Janet Malcolm Quotes

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This is what it is the business of the artist to do. Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Poets and novelists and playwrights make themselves, against terrible resistances, give over what the rest of us keep safely locked within our hearts.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Life, of course, never gets anyone's entire attention. Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil—it is merely a restatement of the mystery—and only offers an escape valve for the frustration felt by psychiatrists, social workers, and police officers, who daily encounter its force.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The writer ultimately tires of the subject's self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind self absorption and the journalist's skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject's account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
What Helen of Troy did in her spare time and what she was 'really like' are not questions that torture us.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism’s uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Life, of course, never gets anyone's entire attention. Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us. As sleep is necessary to our physiology, so depression seems necessary to our psychic economy. In some secret way, Thanatos nourishes Eros as well as opposes it. The two principles work in covert concert; though in most of us Eros dominates, in none of us is Thanatos completely subdued. However-and this is the paradox of suicide-to take one's life is to behave in a more active, assertive, "erotic" way than to helplessly watch as one's life is taken away from one by inevitable mortality. Suicide thus engages with both the death-hating and the death-loving parts of us: on some level, perhaps, we may envy the suicide even as we pity him. It has frequently been asked whether the poetry of Plath would have so aroused the attention of the world if Plath had not killed herself. I would agree with those who say no. The death-ridden poems move us and electrify us because of our knowledge of what happened. Alvarez has observed that the late poems read as if they were written posthumously, but they do so only because a death actually took place. "When I am talking about the weather / I know what I am talking about," Kurt Schwitters writes in a Dada poem (which I have quoted in its entirety). When Plath is talking about the death wish, she knows what she is talking about. In 1966, Anne Sexton, who committed suicide eleven years after Plath, wrote a poem entitled "Wanting to Die," in which these startlingly informative lines appear: But suicides have a special language. Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build. When, in the opening of "Lady Lazarus," Plath triumphantly exclaims, "I have done it again," and, later in the poem, writes, Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call, we can only share her elation. We know we are in the presence of a master builder.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
The distinguished dead are clay in the hands of writers, and chance determines the shapes that their characters assume in the books written about them.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
The Olwyn force wins only when the writer bows to its power and puts down his pen.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Biographers rue the destruction or loss of letters; they might also curse the husband and wife who never leave each other’s side, and thus perform a kind of epistolary abortion.
Janet Malcolm (Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey)
...a fundamental rule of journalism, which is to tell a story and stick to it. The narratives of journalism (significantly called "stories"), like those of mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm, undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must remain good and the stepsisters bad. "Second stepsister not so bad after all" is not a good story.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Every amateur harbors the fantasy that his work is only waiting to be discovered; a second fantasy-that the established contemporary artists must also be frauds- is a necessary corollary
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
He never asked me what I thought, and I never told him what I thought, because in my view that's the way a journalist ought to behave. You ought not to be going around to people volunteering your feelings. That's daily journalism.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The lay reader, who knows only what the biographer tells him, reads it, as he reads every other biography, in a state of bovine equanimity.)
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Listen to me, not to her. I am authentic. I speak with authority. Go to the full texts of the journals, the letters home, and the rest. They will tell you what you want to know.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
It is only by a great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind, to crush flowers as we walk.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn’t know how to lie.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The voices began to take over the book and to speak to the reader over the biographer’s head. They whispered, “Listen to me, not to her. I am authentic. I speak with authority. Go to the full texts of the journals, the letters home, and the rest. They will tell you what you want to know.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Creative work in any established system of thought takes place at the boundaries of the system, where its powers of explanation are least developed and its vulnerability to outside attack is most marked.
