Writer’s Desk: Lie to Tell the Truth

The passing of the great Janet Malcolm this week at the age of eighty-six is not a thing that the world of writing will bounce back from. One of the great profile writers the New Yorker ever had, Malcolm had a spare and wry yet richly illustrative style that compressed whole volumes of insight into a few lines.

But the work that everyone will continue going back to is The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), ostensibly the story of how the relationship between writer Joe McGuiness and murder suspect Jeffrey R. MacDonald unraveled in spectacular fashion, but really an X-ray of why and how journalists do what they do.

In this slim and cutting book, Malcolm characterizes her profession as a confidence game of sorts:

Fortunately for readers and writers alike, human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife…

Malcolm knows that for a writer to tell the truth about something or someone, they must often first strew the path before them with lies.

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