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Arts and Letters

In the Malcolm Archives

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory

Janet Malcolm 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 176, $26.00


It’s very easy to doubt the veracity of Janet Malcolm’s red notebook. Why should it be real? Her whole shtick was a practiced form of malice. “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,” she famously declared. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Why shouldn’t she betray her readers too?

And anyway, the facts surrounding Malcolm’s notebook sound dodgy. When she was working on In the Freud Archives, the book that made her famous, she had a penchant for creating long monologues out of quotes strung together from a bunch of interviews. That’s not an uncommon practice, and it’s acceptable in the New Journalism, as long as the monologues are still composed of things the interview subjects actually did say. Malcolm had the notes—most of them—to prove that her principal subject, Jeffrey Masson, admitted that he was an “intellectual gigolo” dead set on debasing the Freud archives. Still, he sued her for defamation and tied her up in court for a decade. The controversy only came to an end, when, in a curious deus ex machina, Malcolm located the missing quotes in almost unbelievable circumstances. Why should anyone believe that, after a years-long fight over missing notes, she would find the notebook with the quotes, in her country house, where it was pulled out of a bookcase by her two-year-old granddaughter?

That’s what Malcolm’s critics say, in any case. Her defenders counter that disbelief misses the point. The whole point of Malcolm is that she portrays her subjects in a way that is truer than life: crueler and more intense. If she’s a liar, then there is no point in reading her at all. She knew this well, and, after the Masson controversy, clearing her good name became something of an obsession. Her most-read book, The Journalist and the Murderer, from which the quote above is drawn, deals almost obsessively with the problem of honesty between writer and subject.

In her memoir, Still Pictures (published posthumously this year), she returns to Masson yet again. Here, though, there is a notable melting of her usual studied coolness when she recounts her career-defining controversy. Malcolm, one of the goddesses of William Shawn’s New Yorker, whose writing was always so self-assured as to seem nearly omniscient when she informed mere mortals of the uncertainty of narrative truth, now needs you, the reader, to believe her. For a writer almost paranoically aware of the ways journalists play god through their manipulations of fact, this is an unfortunate, humanizing turn of events.

The problem is this: throughout her entire career, Malcolm didn’t upset her subjects because she changed their stories. She infuriated them because they believed that their stories were persuasive and indisputable, and she revealed by the way she framed them that the full picture is always nastier. And, worse, she was honest enough that her work would hold up in court. But when she herself is in the spotlight, she argues that memoir doesn’t work like that. “Memory is not a journalist’s tool,” she says. She accuses her memory of “perversity,” “autism,” a “passion for the tedious.” She was always distrustful of autobiography and wary of what she called the competition in personal writing between self-flattery and so-called journalistic objectivity.

There’s an element of truth here. Selfies are often distorted: teenage girls give themselves big eyes and pouty lips, and teenage boys flex in front of their bathroom mirrors. And no self-respecting New Yorker photography critic—Malcolm’s first book was a collection titled Diana & Nikon, and she was also a published photographer—wants to peddle her own vanity shots. When the portrait’s artist is also its subject, it’s even more difficult than usual to get an accurate view.

There’s also the fact that journalists have notes to fall back on while memoirists have mostly memories, which are selective at best: “The events of our lives are like photographic negatives,” Malcolm writes. “The few that make it into the developing solution and become photographs are what we call our memories.” Maybe for this reason, Malcolm never claims that Still Pictures is a comprehensive autobiography. (She presents it as a collection of reflections on family photographs, which are reproduced at the beginning of each section.) But more to the point, memories depend for their veracity on much more than bare facts. Facts, as Malcolm so memorably taught Masson, can be easily manipulated, pinned down and moved around to fit the writer’s vision of reality. Her ambivalence about memoir is not at heart about factual accuracy or principled honesty, but about people’s emotional responses to truth: how it feels to be revealed to the world.

And Janet Malcolm of all people knows exactly the damage Janet Malcolm can do with self-revelation. So in Still Pictures, her hand sometimes slips over the viewfinder in self-correction or reservation. This reticence reveals a concern in Malcolm’s writing that runs deeper than fact and fiction: the public and the private, truths that can be revealed and those that shouldn’t. She asks whether people should think again about how eagerly they offer themselves up to the public for attention, or posterity, or even to set the record straight. But of course she gives in to the temptation anyway.

