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Bongreads: Janet Malcolm Edition

Malcolm is the top-dog at writing articles that simultaneously elucidate their subjects and interrogate their own form. With a new piece out this week, she continues to light up our brains.

by Drew Millard

by Drew Millard

Lead image via iStock Photo

I think I speak for all of us who follow media, especially digital media, when I say: Holy fucking shit, a lot of goddamn journalism happened this week. There were Takes, Reactions, Assemblages of Data Points Into Unclear Narratives, Exposes, Investigations, and a couple Takexposestigations thrown in for good measure. At a time when the media is slowly beginning to seem less unnecessary than it has in quite some time, it's important to zoom out and ask ourselves what reporting is — what its processes are, who it helps, who it hurts, and what actually gets produced once those processes are completed. There is not a writer out there who's better at producing work that simultaneously elucidates its subject and interrogates its own form than Janet Malcolm, the reporter and critic who writes primarily for The New Yorker and happens to be my favorite writer in the universe.

Malcolm literally wrote the book on journalism — The Journalist and the Murderer, which since its 1990 release, has become a staple of Journalism 101 syllabi — by slyly scoffing at its conventions, breaking the rules so that she may point out the artificiality of the form. Her prose is acerbic, able to cut her subjects (often overeducated egotistical man-babies who more than probably deserve whatever snark's coming to them) down to size in half a line. She inserts herself into her stories, discussing her processes and impressions in a way that makes each piece about its own construction as much as it's about the actual subject. And, unlike many of the journalists who take her to task for her contradictions, she's uninterested in befriending her subjects, instead using their foibles to point out the weaknesses and outright failures of the institutions that her subjects represent. All of this is to say that she's everything a journalist ought to strive to be — honest, discursive, fearless, and fair in her own unique ways.

So without further adieu, here's a selection of my favorite pieces Janet Malcolm has written for The New Yorker. They are all long, and together they will break your brain.

Rachel Maddow: Trump's TV Nemesis (2017)

To paraphrase Biggie, Malcolm dropped unexpectedly like bird shit on Monday with a new piece in tow, a profile of Rachel Maddow which on its surface seems to fawn over the MSNBC star but that, when we peel back a layer or two, becomes something much more complicated. As Malcolm sees it, Maddow is less a commentator and more of a rhetorical magician. By unsuccessfully mimicking Maddow's methods in an unexpected left turn towards the piece's conclusion, she both exposes her trick as something specious and only tangentially tied to the truth while praising the skill required to pull it off.

Forty-One False Starts (1994)

By 1994, the painter David Salle was no longer the darling of the art world and had become the artistic equivalent of an aging zoo animal, well-fed by collectors who bought his works off the strength of his name recognition but doomed to never be the groundbreaking dynamo he once was. In a daring move that captures Salle's many sides — some of them decidedly less impressive than others — Malcolm delivers a deconstructed profile in 41 parts, each an ostensible introduction to a larger piece which introduces an idea before moving on. It's funny, insightful, and makes you care about Salle while pitying how much of a damn doofus he is. And if any other journalist tried writing a profile in this style, they'd fall flat on their face.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2010)

Malcolm's piece from 2010 contains what may be her boldest move ever: while covering a murder trial, she submits her notes from an interview with a witness for the prosecution to the court, altering not only the outcome of her story but that of the trial itself. To be fair, the guy was crazy as hell, though.

The Journalist and the Murderer; 1—The Journalist (1989)

The Journalist and the Murderer; 2—The Murderer (1989)

You're going to need a New Yorker login for this one, but trust me when I say it's worth it. "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 book begins — an intro comparable only to Nas's "Rappers I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm I be kickin'" on Illmatic. Malcolm spends a gazillion pages analyzing an objectively crazy situation: that a man accused of murdering his own family hired a journalist to write a book declaring his innocence, only for the journalist to turn around and write a book about how he was guilty as hell. This is made more complicated by the fact that the journalist was actively deceiving his subject, rooting around for his deepest secrets to construct what he hoped would be a true crime bestseller while professing the murderer's innocence to his face. Then the subject — who was ultimately declared guilty — sued the journalist, creating a deliciously complicated and morally fraught situation which Malcolm uses as a rhetorical playground, analyzing the story from every angle until its obfuscations feel clear as day.

Advanced Placement (2008)

Fuck it, you should also read Janet Malcolm's essay on the Gossip Girl novels, if only to read something that will help scrub the darkness from your soul.

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Drew Millard

Drew Millard is a freelance writer and dog owner living in Durham, North Carolina. His writing has appeared in VICE, High Times, Hazlitt, SPIN, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @drewmillard.



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