Janet Malcolm Essay - Critical Essays

Malcolm, Janet


Janet Malcolm 1934-

Czechoslovakian-born American essayist, journalist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Malcolm's career through 2003.

A highly acclaimed and controversial journalist, Malcolm writes introspective essays that explore ethical ambiguities and betrayal. From the unexplored social life of psychoanalysts to moral dilemmas in journalism, Malcolm analyzes the fabrications professionals use to maintain the perception of success in their fields and studies the effect betrayal has on those who trust them. Malcolm's essays are well researched and offer original viewpoints, startling conclusions, and thought-provoking questions. Upon reviewing Malcolm's Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001), Sebastian Smee stated that Malcolm “is one of the most consistent nonfiction writers of our time. Certainly, she is one of the most brilliant.”

Biographical Information

Malcolm was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1934 to a Jewish psychiatrist and his wife. Malcolm's family fled to America in 1939 to avoid the imminent danger to Jews from the advancing German invasion. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, New York, Malcolm enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she met Donald Malcolm, a contributing writer to the New Yorker. She also began to write for the New Yorker, first on interior design and then on photography. Donald Malcolm died in 1975 and Janet married her editor, Gardner Botsford, several years later. Her first book, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1980), a collection of essays about the nature of photography and its relation to art, like many of her later works, is largely made up of essays she wrote for and published in the New Yorker. Malcolm encountered legal problems after In the Freud Archives (1984) was released. The work focused on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, an up-and-coming analyst within the Freudian psychoanalytic ranks. His libel suit against Malcolm, filed in 1984, contended that she had falsified some of the quotes attributed to him and changed the meaning of other quotes. After ten years of trials and appeals, a jury ruled that Malcolm did in fact fabricate quotes, but found that the quotes in question did not defame Masson. Malcolm has published several other nonfiction books including The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994), and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999). Malcolm resides in New York and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Major Works

Diana & Nikon is comprised of ten essays that originally appeared in the New Yorker and one new essay. In this work, Malcolm examines pieces by traditional and contemporary photographers and analyzes the nature of photography as an art form. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), Malcolm provides an in-depth look at the lives of Freudian psychoanalysts. Using the pseudonym Aaron Green, she details the social order of Freudian analysts, studies the neuroses of the analysts themselves, and highlights difficulties faced by therapists who are required to remain emotionally detached from their patients, yet are bombarded with highly emotional dilemmas and the need to maintain empathy for their clients. In the Freud Archives further investigates the hierarchy of Freudian circles by studying the rise of Jeffrey Masson in New York analytical society and his subsequent downfall. Masson, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto, underwent psychotherapy and pursued a career as an analyst. His writings on Freud brought him to the attention of Kurt Eissler, the caretaker of the Sigmund Freud Archives in Washington, D.C. Eissler was impressed by Masson, giving him access to the archives and naming Masson his successor. According to Malcolm, while searching through Freud's letters in the archives, Masson discovered information concerning Freud's “seduction theory.” Early in his career, Freud studied the possibility that adults who suffer hysteria may have been sexually abused as children. Freud later rejected this idea and began to study the theory of infantile sexuality and fantasy. Masson uncovered letters that he believes prove that Freud changed his opinion not because of academic study, but because his theory of seduction met with disapproval and ridicule. Masson contends that analysts who treat patients according to Freud's infantile sexuality theory and Oedipal complex theories are actually denying their patients the correct therapy they need and allowing sexual abuse to go unchecked. After Masson published his findings, he was fired and blacklisted from the society of Freudian analysts. Malcolm revisits the theme of betrayal in The Journalist and the Murderer, recounting the relationship and subsequent lawsuit between Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald and author Joseph McGinniss. MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his wife and two children, contacted McGinniss during his trial and asked him to write about his story, in hopes that his innocence would be revealed. McGinniss was given complete access to all evidence and acted as part of the defense team. After MacDonald's conviction, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, which portrayed MacDonald as a psychopathic murderer. MacDonald was stunned and promptly sued McGinniss for pretending to believe in his innocence in order to retain access to damning information. Malcolm contends that although it may seem ethically reprehensible, journalists must occasionally use deceit to uncover important information and cannot be expected to adhere to the same moral compass as those in other occupations. Malcolm further explores journalistic integrity and writers' bias in The Silent Woman, where she empathizes with Hughes, underscoring hardships he experienced after Plath's death in 1963. Hughes has been vilified by many as a contributing factor to his wife's suicide and was frequently attacked for his methods of controlling his wife's literary estate. Malcolm analyzes five Plath biographies and concludes that such investigations often lend prestige to the deceased while survivors are wounded anew as facts are revealed. Malcolm compares the field of biography with that of journalism, skewering both and noting that a biographer “is like a professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers … and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” In The Crime of Sheila McGough Malcolm again critiques the American legal system. McGough is a lawyer who represented Bob Bailes, an indicted con man. Using his charm and social skills, Bailes persuades McGough to use legally questionable tactics to secure his release from prison. According to McGough, she became an unwitting participant in fraud. McGough served two-and-a-half years in prison; on her release, she wrote to Malcolm in hopes of clearing her name. Malcolm reviews the evidence and, believing McGough used bad judgment, concludes that McGough's only crime was her loyalty to an undeserving client. Malcolm asserts that the legal system is not interested in uncovering the truth, but in comparing “competing narratives” to see which one will win “the prize of the jury's vote.”

