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'Memory Is Not a Journalist's Tool': Janet Malcolm on Autobiography

Filed under: Little Words   Tagged: , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

At the NYRBlog, Janet Malcolm with four packed paragraphs of "Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography":

When one's work has been all but done—as mine has been for over a quarter of a century—by one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another, it isn't easy to suddenly find oneself alone in the room...
The "I" of journalism is a kind of ultra-reliable narrator and impossibly rational and disinterested person, whose relationship to the subject more often than not resembles the relationship of a judge pronouncing sentence on a guilty defendent. This "I" is unsuited to autobiography. Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. The observing "I" of autobiography tells the story of the observed "I" not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might.


Thanks for the tip, Jonathan. On reading your post, I hightailed it over to the NYRBlog to see what Malcom had written. Her piece is interesting, but she’s not really saying anything she hasn’t said before. For example, she has written about the “mind-set of specialness on which all depends in the autobiographical enterprise” in her essay, “Schneebaum’s Confessions.” And with regard to the all-important role of memory in autobiography, she has written (shockingly), in her essay, “School of the Blind,” that “The retrieval of childhood experience is one of the most mysteriously unpropitious of human endeavors; memory is the most feckless and epistemologically useless of our psychic faculties.” Still, anything written by Janet Malcolm is significant, even a fragment like “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.”

Thanks very much, dc! Readers who haven’t before should high-tail it to the pieces you cite.

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