Janet Malcolm died on Wednesday, June 16, the same day that the New Yorker signed its first deal with an employee union after resisting every unionization attempt since 1976—in case anyone did not yet realize that an era had ended.
Malcolm belonged to the second golden age of the New Yorker. The first was the founding era of Harold Ross, James Thurber, E. B. White, and Joseph Mitchell. The second was the era of John Updike, J. D. Salinger, and John McPhee, with editor William Shawn presiding.
Neither golden age was very hospitable to female writers. Dorothy Parker survived the Ross era by making her constant prayer, “Please, God, let me write like a man.” Malcolm, too, developed a masculine style: cold, precise, unsparing. When her own feelings came up in her essays, they were picked apart dispassionately as if they belonged to someone else. It is impossible to imagine her being either confessional or breezy.
Her background was similar to that of her contemporary Renata Adler, both born in Europe and brought to America as young children by refugee parents. Both arrived at the New Yorker in the mid-1960s, after being talent-spotted by Shawn, as sophisticated young women with not much writing experience.
Malcolm’s father was a neurologist and psychiatrist. Naturally enough, considering the consonance of the two professions, psychoanalysis was a constant presence in Malcolm’s journalism. Psychoanalysis holds that if you are thirty minutes late to your appointment with someone, it must be because your subconscious is harboring some hostility. What better training for a journalist’s eye for the telling detail?
As well as this training in observation, psychoanalysis taught Malcolm a certain bleakness. Her book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981) recounts a question posed to a Hungarian analyst at a conference: “What would you call an interpersonal relationship where infantile wishes, and defenses against those wishes, get expressed in such a way that the persons within that relationship don’t see each other for what they objectively are but, rather, view each other in terms of their infantile needs?” The analyst replies, “I’d call that life.”
Malcolm’s spiritual predecessor in this cold-eyed view of humanity is Anton Chekhov, about whom she wrote a book. Chekhov, like Malcolm’s father, was a doctor, and had a doctor’s tolerance for human foibles and lack of illusions about human irrationality and self-destructiveness. Chekhov characters are always talking past each other, caught up in their own solipsism, even in the face of great suffering or great beauty.
What most people fail to notice about Chekhov, which Malcolm herself of course did not miss, is his gooey liberal center. “I acquired my belief in progress when still a child,” he wrote in a letter that Malcolm quotes. “I couldn’t help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous.” The liberalism that originated in his own experience later grew into a sympathy for radicals and alignment with the left wing of the Russian intelligentsia.
Malcolm followed a similar path. Her final essay collection, Nobody’s Looking at You (2019), features a fawning 2017 profile of Rachel Maddow that praises the MSNBC host’s “inimitable” storytelling. Malcolm only faults her for not being liberal enough. When Maddow says that she doesn’t have strong partisan feelings about Republicans or Democrats, Malcolm asks, “Even with what the Republican Party has become?” Her essay on the Senate confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, in addition to much trite dismay at originalism, includes a mean-spirited swipe at Martha-Ann Alito for getting emotional after hearing her husband repeatedly called a bigot. Malcolm sneers, “Mrs. Alito got up and left the hearing room to have her famous cry.”
What explains this political drift, so unlike the austere detachment of her early work? In the first decades of their careers, Malcolm and Renata Adler both showed an unfeminine willingness to say unpopular things. When Malcolm published her most famous sentence—“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,” the opening line of The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)—it was a scandal. Adler recalled, “Journalists would cross a crowded room to tell one how offended they had been by Ms. Malcolm’s slight on their profession.”
But by the time the two women reached their sixties, only Adler was blacklisted, mainly for her indiscreet takedowns of the New Yorker (her 1999 book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker) and the New York Times (her 2003 essay “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing”). She made enemies recklessly and even admitted to being a Republican. Malcolm, by contrast, ended her career beloved. She did not study psychoanalysis all those years to be indifferent to other people’s reactions the way Adler was.
There may be another reason Malcolm allowed herself to publish liberal cliches, and not just the baleful influence of David Remnick. The opening essay in Nobody’s Looking at You is a profile of clothing designer Eileen Fisher. It describes a strange interaction when Malcolm asks Fisher why her company’s public relations handlers, Hilary Old and Monica Rowe, are always present during their interviews:
Eileen promptly answered, “I assume that the reason you are interested in interviewing me goes beyond me. I sort of stand for a whole company, and I want to make sure that people are honored and that I don’t say anything that offends anyone or that hurts anyone.”
“But the piece is about you,” I said . . .
Old said smoothly, “Monica and I figure that a lot of conversation will come up about other aspects of the company and other people you may want to meet, and, being ears in the room, we can help make that happen in an easy kind of way. So that’s partly our motivation. It’s wanting to support whatever your process might be.”
“My story is about Eileen,” I said . . . I found myself babbling about the ethical dilemmas of journalism, about the risk subjects take when they let journalists into their houses and the pangs journalists feel when they write their betraying narratives, and saw Eileen and her colleagues looking at me—as I had looked at them when they talked about their company—as if I were saying something weird.
Is the self-protective attitude that Old and Rowe represent a result of Malcolm’s own candor? When she wrote all those years ago that journalists can never be trusted, it was a shocking thing to say. Now every interview subject knows to be constantly on their guard. Trying Malcolm’s old method of questioning—what she called her “Japanese technique”—on someone now would be like trying to psychoanalyze an actor based on the lines in his script.
To get anything out of analysis, a patient must be willing to be vulnerable, or if not vulnerable then at least authentically defensive. Every trace of authenticity has been scrubbed from press interviews, in part due to the cynicism about journalists that Malcolm’s famous line did much to create. Sadly for those of us who love it, Malcolm’s early style of journalism cannot flourish in the world she helped to make, and other, less critical kinds of journalism have replaced it.
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative.
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