Critical Reception

Although widely considered a skilled and intelligent writer, Malcolm has provoked strong debate over her intentions for and methods of obtaining and relaying information in her stories. In Diana & Nikon, her questioning of the validity of photography as an art form has been noted as an interesting analytical theory, but other reviewers were dismayed by her opinions and felt that she misunderstands the genre of photographic art. Psychoanalysis and In the Freud Archives have been highly praised and are considered informative and enlightening. Critics applauded Malcolm's exploration of psychoanalysis and her detailed descriptions of analysts and their virtually self-contained social and professional community. These books helped propel Malcolm into the ranks of top journalists and essayists, but her journalistic integrity was called into question when Masson filed his libel suit in 1984. The ramifications of a journalist accused of libel and defamation created a stir in the publishing community. Many writers suggested that Malcolm compromised journalists by opening them up as potential targets of frivolous future lawsuits. Malcolm was supported by writers who believe that “cleaning up” an interviewee's words is not only acceptable but is standard procedure and often enhances the image of the person being interviewed. Detractors rebutted, stating that the correct use of quotation marks is mandatory, and that if an interviewer paraphrases, such comments should remain outside quotation marks. The Journalist and the Murderer was published during the Masson v. Malcolm trial and some commentators believed that Malcolm's morally ambiguous stance on journalistic integrity in this work directly relates to her legal troubles and that her objectivity was compromised. Other journalists asserted that Malcolm's particular type of writing is unrepresentative of the way the majority of newswriters, reporters, and columnists write. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm agrees with biographer Anne Stevenson's position regarding the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes relationship. Stevenson's 1989 biography of Plath was derided for presenting a view of the couple's relationship markedly different from those commonly presented in the past. Malcolm presents details of her own interviews with Plath's family, acquaintances, and other biographers to support a more sympathetic view of Hughes, and enumerates difficulties he experienced after Plath's suicide. Many reviewers have questioned Malcolm's reasons for supporting this unorthodox view and some have argued she purposely ignores evidence hinting at Hughes's duplicity, but, on the whole, such dissenters note that Malcolm unearths intriguing material in The Silent Woman. Most critics agree that Malcolm creates a thought-provoking study examining interview methods and the art of creating biography in this work.

Principal Works

Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (essays) 1980

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (nonfiction) 1981

In the Freud Archives (nonfiction) 1984

The Journalist and the Murderer (nonfiction) 1990

The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings (essays) 1992

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (nonfiction) 1994

The Crime of Sheila McGough (nonfiction) 1999

Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (essays) 2001

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Peter Thompson (review date 30 March 1980)

SOURCE: Thompson, Peter. “The Painter's Palette and the Camera's Lens.” Washington Post Book World 10, no. 13 (30 March 1980): 8.

[In the following review, Thompson disagrees with Malcolm's theories about photography in Diana & Nikon. Thompson feels a photographer's work should be considered artistic when viewed within the whole body of an artist's career.]

The 11 essays in Janet Malcolm's Diana & Nikon are very close to reviews. They were written from 1975 to 1979 for The New Yorker and The New York Times and were transferred intact into book form. Characteristic of reviews for those publications, 10 of the 11 essays are tied to...

(The entire section is 1133 words.)

Clive James (review date 18 December 1980)

SOURCE: James, Clive. “The Gentle Slope of Castalia.” New York Review of Books 27, no. 20 (18 December 1980): 22.

