Saturday, November 9, 2013
Guilty & Innocent
Janet Malcolm reappears on this rolling screen with some regularity for the true reason that I think her writing is finer – not only in quality but in kind – than anything produced by the big-shouldered peers who jostle alongside her in the marketplace of high-toned Manhattan journalism where she operates.
Earlier in the fall I talked here and here and here about Forty-One False Starts, Malcolm's new collection of essays. Recently I saw a review of the book's London edition by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the Times Literary Supplement. Better than I had been able to do for myself, Lewis-Kraus gave a plausible explanation of Janet Malcolm's specific and particular virtues –
"There has always been a great resistance to the work of Janet Malcolm. Behind the placid, measured, artful prose is a great destabilizing force. The basic point to which she returns in all her work – that we read books, and events, and people, not in the way they are intended, or in the way of some distantly omniscient observer, but in the idiosyncratic, conditioned, inventive way that we must – is not something for which she is easily forgiven. The biggest flap about this came as a response to The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her account of a fraud suit brought by the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against a journalist, Joe McGinniss, who had consistently misrepresented his true feelings about MacDonald's guilt as a way to gain access and compliance. In the two decades since that book's appearance, despite the general acknowledgement that it is a masterpiece, Malcolm is still begrudged her frontal attack on our defences. Just this past year, the filmmaker Errol Morris couldn't help but bash her, in his own book about the alleged MacDonald murders, A Wilderness of Error, for a passage in which Malcolm writes, on receipt of a mountain of trial documents,
I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald's guilt or innocence from this material. It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower – it all depends on how you read the evidence. If you start with a presumption of his guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence. The material does not "speak for itself".
Morris's canards about journalism and the "relativity of truth" are reminders that Malcolm's work is never done: he represents one more defender of the fantasy that there are such things as facts that speak for themselves – a story that itself dictates the way it ought to be told, a story that has silenced its competing versions. It's not that Malcolm doesn't think it matters if MacDonald killed his wife or not; of course she knows it matters. It's that it's not actually material to the story she is interested in telling, which isn't about the murder itself but about the ramifications of the fraud trial. Morris thinks that because a murder happened, Malcolm has to care about it, or she's ignoring the plea of the fact. Malcolm thinks that the very idea of "something the journalist has to care about" is precisely the problem."