When I started out as a magazine writer, Janet Malcolm was my idol. She still is.
The writer’s job is, in the immortal words of Howard Cosell, to “tell it like it is.” In her writing, Janet is always completely focussed on understanding what is really going on. She is also completely unsentimental. She is uninterested in flattering her subjects or her readers. She pulls the cover off. Even when she is describing, she is dissecting. I feel that this is what you want magazine writing to do.
At the same time, Janet knew that seeing things the way they really are is, ultimately, impossible. One of her great themes is transference. This is the explicit subject of her first book, “Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession,” but it is also the basis for the dynamic she describes in “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Transference is what makes all relationships, including the writer’s relationship with her subject, so conflicted, and what makes “telling it like it is” so difficult. We carry our psychic baggage into every encounter. We can’t help it. We take sides. We cathect.
I first met Janet long ago, when I was working in an office at N.Y.U., and we were both members of an outfit there called the New York Institute for the Humanities. We were chatting one day at one of the institute’s lunches, and she asked if she could visit me in my office. I said, only half jestingly, “Of course, as long as you promise never to describe it in one of your pieces.” She looked at me with the widest eyes, and said, “Whatever do you mean?” I thought, Uh-oh. This really is Janet Malcolm.
But we got through it. I had just begun writing for The New Yorker—this was thirty years ago—and she was very encouraging. No writer’s interest in my writing has meant more to me than hers—as much, maybe, but never more. For me, she was the real deal. —Louis Menand
For some reason, in 2016, I became Janet’s fact checker. Perhaps it was because I knew a lot about music—her one piece that year was a Profile of the pianist Yuja Wang—though that didn’t have much to do with what came later. The first time we met, she was wearing a large green hat and a smile so bland I was sure she wasn’t interested in me, but it soon became clear that she was interested in everything. Two years later, when she called me “ ‘scrupulous’ ” (it was by e-mail, so the scare quotes stood out), I was happy to be mocked. If journalism really is morally indefensible, as she wrote at the start of “The Journalist and the Murderer,” then fact-checking her pieces could only be absurd, and, though I didn’t believe it, I was grateful for the thought. Checking her was like being shut in with a leopard: she was entrancing, variegated, prone to pounce. I’ll miss that feeling dearly. —Fergus McIntosh
I grew up in a family where the names of New Yorker writers were tossed around with a proprietary air. “That Ian Frazier,” my mom might say, or “that Janet…
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