Janet Malcolm

March 18–19, 2013


Janet Malcolm was born in Prague and emigrated to the United States with her family in 1939. She has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963, where she began her writing career with a column on interiors and design, "About the House," which ran in the magazine for ten years. She then went on to write a photography column, and has contributed many different pieces to the magazine in such regular features as "Profiles," "Reporter at Large," and book reviews. Malcolm has published eight books. She has also been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1981, contributing reviews and journalistic and critical pieces.

Although Malcolm writes with strength and confidence on a variety of topics, many of her book-length works focus on portraying the less-known side of popular and often cultish figures: In the Freud Archives (1984) tells of three scholars' relationship to Freud and the study of him; The Silent Woman (1995) investigates the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; Reading Chekhov (2001) combines close readings of Chekhov with biographical pieces about his life and Malcolm's own travels; and Two Lives: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in War and Peace (2007) interprets the relationship between these two important modernist women, their work, and the society in which they lived. These books are not merely works of investigative journalism, as Malcolm also writes beautifully and features meta-reflections on the craft of writing, journalism and autobiography within these and other longer works, and also frequently in shorter pieces published in The New Yorker and New York Review of Books. In one such short piece, Malcolm illuminates her writing practice:

Another obstacle in the way of the journalist turned autobiographer is the pose of objectivity into which journalists habitually, almost mechanically, fall when they write. The "I" of journalism is a kind of ultra-reliable narrator and impossibly rational and disinterested person, whose relationship to the subject more often than not resembles the relationship of a judge pronouncing sentence on a guilty defendant. This "I" is unsuited to autobiography. Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. The observing "I" of autobiography tells the story of the observed "I" not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might. The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins. I see that my journalist's habits have inhibited my self-love.

It is this complicated, unique tension and writing style that make Malcolm's work such a joy to read, at turns funny, brave, brutal, and always passionately intellectual.