many of Malcolm’s books are about the art of writing itself. She appeared to be quite ambivalent on the subject. Similar to Susan Sontag’s famous ambivalence in re: photography, Malcolm seemed to wonder if writing served any purpose at all. Isn’t it all just lies and deflections? Malcolm’s eye is unsparing. She interviews people, and they crucify themselves by their own words, and also by Malcolm’s perceptions of them.

All writers should read The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Her writing was so dominating and so convincing that Malcolm often got into trouble: there were numerous controversies in re: her quotations, her interpretations. On more than one occasion, Malcolm had to produce her original notes in order to prove that such-and-such conversation took place. On more than one occasion, Malcolm could not locate said notes. She was often “in trouble”. Her book on “the Freud archives” is a real banger – and kind of a continuation on her earlier book on Psychiatry: she was fascinated – and repelled – by the whole thing.

Malcolm is probably most well-known for her book The Journalist and the Murderer: her most well-known book and her most brutal. Malcolm was incensed by Joe McGinniss’ best-selling smash-hit “true” crime book Fatal Vision, about family annihilator and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald. What angered Malcolm was the trickery McGinniss used in his interviews with MacDonald: McGinniss pretended to be MacDonald’s friend and supporter in order to gain the accused murderer’s trust, he pretended that the book he was writing about the case would be a defense of MacDonald, when in actuality it was going to be an indictment. Very unethical behavior. Malcolm didn’t care about MacDonald’s case, but she went after Joe McGinniss, and she went after him hard. As a writer, she was appalled, and you can feel her emotion in the prose. The book started out as an article, which made a sensation – she went totally against the grain of the almost universal accolades Fatal Vision received – and she elaborated into this short yet fiery polemic. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Malcolm destroyed McGinniss’ reputation. He never recovered. He’s still defending himself from Malcolm’s assault on his integrity. To Malcolm, McGinniss was just a symptom of a larger issue: Malcolm’s real interest was journalism itself, in the way The Silent Woman is really about the challenges of literary biography. Malcolm was not afraid to go after the entire profession of journalists, calling them ALL out in these unforgettable blazing words:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

Malcolm was not “here to make friends.” Malcolm’s book is about ethical behavior and journalistic responsibility. The Journalist and the Murderer was so influential it’s on the curriculum in Journalism programs across the United States.

Malcolm was a tough unsentimental writer and constitutionally resistant to being swept away by emotion or consensus-driven pressure. It’s a great lesson, one I try to take to heart. The pressure to conform is intense. Twitter is a wild exaggeration of what already exists. Try going against the grain on Twitter. It’s just “not done”. There’s a reason I don’t go on there anymore. I haven’t experienced such peer pressure since high school. I never was susceptible to peer pressure, for some reason, but I sure FELT it. Malcolm’s example says: Resist the crowd. Doing this is essential for clarity, and crucial for writers. Don’t concern yourself with the general agreement of The Crowd. The Crowd is so often wrong.

I trusted Malcolm because of her standing-back-ness. What was great was how transparent she was about how she thought, not just WHAT she thought. Her book about Plath is really an investigation into the situation, and her own grappling with what she discovered. She thinks out loud in her writing. At the same time, she was a rigorous researcher (some might wish she were more rigorous and kept better notes, a fair point). And while her writing is crystal-clear, often what she’s doing is leading you down a maze of possibilities, where clarity vanishes (see the Plath book: there are no clear-cut answers there, no one villain, and everyone has a different story).

Janet Malcolm was – and still is – a role model for me as a writer.

I miss coming across a Janet Malcolm byline, in The New Yorker, or in the New York Review of Books, and setting everything aside to dive on in.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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