The Journalist and the murderer - Janet Malcolm

True Crime!


Real people seem relatively uninteresting in comparison [to characters in novels], because they are so much more complex, ambiguous, unpredictable, and particular than people in novels. The therapy of psychoanalysis attempts to restore to the neurotic patient the freedom to be uninteresting that he lost somewhere along the way. (p. 122-3)

I am reading a series of books by Janet Malcolm my good friend Elliott lent me. I just finished one of the books, The Journalist and the Murderer and it was both a gripping reading and completely thought provoking on a matter that I thought I would have no interest in – Journalism. The whole book is about the subject-writer relationship. If I thought about writers at all (non-fiction, fiction, journalistic, and otherwise) I never considered a writer in relation to anything, but instead sort of like a monad isolated from the rest of existence – floating it her own constructed reality.

How much richer my experience is now!

So this book is really about exploring this dyad.  What are the responsibilities that one has to another in the writer-subject relationship.  What are the psychologies of each that propels them into the relationship, what are the structures of each particular writer-subject relationship.

But, I have not all together given up my earlier monadology.  When a writer writes a book she enters into relation with a subject. This could be a journalistic/non-fiction subject or a fictional/purely imaginary subject.  As this relation comes into being, there is a third thing that happens, and that is the creation of the milieu, or what we could alternately call the environment, or ecology, or WORLD of the relationship.

It is the construction of this world that will ultimately be the book, or from which the book will derive. The construction of this world cause other relations to appear, such as the relationship, between witnesses and friends, or relations from shared experiences.  A network structure arises, but from the point of view of this original writer-subject relationship. However as the physics of this created world unfold, it is possible that this original relationship changes, or that it becomes less primary.

What is the role of psychology to this?  I opened this blog post with a quote about psychology, and the next book by Janet Malcolm in my pile from Elliott, is about Freud (and which echos the libel lawsuit between Jeff and Joe). There is this manifest, present thing, in the creation of the story. But then there is this hidden world that gives dynamism to the whole thing and creates a certain vitality. This is perhaps the difference between a good book and a bad book, a story with a certain dunamis and a story with a certain stasis. So what gives rise to this vitality, what turns the relations that create this world (of the story) into a humming vibrating thing?  It is that each node in the relation map have their own psychology, in the original greek meaning of the word: psūkhā́ or soul, or desire.  This is the physics of the story, but it is not a psychology in the way we normally mean it – as some mental explanation for an action.

This book as a whole was vital. And completely different from most, if anything, that I read today of contemporary non-fiction (because it is so static).

It was written with such vitality and search for a truth that does not exist, or for a deeper understanding that does,  is missing in long form journalism today, or in books that arise from long form journalism.   There is something so formulaic and camera ready about journalistic non-fiction these days. Perhaps this was the case when this book was written as well  (1990), and Janet Malcolm is just a welcome anomaly. But it does seem related to a pervasive risk aversion that pervades our culture. It also seems to be related to the rise of mediation, as people package themselves (commodify) for consumption on various social media channels.

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