The first slip occurs early, in a scene that in one of her profiles would have been a savage send-up of an annoying neighbor couple from childhood, fellow Czech refugees of her parents’ generation. But Malcolm checks her malice toward the wife at the end of the sketch, asking herself: “Does the thought of her reading what you and Marie [Malcolm’s sister] felt about them—and the implication of your parents in this arrogance—bother you? Answer: It certainly does.” The problem is not that Malcolm is saying anything untrue. It’s that, in a memoir, the harsh light of a Malcolm portrait feels wrong where in a New Yorker profile it would have been appropriate. It’s a moral question, not of objectivity, but of duty to her family and friends. They didn’t ask to be exposed like this. And if she had let the anecdote stand, she would have revealed herself to be as cruel as her critics insist she is.

But later, when she returns to the fallout of the Freud saga, she can’t help herself. The camera wobbles again, for less selfless reasons. The Masson lawsuit provides a nice morality tale for arrogant writers: Malcolm lost the first trial because she thought she was “above it all” and didn’t stoop to defending herself. Her justification, published years later, displayed her prideful belief that her work spoke for itself: “It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach.” The jury decided against her but then deadlocked on damages. She got a second chance.

So she wised up, hiring an acting coach to prepare her for round two, including a makeover that would make her no-nonsense persona—boxy glasses, chin-length haircut, button-downs and black blazers—more approachable and attractive to the jury. This time, she wore pastel dresses, silk stockings, heels. Members of the jury later said that they looked forward to seeing what she’d wear the next day, particularly which scarf she’d choose. Malcolm thought she thought she would be judged on her intellectual merits, but she of all people should have known that it never works that way. If that was a lesson in humility for the hotshot writer, though, she couldn’t bring herself to apply it to Masson. In her memoir, she gloats that in the second trial, facing Malcolm and her lawyer’s strengthened defense, “Masson seemed pathetic, as he never was in my article. I almost felt sorry for him.”

This cheap shot, delivered decades after the jury handed Malcolm her victory, is unworthy of a writer recognized as one of the best nonfiction prose stylists of her time, not to mention one with her professed moral concerns. It suggests an unexpressed fear that her victory, though she was vindicated legally and still is ranked as a celebrity journalist with the likes of Joan Didion, was a Pyrrhic one. She remained a star, but would never be a saint.

Later in her career, Malcolm seemed more susceptible to lapses into mean-spiritedness that were also errors in journalistic judgment. These blind spots were both emotional and political: A 2006 piece debating an end of televised Supreme Court hearings quotes Joe Biden at length on the blood sport the vetting process had become, while artfully avoiding the fact that Biden is the very man who invented “Borking.” And a 2011 profile of Sarah Palin is a masterwork of belittlement that misses the real story—Palin getting outclassed and out-charisma’d by a working-class mom and reality television star—in favor of denigrating Palin for her views on abortion. Malcolm’s emotions and personal views often marked the limits of her craft.

They increasingly defined the edges of her public life, as well. Motherhood, for Malcolm, is curiously off limits in her interviews. In a 2011 Paris Review interview with Katie Roiphe, she is asked about why many successful female writers of her generation have had only one child, if any: “This may be too deep a subject for an email exchange on the art of nonfiction. Probably the place to discuss our struggles with the art of mothering is a dark bar.” (As disappointing as this is on first read, her daughter, Anne, contributed an admiring afterword to Still Pictures that suggests their relationship benefited from this protective silence.)

“We are all perpetually smoothing and re-arranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and ourselves constantly, unthinkingly,” Malcolm wrote in In the Freud Archives in 1984. But by the end of her life she was wiser. The greatest risk was not self-deception, willful or otherwise, but the suicidal impulse that the press calls “baring it all”—which is often no more than offering oneself up to be flayed alive by the press and that frightful abstraction of public opinion.

Malcolm obscures the lens almost completely in one of the most private scenes of the memoir, which has something to do with a piece of Italian china she bought to furnish the room where she pursued her affair with her married New Yorker editor, Gardner Botsford, who later became her husband. The events and their import are intentionally blurred: “I would rather flunk a writing test than expose the pathetic secrets of my heart,” she writes. “The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers. I apologetically exercise it here.” Malcolm had learned what her subjects hadn’t: the best way to arrange reality may be pushing it safely outside the frame.

So too with the notebook, whose story she retells in Still Pictures: “As it turned out, two years after the second trial, the lost notes were found at my country house, in a notebook that my two-year-old granddaughter pulled out of a bookcase, attracted by its bright red color. It had all been for nothing.” All for nothing? If there was more going on beyond the edges of this almost too neatly composed picture, we will surely never know. Malcolm’s falsehoods, if there are any, lie beyond her written words.

For what it’s worth, I believe in the notebook because I often find my own books in my recycling bin, my closet, and under my bed. While I work, my one-year-old wanders around the house, redecorating. Perhaps, if anything, Malcolm should have been a more attentive grandmother. She knew, after all, that journalists live and die by what gets shoved under the bookshelf.

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