[In the following excerpt, James uses sarcasm to refute many of the proposed theories about photography in Diana & Nikon.]

The very first book illustrated with photographs, William Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature (1844), carried as an epigraph a quotation from Virgil. Talbot, who was a learned classicist as well as a chemist clever enough to invent photography, enlisted Virgil's aid in declaring how sweet it was to cross a mountain ridge unblemished by the wheel-ruts of previous visitors, and thence descend the gentle slope to Castalia—a...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Anthony Storr (review date 16 September 1981)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Portrait of a Therapist.” New Republic 185, no. 11 (16 September 1981): 34-6.

[In the following review of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Storr evaluates Malcolm's views on traditional, dispassionate psychoanalysis, contrasting such methods to sympathetic and interactive analytical approaches.]

This short book [Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession] is based on a series of essays on psychoanalysis which attracted attention when they appeared in the New Yorker. As the bibliography attests, Janet Malcolm has done her homework. In addition, she recorded a number of interviews with practicing psychoanalysts,...

(The entire section is 2102 words.)

Ann Shearer (review date 26 February 1982)

SOURCE: Shearer, Ann. Review of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, by Janet Malcolm. New Statesman 103, no. 2658 (26 February 1982): 28.

[In the following review, Shearer lauds Malcolm's probing of psychoanalysis in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, contending that her examination of techniques used by analysts is enlightening.]

No, but what do they really do in those 50-minute hours? Janet Malcolm's idea of setting her own lucid outline of Freud's theory against the confessions of one of his strict disciples works marvellously [in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession], not just as a portrait of the man, but as a...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Brigid Brophy (essay date 15 April 1982)

SOURCE: Brophy, Brigid. “Transference.” London Review of Books 4, no. 7 (15 April 1982): 3, 5.

[In the following excerpt, Brophy occasionally questions Malcolm's beliefs and interpretations of psychoanalysis, but on the whole, states that Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession is thought-provoking, well written, and enjoyable to read.]

The phenomenon of transference—how we all invent each other according to early blueprints—was Freud's most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipus complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)

Harvey Mindess (review date 17 June 1984)

SOURCE: Mindess, Harvey. “Seductions in Psychoanalysis.” Los Angeles Times 103, no. 197 (17 June 1984): 2.

[In the following review of In the Freud Archives, Mindess, a psychotherapist, asserts that Jeffrey Masson's refutation of Freud's infantile sexuality theory is subversive, incorrect, and potentially could cause harm to patients.]

Dear Sigmund: I am sorry to have to tell you that they are dancing on your grave. Since your beloved Anna joined you at that great Vienna in the sky, there is no one so good at keeping trespassers away. Kurt Eissler still tends your shrine, but his veneration conceals a neurotic blind spot for a young man named Jeffrey...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

John Seabrook (review date 24 July 1984)

SOURCE: Seabrook, John. “Psychoanalysis: A Telling Critique.” Christian Science Monitor 76, no. 168 (24 July 1984): 21-2.

[In the following review, Seabrook characterizes In the Freud Archives as a captivating examination of psychoanalysis and an insightful look at the tenets and practices of analysts who follow Freud's teachings.]

In the Freud Archives is Janet Malcolm's second book about Freudian psychoanalysis. In her previous book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Malcolm recalled the heyday of the discipline, the 1950s, when with unlimited optimism analysis reached out to every kind of human disorder. In the 1960s...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

Mary-Kay Wilmers (review date 18 April 1985)

SOURCE: Wilmers, Mary-Kay. “Fortress Freud.” London Review of Books 7, no. 7 (18 April 1985): 10-11.

[In the following review, Wilmers studies Malcolm's Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, underscoring the exclusiveness and the separatist aspects of the psychoanalytical professional's lifestyle.]

Psychoanalysts have a difficult relationship with the rest of the world—or, as they sometimes call it, ‘the goyim’. Janet Malcolm's two very striking books of reportage, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, make this clear. Freud's wife, according to her grandson, ‘divided...

(The entire section is 3637 words.)

David Rieff (review date 11 March 1990)

SOURCE: Rieff, David. “Hoisting Another by Her Own Petard.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 109, no. 98 (11 March 1990): 4.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Rieff investigates Malcolm's theories regarding the role of journalists and the ideas of exploitation, integrity, and artistic merit.]

