The Believer: I was thinking, too, about your reputation as a writer for being quite exacting towards, or even tough on, your subjects. The same rigor that thrills some of your readers seems to make others extremely uncomfortable. I wonder if you've ever felt that the reception to your work has been colored by the fact that you're a woman. Are women still meant to be "nicer" as writers, less difficult?
I ask because I think of my own interviewing style, at least in person, as incorporating some stereotypical feminine behavior: slightly low-status and deferential, punctuated by ready laughter, and driven by an accommodating attitude. Later, when I'm writing I feel I've acted as something of a wolf in sheep's clothing.
I remember your description of your "more Japanese technique" in the Journalist and the Murderer, in contrast to the more flat-footed Newsday reporter's. I have a sense of course, but wondered specifically what you meant by that?
Janet Malcolm: I really don't know whether the people who don't like my writing don't like it because of their perception of me as a tough, not-nice woman. It seems kind of ridiculous — I think of myself as a completely ordinary harmless person — but what people think of your writing persona is out of your hands. The narrator of my nonfiction pieces is not the same person I am — she is a lot more articulate and thinks of much cleverer things to say than I usually do. I can imagine her coming across as a little insufferable sometimes. But she, too, is out of my hands — I may have invented her, but she is the person who insists on speaking for me.
As for the wolf in sheep's clothing question, perhaps the way to minimize one's feeling that one has not been as straightforward with the subject as one should have been, is to be a little more straightforward. To swallow the too-nice thing one is about to say. To remember that the subject is going to say what he or she wants to say no matter what you say or don't say. You can't keep your mouth shut all the time, of course, but you do well to keep it shut a lot of the time. If silence falls, let the subject break it — even though that's a very hard thing to do. By the way, I don't think the "feminine behavior" you describe is limited to women journalists. Men journalists can be just as ingratiating, deferential, accommodating, and laughter-prone.
When you ask what I mean by the Japanese technique, you are not employing it.
- the Believer interview with Janet Malcolm, October 2004I prefer to believe there is no "Japanese technique" and this was an Easter egg planted by Janet Malcolm in the hope that, eventually, someone would ask her this, so she could deliver this answer.
Speaking of astonishing feats of nonfiction: Sarah Marshall's "Remote Control," also from the Believer (January 2014), about Tonya Harding, has an ending that can open up the sky.