Janet Malcolm (In the Freud Archives)
In the common perception, there is something unseemly about young people getting rich. Getting rich is supposed to be the reward for hard work, preferably arriving when you are too old to enjoy it. And the spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
Janet Malcolm had famously described journalism as the art of seduction and betrayal. Any reporter who didn't see journalism as "morally indefensible" was either "too stupid" or "too full of himself," she wrote. I disagreed. Without shutting the door on the possibility that I was both stupid and full of myself, I'd never bought into the seduction and betrayal conceit. At most, journalism - particularly when writing about media-hungry public figures - was like the seduction of a prostitute. The relationship was transactional. They weren't talking to me because they liked me or because I impressed them; they were talking to me because they wanted the cover of Rolling Stone.
Michael Hastings (The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan)
I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life," Hughes wrote in a letter to the Independent in April, 1989, when he had been goaded by a particularly intrusive article. But, of course, as everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not "own" the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed. The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society's fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody's business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public's inviolable right to be diverted and an individual's wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world's careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libelled or slandered. They are without legal recourse.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Newspaper stories that were originally written to satisfy our daily hunger for idle and impersonal Schadenfreude—to excite and divert and be forgotten the next week—now take their place among serious sources of information and fact, and are treated as if they themselves were not simply raising the question of what happened and who is good and who is bad. I
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
break
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
We lied to our parents and we lied to each other and we lied to ourselves, so addicted to deception had we become.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Trials are won by attorneys whose stories fit, and lost by those whose stories are like the shapeless housecoat that truth, in her disdain of appearances, has chosen as her uniform.
Janet Malcolm (The Crime of Sheila McGough)
As you no doubt gathered, I do not devote the care to word selection and organization in my letters that I do in my books Generally, I don't write letters at all...Writing, for me, is work, and I do not like to do my work carelessly, but if I waited until I got a letter into the shape I'd be happy with, you would never hear another word from me and would think I had perished on a mountain...
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day where their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.
Janet Malcolm
Human nature is such that when we are suddenly taken up by someone whom we consider superior and admirable, we accept his attentions calmly, whereas when we are dropped we cannot rest until we feel we have got to the bottom of the person's profound irrationality. Nor can we easily accept the verdict sent down to us through the mortifying silence of someone who has found us wanting and has packed up and moved on. We protest it, each in our way - our futile way, since the more effective is our protest the more surely do we drive away the person whose love we have lost not because of anything we did, but because of who we are.
Janet Malcolm (In the Freud Archives)
People tell journalists their stories as characters and dreams deliver their elliptical messages: without warning, without context, without concern for how odd they will sound when the dreamer awakens and repeats them.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
[David] Salle's earlier work had been marked by a kind of spaciousness, sometimes an emptiness, such as surrealist works are prone to. But here everything was condensed, impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.
Janet Malcolm (Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey)
[David] Salle's studio, on the second floor of a five-story loft building, is a long room lit with bright, cold overhead light. It is not a beautiful studio. Like the streets outside, it gives no quarter to the visitor in search of the picturesque. It doesn't even have a chair for the visitor to sit in, unless you count a backless, half-broken metal swivel chair Salle will offer with a murmur of inattentive apology. Upstairs, in his living quarters, it is another story. But down here everything has to do with work and with being alone.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Janet Malcolm
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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly. Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way, by allowing for human fallibility and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable human needs for order and pleasure. When Buckley and Wambaugh said bluntly that it’s all right to deceive subjects, they breached the contract whereby you never come right out and admit you have stretched the rules for your own benefit. You do it and shut up about it, and hope you don’t get caught, because if you are caught no one — or no one who has any sense — will come forward and say he has done the same thing himself.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
The therapy of psychoanalysis attempts to restore to the neurotic patient the freedom to be uninteresting that he lost somewhere along the way. It proposes to undermine the novelistic structures on which he has constructed his existence, and to destroy the web of elaborate, artful patterns in which he is caught.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
I remember a seminar I once attended that was led by a brilliant and flamboyant Hungarian analyst named Robert Bak. The issue under debate was the nature of transference, and I raised my hand and asked rhetorically, "What would you call an interpersonal relationship where infantile wishes, and defenses against those wishes, get expressed in such a way that the persons within that relationship don't see each other for what they objectively are but, rather, view each other in terms of their infantile needs and their infantile conflicts. What would you call that?" And Bak looked over at me ironically and said, 'I'd call that life.