Some years ago, Joan Didion ended one of her most famous essays—a piece that all her admirers remember, and, fortunately, that few of her subjects subsequently took to heart—with this gaunt, defiant coda: “Writers,” she warned, “are always selling somebody out.”

At times, Janet Malcolm's brilliant and discomfiting...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

Catharine R. Stimpson (review date 25 June 1990)

SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine R. “The Haunted House.” Nation 250, no. 25 (25 June 1990): 899-902.

[In the following review, Stimpson discusses The Journalist and the Murderer, and Malcolm's opinion that moralistic shortcomings are inherent in journalistic endeavors.]

The Journalist and the Murderer is a slim book that has raised a hefty ruckus because of its chilly thesis: “The journalist must do his work in a … deliberately induced state of moral anarchy … [an] unfortunate occupational hazard.” To get information, a journalist must gain access to people. To write up this information, he must betray their faith in him as a good buddy and...

(The entire section is 2349 words.)

Linda Christmas (review date 25 January 1991)

SOURCE: Christmas, Linda. “Get the Story.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 135 (25 January 1991): 35.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Christmas focuses on the lengths journalists will go to get a story and comments on their perception of moral obligations.]

This [The Journalist and the Murderer] is a book about betrayal: about journalists who give fake sympathy and support to interviewees in order to encourage them to talk freely, and then go back to their keyboards and put the boot in. It's also an American book, so I'd better start at the beginning. Some 20 years ago, in North Carolina, a woman and her two daughters...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Julian Symons (review date 25 January 1991)

SOURCE: Symons, Julian. “Journalists on Trial.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4582 (25 January 1991): 14.

[In the following review of The Journalist and the Murderer, Symons disagrees with Malcolm's assertion that journalists must use any means available to report a story.]

The background should be briefly sketched. In 1970 the wife and two young children of Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician serving with the Green Berets in North Carolina, were stabbed and bludgeoned to death. MacDonald, who had been slightly wounded and knocked unconscious according to his account by never-discovered intruders, was charged with the murders and acquitted by an Army tribunal....

(The entire section is 1389 words.)

Lynn Barber (review date 21 March 1991)

SOURCE: Barber, Lynn. “Lynn Barber of the Independent on Sunday Defends the Indefensible.” London Review of Books 13, no. 6 (21 March 1991): 5.

[In the following review, Barber faults The Journalist and the Murderer, alleging the book fails to carry the weight of its opening lines and that Malcolm's intent in writing the book is aimed at deflecting blame in her own legal battles.]

I shall bite the next person who comes up to me at a party and asks if I've read The Journalist and the Murderer. It is not a well-intentioned question. It implies that Ms Malcolm's book has dealt irreparable damage to me and my kind (journalists who do interviews for...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)

Michael Hoyt (essay date March-April 1991)

SOURCE: Hoyt, Michael. “Malcolm, Masson, and You.” Columbia Journalism Review 29, no. 6 (March-April 1991): 38-44.

[In the following essay, Hoyt examines the Masson v. Malcolm libel case, and Malcolm's book The Journalist and the Murderer. Hoyt provides background information on both Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson, chronicles the genesis of the trial, and reviews the implications of the verdict.]

“We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes. …”

Janet Malcolm, “Trouble in the Archives,” The New Yorker, December 5, 1983

To your...

(The entire section is 4776 words.)

Gertrude Himmelfarb (essay date April 1991)

SOURCE: Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “The Right to Misquote.” Commentary 91, no. 4 (April 1991): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Himmelfarb examines the Masson v. Malcolm lawsuit and its legal ramifications, referring to In the Freud Archives and written summaries about the case. Himmelfarb asserts that Malcolm's misuse of direct quotes is dishonest and unprofessional.]

It is not often that the Supreme Court is presented with a case in which the evidence consists of such titillating remarks, allegedly made by the plaintiff, as his likening himself to “an intellectual gigolo,” desiring to convert Anna Freud's house, the repository of the Freud Archives,...

(The entire section is 3450 words.)

Pamela Erens (review date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Erens, Pamela. “Flirting with the Past.” New England Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 212-19.

[In the following review, Erens appraises the essays in The Purloined Clinic, noting that Malcolm urges readers to uncover truths by exposing falsehoods.]

Janet Malcolm has a rare talent: She is able to write about psychoanalysis in language that cats and dogs can read, without distorting or diluting its complexity, its mystery or its pleasures. The books she published in the early 1980s, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, both of which first appeared as articles in The New Yorker, plucked psychoanalytic...

