Janet Malcolm is a careful writer. The new Paris Review has an interview with her. The Review still publishes the best interviews on code-cracking the art of writing. This exchange—which interviewer Katie Roiphe notes in her introduction took place primarily via email—is a little Master class in artful phrases, and an insightful analysis of journalism, at a time when what journalists do and why they do it is much in the news.
Roiphe describes Malcolm’s books as “simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold highbrow, and controversial.” When she asks if Malcolm’s style is informed by psychoanalysis, this is the answer:
“Although psychoanalysis has influenced me personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing. This may be because writers learn from other writers, not from theories. But there are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both pan the surface—yes, surface—for the gold of insight. The metaphor of depth—as in depth psychology—in wrong, as the psychologist Roy Shafer helpfully pointed out. The unconscious is right there on the surface, as in “The Purloined Letter.” Journalism, with its mandate to notice small things, was always congenial to me. I might also have liked being an analyst. But I never would have gotten into medical school, because I couldn’t do math, so it wasn’t an option. I never went to journalism school, either. When I started doing journalism, a degree from a journalism school wasn’t considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky.”
Malcolm’s style cannot be imitated; it is indivisible from her nature. Yet can you mine her work for rules? Some might be: be self-deprecating, even if in doing so you slyly draw attention to the fact you are doing so (“surface—yes, surface—for the gold . . .”). Be subtle, but specific, in your condemnations (“tacky.”). Know your stuff (“as in The Purloined Letter.”)
Malcolm tells Roiphe that “writing for me is a process of constantly throwing out stuff that doesn’t seem interesting enough. I grew up in a family of big interrupters.” Another rule: edit.