Janet Malcolm
Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless -- as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life. The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem of writing. Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it . . . The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee, as I wanted to flee from Thomas's house.
Janet Malcolm
The subject of a piece of writing has not suffered the tension and anxiety endured by the subject of the "Eichmann experiment" (as it has been called) - on the contrary, he has been on a sort of narcissist's holiday during the period of interviews - but when the moment of peripeteia comes, he is confronted with the same mortifying spectacle of himself flunking a test of character he did not know he was taking.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Unlike other relationships that have a purpose beyond themselves and are clearly delineated as such (dentist-patient, lawyer-client, teacher-student), the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over. The journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
There are places in New York where the city's anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness; certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical confluences of streets--these express with particular force the city's penchant for the provisional and its resistance to permanence, order, closure.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Critics established the right to say whatever they pleased about the dead. It is an absolute power, and the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination. They move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between the living and the dead. They extend over the living that license to say whatever they please, to ransack their psyche and reinvent them however they please. They stand in front of classes and present this performance as exemplary civilized activity—this utter insensitivity towards other living human beings. Students see the easy power and are enthralled, and begin to outdo their teachers. For a person to be corrupted in that way is to be genuinely corrupted.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Both jurors called Strauss’s decision to change custody “a good decision.” His scathing words from the bench—that Scaring had fought so hard to suppress and Leventhal equally hard to admit—seemed entirely reasonable to them. “Why would a judge take such a drastic step if there wasn’t a good reason for it?” Jones said. “Why would so many people be against her?” Smith said, “That lawyer for child aid who painted a portrait of her as overbearing. Why would he lie?” Both accepted the F.B.I. translator’s version of the disputed line in Borukhova’s taped conversation with Mallayev—“Are you going to make me happy?”—as correct. “Why would he be working for the F.B.I. if he didn’t know what he was doing? He had no reason to say something that wasn’t true,
Janet Malcolm (Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial)
But, of course, as everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not “own” the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed. The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody’s business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public’s inviolable right to be diverted and an individual’s wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world’s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libelled or slandered. They are without legal recourse..
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
The old are still accorded human rights. The dead, however, lose all rights from the very first second of death. No law protects them any longer from slander, their privacy has ceased to be private; not even the letters written to them by their loved ones, not even the family album left to them by their mothers, nothing, nothing belongs to them any longer.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
In most interviews, both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary. They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
The warily silent Hughes has protected his secrets better than his sister has: no one can use his words against him. But everyone can—and does—speculate about his motives.
Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona'.
Janet Malcolm
What makes classic children’s literature so appealing (to all ages) is its undeviating loyalty to the world of the child. In the best children’s books, parents never share the limelight with their children; if they are not killed off on page 1, they are cast in the pitifully minor roles that parents play in their children’s imaginative lives.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
Theory and interpretation, far from threatening works of art, keep them alive.
Janet Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers)
It is all too natural for people who have been wronged or humiliated-- or feel they have been-- to harbor the fantasy that a writer will come along on a white steed and put everything to rights. As MacDonald v McGinniss illustrates, the writer who comes along is apt to only make things worse. What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject's account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.
Janet Malcom
Fortunately for readers and writers alike, human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses-- the days of the interviews-- are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
People who have never sued anyone or been sued have missed a narcissistic pleasure that is not quite like any other.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
I have read a little of the material he has sent-- trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports... 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.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason.
Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Janet Malcolm: ‘We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and to ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally — and not by dint of our own efforts but under the pressure of external events — we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm. There are a few among us — psychoanalysts have encountered them — who are blessed or cursed with a strange imperviousness to the unpleasantness of self-knowledge. Their lies to themselves are so convincing that they are never unmasked.
Katie Roiphe (The Power Notebooks)