(The entire section is 3870 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 14-28 March 1994)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Plath and the Perils of Biography.” New Leader 77, no. 3 (14-28 March 1994): 14-15.

[In the following review, Pettingell praises The Silent Woman, contending Malcolm provides an adept treatment of Sylvia Plath's death, her relationship with husband Ted Hughes, and the biographies written about Plath's life.]

Janet Malcolm has created a literary niche for herself as a chronicler of quarrels. Ten years ago, In the Freud Archives gave us a blow-by-blow account of orthodox Freudians duking it out with their master's detractors. In 1990, The Journalist and the Murderer depicted the feud between an Army doctor convicted...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)

Elaine Showalter (review date 12 May 1994)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Going Underground.” London Review of Books 16, no. 9 (12 May 1994): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Showalter describes The Silent Woman as nonfiction, yet notices that the story contains elements of mystery, romance, and melodrama pertaining not only to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's lives but also to the drama surrounding the five earlier biographies about Plath.]

Ours is not an age in which literary events get much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm's study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New...

(The entire section is 3259 words.)

David Bromwich (review date 6 June 1994)

SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “The Bell Jar.” New Republic 210, no. 23 (6 June 1994): 34-8.

[In the following review of The Silent Woman, Bromwich compliments Malcolm's determination and journalistic prowess, but questions Malcolm's judgment to make herself an active character within the book.]

The jacket photo on Janet Malcolm's new book [The Silent Woman] shows the author standing relaxed, arms folded, three-quarters turned to the camera, her glasses pushed above her forehead. The pose seems to say: “I may not see you clearly yet, but wait.” Meanwhile, the look is direct and possibly sympathetic: it gives nothing at all away. You would know from this...

(The entire section is 4766 words.)

Bernard Crick (review date 7 October 1994)

SOURCE: Crick, Bernard. “No End of Blame.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 323 (7 October 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review, Crick wholeheartedly endorses The Silent Woman as an insightful study of the genre of biography and the influences and preconceptions that appear in any biographer's writing.]

I often meditate on the art of blurbs as well as on the art of biography. Learned libraries, unlike public libraries, do us no service to discard the jacket as if not part of “the text” or semiotic package.

This book's [The Silent Woman] blurb is not just a good blurb but one which this reviewer, having read the book three times...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)

Anne Chisholm (review date 12 November 1994)

SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. “People Say the Life Is the Thing.” Spectator 273, no. 8679 (12 November 1994): 41-2.

[In the following review, Chisholm judges The Silent Woman as engaging but finds that the book sheds little new light on the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes relationship or on the art of biography itself.]

In 1989, Janet Malcolm, a New Yorker journalist, read Bitter Fame, a biography of Sylvia Plath, the American poet who committed suicide in 1963, by another American poet, Anne Stevenson. The book, Malcolm tells us, gave a focus to the unease she had felt while reading other biographies; and she was also intrigued because she recalled Anne...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Rebecca Viney (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Viney, Rebecca. Review of The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm. Midwest Quarterly 36, no. 2 (winter 1995): 227-28.

[In the following review, Viney contends that The Silent Woman is intelligently written but maintains that Malcolm is one-sided in her adoration of Ted Hughes and less than sympathetic to other biographers who have had dissenting views.]

The Silent Woman, not a biography itself but a book about biographies, offers almost as much information about Sylvia Plath's life and death as a biography would offer. If “the biographer at work … is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house” (9), then Janet Malcolm at work is...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 6 April 1995)

SOURCE: Dinnage, Rosemary. “Kicking the Myth Habit.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 6 (6 April 1995): 6-8.

[In the following review, Dinnage agrees with Malcolm that myths surrounding Sylvia Plath's life and career have overshadowed actual history. Dinnage judges The Silent Woman as offering a truly unique perspective as a chronicle of the lives of those affected by Plath's suicide.]

Why the “silent woman”? Among the vast number of words generated by the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (which [in The Silent Woman] are hereby being added to) is an account of a scene in Yorkshire in 1960. Olwyn Hughes, sister of Plath's English husband, Ted...

(The entire section is 2969 words.)

Wendy Kagan (review date 1995)

SOURCE: Kagan, Wendy. Review of The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm. Chicago Review 41, no. 1 (1995): 92-6.

[In the following review, Kagan focuses on Malcolm's protective stance of Ted Hughes in The Silent Woman, and expresses disapproval of Malcolm's negative portrayal of journalists, biographers, and readers of biographies.]

