The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm (1990)

On the most immediate level, this is an account of a strange lawsuit brought by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against writer Joe McGinnis, who had written a book about MacDonald’s murder trial. On the next level, this is a rich and complex analysis of the strange relationship, at once adversarial and symbiotic, between journalist and subject. On the next, it’s an exercise in self-analysis, as Malcolm, working on her own story about McGinnis’s story about MacDonald’s story, begins to interrogate her own motives, assumptions, and methods as a journalist seeking both to adhere to the factual truth and point to a larger truth. On the next, it’s a bizarre mise en abyme, since, as we learn in the “Afterword,” Malcolm herself was sued for libel by the subject of an earlier book of her own. The sum effect, then, is total moral and epistemological disorientation for the reader: We never know whether we should read Malcolm as objective and analytical or as subjective and manipulative. But we get the point, which is that she, and all journalists, are (can only be) both. Terrific and provocative book for anyone interested in the ways in which the imagination and reality and the personal and the public collide in any writing which purports to be “nonfiction.”