[Janice Williamson writes….] Like many others, I’ve long been a fan of American writer Janet Malcolm’s writing: her excellent nonfiction essays were often published in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books before shapeshifting into book form. Her elegant style, fierceness of spirit and her interest in psychoanalysis attracted me as a reader and a writer. Malcolm has much to teach us about the genre.
In The New York Review of Books, Malcolm writes about the ethics of quotation in nonfiction writing:
the invention of the tape recorder surprisingly revealed—our actual utterances are usually couched in a language that urgently requires translation into English when it is transferred from oral to written speech. As we listen to each other speak, we make the translation automatically and thus think we are hearing English, but, as tape transcripts demonstrate, we are not. As we speak, we seem to be making constant stabs at saying what we mean—thus the redundancy, hesitancy, fragmentation that surround the occasional complete grammatical sentence we form and the occasional mot we get off. To publish a person’s tape-recorded speech verbatim is a little like publishing a writer’s rough drafts.
You can find more links here, and archives of her essays at the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Her books are wonderful. Try The Silent Woman about Sylvia Plath. Or read her fascinating explorations in the Freud Archives….
Katie Roiphe writes this introduction to her Paris Review interview with Janet Malcolm:
Her ten provocative books, including The Journalist and the Murderer, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, In the Freud Archives, and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, are simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold, highbrow, and controversial. Many people have pointed out that her writing, which is often called journalism, is in fact some other wholly original form of art, some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both. In one of the more colorful episodes of her long career, she was the defendant of a libel trial, brought by one of her subjects, Jeffrey Masson, in 1984; the courts ultimately found in her favor, in 1994, but the charges shadowed her for years, and both during the trial and afterward the journalistic community was not as supportive as one might have thought it would be.
In part this might be because Malcolm had already distanced herself from them. “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,” she wrote in the now-famous opening lines of The Journalist and the Murderer, and in much of her writing Malcolm delves into what she calls the “moral problem” of journalism. One of the most challenging or controversial elements of her work is her persistent and mesmerizing analysis of the relationship between the writer and her subject. (“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness,” she writes in The Silent Woman; and she exposes, over and over, the writer’s prejudices and flaws, including her own.) When The Journalist and the Murderer came out in 1990, it created a stir in the literary world; it antagonized, in other words, precisely those people it was meant to antagonize. But it is now taught to nearly every undergraduate studying journalism, and Malcolm’s fiery comment on the relationship between the journalist and her subject has been assimilated so completely into the larger culture that it has become a truism. Malcolm’s work, then, occupies that strange glittering territory between controversy and the establishment: she is both a grande dame of journalism, and still, somehow, its enfant terrible.
to read the rest of the interview visit here: Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 4, Janet Malcolm.