The biographical approach to literature has an antique aura about it these days; certain circles condemn it as unfashionable. Ever since Foucault announced “the death of the author,” custodians of literary history and criticism have taken careful pains to separate the art from the life of the artist. But in the case of Sylvia...

(The entire section is 2142 words.)

Amanda Mitchison (review date 26 April 1996)

SOURCE: Mitchison, Amanda. “Open Secrets.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 400 (26 April 1996): 31.

[In the following review, Mitchison feels that at times the essays in The Purloined Clinic are verbose and stray off track, but when Malcolm is focused, her writing is honest, direct, and stimulating.]

The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm is the daughter of a Czech psychoanalyst. Her great breadth of knowledge spans literature, psychoanalytic writing and the fine arts—all of which are covered in this selection of reviews and essays [The Purloined Clinic]. She also carries her erudition lightly and with poise. This book, for example, gained its...

(The entire section is 744 words.)

Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Mandy Aftel (essay date 16 December 1996)

SOURCE: Lakoff, Robin Tolmach, and Mandy Aftel. “In the Malcolm Archives.” Nation 263, no. 20 (16 December 1996): 32-5.

[In the following essay, Lakoff and Aftel describe the techniques Malcolm employs in her writing to persuade readers, disapproving of her subtle guidance, and asserting that nonfiction should be written from a completely objective stance.]

Janet Malcolm covers the trendiest topics of current intellectual discourse: psychoanalysis, its powers and its decline; crime and punishment; the nature of creativity and the price it exacts. Sometimes she subjects herself and her work to pitiless critique: Biography is ghoulish; journalism is a scam. Thus she...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)

Robert Coles (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Coles, Robert. Review of Diana & Nikon, by Janet Malcolm. Wilson Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1998): 106.

[In the following review, Coles alleges that in Diana & Nikon Malcolm attempts to emphasize the vagueness of photography, both in terms of artistic intent and interpretation.]

The adage has it that a picture is worth a thousand words, but [in Diana & Nikon] the essayist Janet Malcolm manages deftly to reverse that assertion—indeed, to make the reader in some instances quite wary of a given photographer's intentions and work. For many years in the pages of the New Yorker, Malcolm has displayed a talent for getting to...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Anne Chisholm (review date 17 October 1998)

SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. “The Flash of the Knife.” Spectator 281, no. 8880 (17 October 1998): 39.

[In the following review, Chisholm underscores the predatory aspects of journalism and notes that, in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm raises interesting questions about the ethics of journalism.]

It is not easy for other journalists and biographers to know what to make of Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker reporter and critic who for some years now has made it her business to put all of us on the spot. Her intelligence and subtlety of mind cannot be denied; she writes exceptionally well; her perceptions are often striking and original. The questions...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Jo Ann Citron (review date March 1999)

SOURCE: Citron, Jo Ann. “Good Intentions.” Women's Review of Books 16, no. 6 (March 1999): 8.

[In the following review of The Crime of Sheila McGough, Citron expresses amazement at the glaring mistakes committed by McGough in her relationship with client Bob Bailes. Citron is taken aback by McGough's lack of judgment and her professional improprieties.]

I remember sitting in an uncomfortable seat on the first day of law school, listening to interminable welcome messages, when the dean himself walked into the well of the lecture hall. Without greeting or preliminaries of any kind, he leaned into the microphone and solemnly intoned three words: “Don't...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)

Richard Lamb (review date 5 April 1999)

SOURCE: Lamb, Richard. “The Journalist and the Bore.” New Leader 82, no. 4 (5 April 1999): 17-18.

[In the following review, Lamb asserts that Malcolm fails to make McGough's innocence convincing in The Crime of Sheila McGough.]

As a writer, Janet Malcolm is chiefly interested in betrayal, and in the stories we tell ourselves and others to facilitate it. Her taste is that of a connoisseur, so while seduction or garden variety fraud might intrigue her, she prefers the sort of apostasy that somehow reflects the state of an entire profession, that can compromise careers. Thus her fascination, in her books, with watching Jeffrey Masson flamboyantly fail the litmus test...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 8 April 1999)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Case of the Canned Lawyer.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 6 (8 April 1999): 14-17.

[In the following review, Oates asserts that The Crime of Sheila McGough is not one of Malcolm's stronger works. Oates feels journalistic strengths are evident in the book, but with McGough as subject matter, the story becomes bland and weighed down.]

