* Janet Malcolm made her reputation writing about people who didn’t know when to shut up. Most of us like to talk about ourselves, and given the faintest encouragement will say enough to wind up looking like fools when our words appear on the page. The psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson told her about his many achievements, his sex life included, and then sued her for defamation when he discovered what her New Yorker reporting (republished in 1984 as In the Freud Archives) had made of him, claiming he’d been misquoted. He trusted her; he thought he’d found a sympathetic listener. He hadn’t. Nor had he been misquoted, but it took a decade and two trials to see the case off. A few years later the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald thought that he too had found such a listener in the journalist Joe McGinniss, whose contract for Fatal Vision (1983) was predicated on the access he gained by pretending to believe that MacDonald was innocent. When the killer learned what the writer really thought of him, he sued as well, and Malcolm then turned the case into her The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).
That book’s first sentence once made other writers angry. Now it merely seems true, or true at least of the kind of immersive reporting she practiced herself: “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.” The writer needs to keep the subject talking, but at the same time that subject “is worriedly striving to keep the writer listening…. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting” and offers a “childish trust” to any remotely willing ear. Which the journalist then promptly betrays. Malcolm knew that, and did that, even though it troubled her; at times she wrote as though writing itself made her uneasy, as though McGinnis’s practice were but an extreme version of her own. Yet that moral calculus also made her angry, first at those fellow practitioners who refused to recognize their predatory relation to their sources, and then at the credulity of those sources themselves. Don’t these people know that writers are always selling someone out?
* Malcolm’s most characteristic material lies in the fight between members of a tightly linked group for control of the narrative that binds them, a fight between people who have come to know each other too well.