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Issue 16 – Easter 2023

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?

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About the author

Hannah Rowan

Hannah Rowan is managing editor of Modern Age.

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