Janet Malcolm has died. She was 86. I only ever wrote about Janet Malcolm as part of a university essay – that is where I met her work. I’m so pleased to have met with it, the best of her work stays with me forever. She wrote several books – many of them great, two of them in particular, her two most famous, are books I’ve read several times. I don’t often read books more than once. But Malcolm was like a forensic psychologist and literary detective all in one. Her subject, most often: Journalism. Her other subject – sometimes on its own, sometimes combined with or interpreted via journalism: Psychoanalysis.
“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.”
Is this what kept me from properly qualifying in journalism? Possibly. It’s in the equation. But it’s certainly what keeps me a student of it – intrigued by its many shapes, its multiple failings and the hope it can aim for, if not certainty. I remain a student of journalism and broadcasting because of Janet Malcolm – and specifically her book The Journalist and The Murderer.
But that is not the first book of Malcolm’s I met. I first read her amazing treatment of the life of Sylvia Plath – The Silent Woman. Or rather, the lives of Plath and Ted Hughes. What a brilliant piece of perception and reporting; of empathy and challenging critique.
Malcolm wrote many other works and they’re all worthy of your time, including a recent/ish essay collection.
She was never a “star” like Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe – and she was neither an essayist nor part of the New Journalism movement; well not entirely. She was absolutely her own thing. A star in that regard. A class act. And not without controversy of course. Write enough – and write well enough – in public and you’ll get to meet some controversy.
I loved Janet Malcolm’s work. And still do. Always will. She’s always near the very top of the list for me.
Last year I chatted with one of New Zealand’s best journalists, Mike White. We talked at length about The Journalist and The Murderer. It had a massive impact on him too.
There will be plenty of tributes you can read about Malcolm – and I have to recommend the coverage in The New York Times. But I just wanted to put down a few words because her work continues to mean a lot to me.
R.I.P. Janet Malcolm