Janet Malcolm is the author of Reading Chekhov: A Critical ­Journey, among other books. (June 2016)

‘A Very Sadistic Man’

Ted Hughes, 1978; photograph by Bill Brandt
In his introduction to Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Jonathan Bate offers a “cardinal rule” of literary biography: “The work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical.” But these fine words—are just fine words.

The Master Writer of the City

Joseph Mitchell in Lower Manhattan, near the old Fulton Fish Market; photograph by his wife, Therese Mitchell
The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations.

Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World

Michelle Malakova arriving at her Aunt Sofya’s apartment for a supervised visit with her maternal relatives, Forest Hills, Queens, October 2012
On March 11, 2009, a social worker named Eliana Cotter, who was monitoring the state-mandated foster care of Michelle Malakova, had a delicate task to perform. She needed to tell the six-year-old child, in not so many words, that a jury had found her mother, Mazoltuv Borukhova, guilty of the …

What Happened to Michelle in Forest Hills?

Mazoltuv Borukhova with her daughter, Michelle Malakova, circa 2007
The tabloid account of the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova was the classic narrative of crime detected and punishment meted out to the criminal. The “Slain Dentist’s Kid Happy Now” story was a satisfying coda: the guilty mother was put away for good and the innocent child had found a safe haven with “exceptional people.” That the story was built on air and driven by the self-serving motives of the uncle and the legal guardian is another story, in another genre.

Free Associations: Collages

Janet Malcolm: Temperature of World Cities, 2011 (detail).

Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.

Special Needs

Sarah and Todd Palin with their children Track, Piper, Willow, Trig, and Bristol, who is holding her son Trip, outside their house in Wasilla, Alaska, August 2010; from Sarah Palin’s Alaska
The nine-part docu-series Sarah Palin’s Alaska has the atmosphere of a cold war propaganda film. It shows the Palin family during the summer of 2010, making happy trips to one pristine Alaskan wilderness area after another—fishing, hunting, kayaking, dogsledding, rock climbing—and taking repeated little swipes at the left. The Palins travel in small planes into the tooth-and-claw wilderness to enact their allegory of unspoiled capitalism. In the episode in which she struggles for a foothold on a vertiginously steep glacier at the foot of Mt. McKinley, Palin knows that no government handout is going to help her. She isn’t even sure God will help her.

Comedy Central on the Mall

A screen showing Stephen Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, Washington, D.C., October 30, 2010
On October 31, Peter Clothier, a seventy-four-year-old author and retired professor, posted an entry on his blog, called The Buddha Diaries, about the wonderful day he and his wife Ellie had spent at the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30 at the …

Comedy Central on the Mall

On October 31, Peter Clothier, a seventy-four-year-old author and retired professor, posted an entry on his blog, called The Buddha Diaries, about the wonderful day he and his wife Ellie had spent at the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30 at the Mall in Washington, D.C., between noon and 3 PM. “We stood there trapped for a good two hours, surrounded by people who, like us, had showed up. We saw nothing, heard nothing of what was happening on the stage. It was great!” Clothier writes.

Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography

Republica Portuguesa, a collage by Janet Malcolm, 6¼ x 17 in., 2003
(Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art)
I have been aware, as I write this autobiography, of a feeling of boredom with the project. My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful. My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. To these people I have been a kind of amanuensis: they have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.

Capitalist Pastorale

Gene Stratton-Porter, the widely popular author of A Girl of the Limberlost
When I was ten, I read a novel called A Girl of the Limberlost that made a deep impression on me. I assumed that its author, Gene Stratton-Porter, was a man, and gave the matter no further thought. I read the book, written in 1909, at a small New Hampshire …

Burdock

For three successive summers, on the top-floor landing of a house in the Berkshires, I have been photographing burdock leaves. I prop them in small glass bottles and photograph them head on, as if they were people facing me. No two leaves of any plant or tree are exactly …

Pandora’s Click

To say that Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home is more a users’ manual than a book is not to belittle it. Email is like an appliance that we have been helplessly misusing because it arrived without instructions. Thanks to David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, our …

‘The Not Returning Part of It’

Maxim Gorky wrote of Chekhov that “in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.” The persona that emerges from Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, Allen Shawn’s book about his life as a phobic, produces a …

Good Pictures

On January 7, 1971, Diane Arbus conducted interviews with prospective students of a photography master class she would teach that winter—the last winter of her life—and wrote about the interviewees thus: …one after another would parade into this empty room like as if I was a burlesque producer or a …

Edward Weston’s Women

In 1975 I wrote a review of a retrospective of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art for The New York Times. I was allowed an illustration, but the one I chose—the well-known pear-shaped nude, a starkly abstract study of a woman’s bottom—was considered too racy by the …

Nudes Without Desire

In the mid-Sixties, a most entertaining solution to a biographical mystery was offered by Mary Lutyens. The mystery concerned the six-year-long unconsummated marriage of John Ruskin and Effie Gray, which was annulled in 1854, after Effie revealed to her father that Ruskin had still not “[made] me his Wife.” “He …

Justice to J.D. Salinger

When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924″—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical …

The Genius of the Glass House

In a short essay in the voluminous catalog that accompanies the exhibition “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women,” Phyllis Rose notes that “Cameron’s women do not smile. Their poses embody sorrow, resignation, composure, solemnity, and love, determined love, love which will have a hard time of it.” Rose goes on to write …

It Happened in Milwaukee

Halfway through this remarkable and peculiar book, the feminist academic Jane Gallop tells a story about two dazzlingly brilliant professors who were on her dissertation committee when she was in graduate school in the mid-Seventies, and whom “I did my utmost to seduce.” The men were reluctant at first: “Both …

The Real Thing

“The Real Thing,” one of Henry James’s most delicate exercises in irony, is the story of a young artist’s encounter with an odd couple—a well-dressed, middle-aged, rather vacuous pair named the Monarchs, who come to his studio one day and offer themselves as professional models. He is taken aback—he had …

Aristocrats

The cover of the book of photographs that gave Diane Arbus her posthumous fame in 1972, a year after her suicide, shows two little girls wearing identical dark corduroy dresses with white collars and cuffs, white patterned stockings, and white headbands, who are themselves identical twins. They stand side by …

The Family of Mann

The audacity and authority of Sally Mann’s work are perhaps nowhere so immediately manifest as on the cover of her first collection of photographs, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988). The cover picture is a sort of double portrait: a girl stands in front of a clapboard house next …

A Matter of Life and Death

Early in this chilling novel about a Jewish boy named Maciek and his aunt Tania, who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, the question of the child’s circumcised penis is raised. As the narrator dryly points out, Jewish women could represent themselves as Aryans easily …