“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness.”

—Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that...

(The entire section is 3652 words.)

Richard A. Posner (review date 19 April 1999)

SOURCE: Posner, Richard A. “In the Fraud Archives.” New Republic 220, no. 16 (19 April 1999): 29-34.

[In the following review, Posner, a U.S. Chief Justice, outlines what he perceives as flaws in The Crime of Sheila McGough. Posner disapproves of Malcolm's lenient attitude toward McGough's complicity in the crimes carried out with Bob Bailes.]

In 1990, a federal jury convicted Sheila McGough, a criminal defense lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia, of fraud, perjury, witness intimidation, and related crimes. She was sentenced to three years in prison. Her conviction and her sentence were affirmed, and her subsequent motion for a new trial on the basis of newly...

(The entire section is 4833 words.)

Stephan Landsman (essay date May 2000)

SOURCE: Landsman, Stephan. “The Perils of Courtroom Stories.” Michigan Law Review 98, no. 6 (May 2000): 2154-75.

[In the following essay, Landsman attempts to analyze Malcolm's intent in writing The Crimes of Sheila McGough. Landsman believes Malcolm's views reflect her growing repugnance for the legal system and contends that her single-minded defense of McGough's actions are misplaced and irresponsibly lead the reader to improper conclusions.]


As Janet Malcolm1 tells it [in The Crime of Sheila McGough], Sheila McGough was a middle-aged single woman...

(The entire section is 9260 words.)

John Bayley (review date 29 November 2001)

SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Fresh Oysters.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 19 (29 November 2001): 18-20.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley states that in Reading Chekhov, Malcolm masterfully blends personal insight with literary evaluation and social commentary about the life and works of Anton Chekhov.]

In her thoughtful and sensitive study Reading Chekhov, which she describes in a subtitle as a “Critical Journey,” Janet Malcolm writes of seeing a dreary production of Carmen in St. Petersburg—just the kind of boring evening that Chekhov might have featured in a story—in the course of which her own boredom was relieved by recalling that...

(The entire section is 2589 words.)

Albert Bermel (review date November-December 2001)

SOURCE: Bermel, Albert. “Master of the Monologue.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 45-6.

[In the following review, Bermel contends that, although Malcolm's black-and-white opinions on various Chekhov plays and characters are detrimental to understanding his message, Reading Chekhov is an enjoyable study of the playwright's works.]

In her exploration of Anton Chekhov's writings, life and reputation [Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey], Janet Malcolm includes the contemporary testimony of such critics and artists as Dmitri Grigorovich, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky along with her own appreciations and occasional disparagements. She generally...

(The entire section is 1560 words.)

Sebastian Smee (review date 8 February 2003)

SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “Stopping Short of Omniscience.” Spectator 291, no. 9105 (8 February 2003): 29-30.

[In the following review, Smee examines Reading Chekhov and discusses Malcolm's analytic look at realism within Chekhov's works.]

Although Janet Malcolm has written in depth about an extraordinary range of subjects, from psychoanalysis and photography through to literary criticism, the art world, journalism, biography and the law, in thematic terms she has actually been one of the most consistent non-fiction writers of our time. Certainly, she is one of the most brilliant. I never feel such a keen sense of anticipation—the kind of adrenalised mental...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Doris L. Eder (essay date October 2004)

SOURCE: Eder, Doris L. “Janet Malcolm's Difficult Pursuit of Truth.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Eder discusses Malcolm's work and career.]

Janet Malcolm was born in Prague in 1925, one of two daughters of a psychiatrist. Her ancestors were secular Jews who immigrated to the United States in 1939 and settled in New York City. Malcolm was educated at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art and then at the University of Michigan. Both she and her sister became writers. Malcolm's career in...

(The entire section is 3055 words.)

Further Reading


Davis, Gwen. “Ignore That Woman behind the Curtain: The Trials of Janet & Jeffrey.” Nation 259, no. 18 (28 November 1994): 643-46.

Follows the final hearing and verdict of the Masson v. Malcolm libel suit, providing background information on the genesis of the case.

Fields, Howard. “Supreme Court Action in Masson-Malcolm Action.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 29 (5 July 1991): 13.

Provides information on the Supreme Court's ruling that Masson v. Malcolm could be sent to a jury trial.


Arana-Ward, Marie. “Desperately Seeking...

(The entire section is 590 words.)