The First Person
Two writers who mix reporting and the personal essay
Published: May 8, 2013
There are few nonfiction writers who are as generally feared as Janet Malcolm. One of her former colleagues at the New Yorker, where Malcolm has written for decades, once said that if she ever asked to profile him, he would get it over with and jump out the window. She is most famous, perhaps, for the opening sentence to The Journalist and the Murderer: “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.” But she is equally known for the long and expensive court case that developed out of her profile of Jeffrey Masson, head of the Freud Archives, who, Malcolm claimed, wanted to turn the archives into a place devoted to “sex, women, fun” and claimed to have slept with over 1,000 women. Masson claimed Malcolm fabricated those quotes—but she ultimately won the case.
Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) collects Malcolm’s arts reporting for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books over the last few decades, and the pieces show Malcolm at the top of her game.
The title essay is one of the most avant-garde pieces of arts reporting ever written. A profile of the controversial 1980s wunderkind artist David Salle at the moment (in 1994) when he feels he has developed the skill to finally say what he wants to say and yet when the trendy art world is no longer interested in listening, Malcolm’s piece consists of 41 failed beginnings of the opening of his profile, creating a sort of collage that mirrors Salle’s work. And yet, it also raises a deeper question about Malcolm herself, as she seems to use the artists and writers to reflect her cold gaze onto her own practice so that, like Joseph Mitchell—as Malcolm puts it in her spectacular little piece on him—she “progressively risked more and more.”
“A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” her profile of Ingrid Sischy, an editor of Artforum, is actually a history of the magazine, a dissection of New York’s art world, and a way for Malcolm, once again, to question her own motivations. At the end of the essay, Malcolm writes: “During the year that Sischy and I have been meeting for interviews, she has been unsparingly frank about herself. She has confessed to me her feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, she told me stories of rejection and mortification, she has consistently judged herself severely. At the same time, she has not been altogether uncritical of me. I have not lived up to her expectations as an interlocutor. She fears that I do not understand her.”
It is in profiling others that Macolm is best able to address herself. In the final essay, “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,” she confesses that “memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character” but is instead defined by what Malcolm dubs “memory’s autism,” which is full of a “passion for the tedious.”
Memory’s autism is evident in much of Michael Heald’s new collection of essays, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension (Perfect Day Publishing). This is fitting, since Heald runs Perfect Day Publishing, whose tagline is “If it’s not personal, we’re not interested.”
The title essay seems to start as a piece about Stephen Malkmus, the singer of the seminal 1990s band Pavement, but turns out to be a collage (much like Malcolm’s portrait of Salle in structure) of Heald’s 20s.
There is a certain kind of literature that sees 30 as old. Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” is the most successful example of this form in the essay. With her usual cool eye, Didion looks back on innocence lost in New York, and it seems like that essay is the model for Heald’s work, so that his very title seems to allude to it—even if essays like the seemingly interminable college story “This is Part of Something Bigger Called Small” read more like Bret Easton Ellis’ early books. Still, we do seem to finally know ourselves a little bit and to feel more comfortable in our own skin at 30 than we did at 20. Of course, the wisdom passes quickly, for we are soon faced with an entirely new set of problems.
Heald himself seems to realize this. In “It Should Be Mathematical,” the one truly brilliant piece in the book, he is able to blend reporting and the personal in a nearly flawless fashion. The piece is a sort of profile of the running couple Ian Dobson and Julia Lucas as they each tragically fail to make the Olympic team. Failure is always more interesting than success, and the fact that Heald (who comes from a family of runners) was beaten by Dobson back when they were in high school allows him to use the essay to examine his own life far more effectively than in the stories in which the autism of memory seems to distort it. Because of his knowledge of running, he is also able to describe the races—something I have never cared for—in a way that makes them exciting, like a non-gambler thrilled by Dostoevsky’s descriptions of roulette in The Gambler.
Several other stories focus on running, and it may be that there is something about distance running that is in the zeitgeist of the moment. Not only did terrorists decide a marathon was the important event to attack, but when they did, my mind immediately turned to Jamie Quatro’s brilliant collection I Want to Show You More (“Holy Fuck,” Books, March 13) in the same way I thought of DeLillo’s Mao II on 9/11. While Quatro’s running stories are existential analogies of a sort, Heald’s are artistic ones. In Julia Lucas and Ian Dobson, he sees the image of creation: “That’s the thing that Julia did more than anyone else has done at the Trials so far—put herself out there. Just a little bit too far. Absolutely all in.”
It is unfair to compare anyone to Malcolm, perhaps, but in this one essay, Heald comes damn close. It’s clear, he has put himself out there and is absolutely all in.
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