Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Overrated "Classic"

In Norman Geras' ongoing "Writer's choice" series, Helen Garner writes about The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm.

I read Malcolm's book about a year ago, and detested it. I had recently finished Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss' bestselling account of a murder trial. Malcolm's book concerns another trial -- between McGinniss and the subject of Fatal Vision, Jeffrey MacDonald, who thought McGinniss was his friend until the book came out (in it, McGinniss suggests MacDonald gruesomely killed his wife and children). Malcolm's book, widely hailed as a classic, is ostensibly a look at the complicated relationship between journalists and their subjects. But told in a voice maddeningly self-righteous, it's actually a thin, unconvincing meditation on the whole affair.

You can think McGinniss' actions were shady, and that his book is sometimes salacious (but it's also compulsively readable; it's 700+ pages and I finished it in about a week), but there were jurors who agreed with McGinniss, and not because they had read his book. Reading Malcolm, you wouldn't know that. In her effort, she seems to use McGinniss' questionable behavior to rehabilitate MacDonald's image, and like a few other readers, I was basically repulsed.



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