Author-journalist Malcolm dies at 86

Janet Malcolm's breakthrough came when she wrote a piece on children's books for The New Yorker.
Janet Malcolm's breakthrough came when she wrote a piece on children's books for The New Yorker.

Janet Malcolm, the inquisitive and boldly subjective author and reporter known for her challenging critiques of everything from murder cases and art to journalism itself, has died at the age of 86.

Malcolm died of lung cancer on Wednesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital, according to her daughter Anne Malcolm.

A long-time New Yorker staff writer and the author of several books, the Prague native practised a kind of post-modern style in which she often called attention to her own role in the narrative, questioning whether even the most conscientious observer could be trusted.

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible" was how she began The Journalist and the Murderer.

The 1990 book assailed Joe McGinniss' true crime classic Fatal Vision as a prime case of the author tricking his subject, convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald.

Reviewing a 2013 anthology of her work, Forty-One False Starts, for The New York Times, Adam Kirsch praised Malcolm for "a powerfully distinctive and very entertaining literary experience".

"Most of the pieces in the book find Malcolm observing artists and writers either present (David Salle, Thomas Struth) or past (Julia Margaret Cameron, Edith Wharton)," Kirsch wrote.

"But what the reader remembers is Janet Malcolm: her cool intelligence, her psychoanalytic knack for noticing and her talent for withdrawing in order to let her subjects hang themselves with their own words."

Malcolm's words - and those she attributed to others - brought her esteem, scorn and prolonged litigation.

In 1983, she reported on a former director of the London-based Sigmund Freud Archives, psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.

She contended that Masson had called himself an "intellectual gigolo," had vowed he would be known as "the greatest analyst who ever lived," and that he would turn Freud's old home into a "place of sex, women, fun".

Her reporting appeared in The New Yorker and was the basis for the 1984 book In the Freud Archives.

Masson, alleging that five quotations had been fabricated and ruined his reputation, sued for $US7 million ($A9.2 million).

The case lasted for years, with the US Supreme Court allowing it go to trial and Malcolm testifying, to much scepticism, that she could not find a notebook in which she wrote down some of his remarks.

In 1994, a federal court jury in San Francisco cleared her of libel, even though it decided she made up two quotations.

The jury concluded that the quotations were false and one potentially libellous but that Masson failed to prove she acted deliberately or recklessly.

A year later, to a new round of skepticism, Malcolm announced that she had found the missing notebook while playing with her granddaughter.

"I don't believe it," Masson said at the time.

"This is the adult version of 'The dog ate my homework.' Except in this case, the dog is regurgitating the notes after 12 years."

She was born Jana Wienerova in 1934 and emigrated with her family to the US five years later after the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia.

Her breakthrough came in 1966 when she wrote a piece on children's books for The New Yorker that so impressed editor William Shawn he eventually gave her a column - about furniture.

She soon expanded her subject matter and evolved in how she approached it.

Australian Associated Press