The Self-Questioning Brilliance of Janet Malcolm

The Self-Questioning Brilliance of Janet Malcolm
(AP Photo/George Nikitin, File)

Janet Malcolm, who has died aged 86 of lung cancer, was one of the greatest and deadliest practitioners of what we now call longform journalism, as well as its most tireless interrogator. Her persistent subject was enquiry, the hunger for “truth”, and in pursuing this quest by writing about psychology and journalism, biography and the law, literature and photography, she found it increasingly hard to ignore her own role in a parallel process.

Malcolm’s first piece of longform reporting, about her observation of a family therapy session, was called “The One-Way Mirror”, but her interest was always in the face-to-face, the intermingling of energies, and the role played by “transference” (“Freud’s most original and radical discovery”) – not just in the relationship between between analyst and analysand, but in the dynamic between photographer and sitter (the “duel” between Diane Arbus and Germaine Greer, for example), mentor and protegé, lawyer and witness, critic and writer (she defends JD Salinger against the attacks of Updike and others), and, in her own case, interviewer and interviewee. She once said that her work had been more or less done for her “by one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another”.


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