I get bored easily—no less with my own ideas than with those of others. Writing for me is a process of constantly throwing out stuff that doesn’t seem interesting enough. 

Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm, a writer for The New Yorker, and author of several books, passed away last week. Malcolm was known for her, how should I put it, (perhaps) well-deserved scorn for her chosen profession and those who practiced it. I came across an interview with her in The Paris Review about her approach to writing, the realities (and inanities) of journalism as a profession. Here are some great zingers and wisdom from this conversation with Katie Roiphe, the Cultural Reporting and Cricistim program director at New York University. In her own words:

  1. Sources (or subjects) will “tell their story to anyone who will listen to it, and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of the listener; just as (“good enough”) analysts are interchangeable, so are journalists.”
  2. “The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator,” she says, “The presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. “
  3. “When I started doing journalism, a degree from a journalism school wasn’t considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky.”
  4. “I don’t know ­whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. “
  5. “I’m definitely more a cabinetmaker than a tormented artist. Not that writing comes easy. I don’t know about cabinetmakers, but I often get stuck. Then I get sleepy and have to lie down. Or I make myself leave the house—walking sometimes produces a solution. The problem is usually one of logic or point of view. I keep regular morning hours. The first hour is the most productive one. “

I picked these quotes from the interview because I agree with her — the narcissism of establishment journalism is an ongoing source of annoyance, perhaps because I am an outsider who can clearly see the hypocrisy of the games people play. I used her words because, as Malcolm says in her interview:

Well, the most obvious attraction of quotation is that it gives you a little vacation from writing—the other person is doing the work. All you have to do is type. But there is a reason beyond sloth for my liking of quotation at length. It permits you to show the thing itself rather than the pale, and never quite right, simulacrum that paraphrase is.

Read article on The Paris Review

The Essayist

I just started re-reading Essays of E.B.White. I couldn’t help but share his self-deprecating description of an essayist. His writings, in general, are amazing, but I am particularly inspired by his essays, as I have always aspired to write longer, and deeply reported essays.

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into a new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

E.B. White

July 25, 2020, San Francisco.