Conflicting Fabrications

Joe Mithcell
Joe Mitchell

Way back at the beginning of the month I set out to write about an A.O. Scott article. As noted in “Tech Hell” Scott seemed to glom two pieces together. One addressed veracity in the movies while the other explored Janet Malcolm’s “The Master Writer of the City” in The New York Review of Books

I gave up on a critique of Scott in favor of an examination of “Master.” That article purported to be a review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, though it is more a critique of the man than of the book. Mitchell had at various times elided or “conflated” — to use an au courant term — dialogue, characters, and situations. In some cases he just wrote fiction. I prepared to wax outraged over Mitchell until I arrived at the end of the review and encountered the following:

… after “Joe Gould’s Secret” Mitchell published nothing in The New Yorker, though he came to the office regularly, and colleagues passing his door could hear him typing. I was a colleague and friend, …

That set me off. With all the talented writers in this country, especially in New York, couldn’t Review of Books find someone who wasn’t a colleague and friend of the subject to review the biography?

As I was putting together my diatribe, NYTimes Public Editor Margaret Sullivan published “For Reviewers, How Close Is Too Close?” The Times’ readers have been objecting to a reviewer who appears in an article by the book’s author, to a failed analysand reviewing a book about psychiatry, to a review by a friend of the author, to a review failing to disclose that the reviewer considered the author “a father figure,” and on and on. The Book Review editor claimed that it was difficult to find writers with enough knowledge of the subject who were not tied to the author, publishing house, etc. I say that problem, presuming it is real, demonstrates the insular, incestuous, and parochial state of books. So sad.

Ms. Sullivan concludes with the question that overrides all her work and that should be top of mind for everyone. “How is the reader best served?” She answers the cases raised in the Times. Apply it to the case of Janet Malcolm. The answer is “not at all.” I remain suspicious.

P.S. Just so you think Ms. Malcolm is sympathetic other writers of nonfiction, consider this:

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.

To which I say, maybe not yet. Mark Twain and any number of other reporters turned fiction writers would disagree.

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