Imagine a writer working on a complicated profile for a magazine, a story about a man with radical, unsettling ideas. If his theories prove to be correct, this man could dramatically change the entire field of psychoanalysis. The writer speaks with him dozens of times, usually using her tape recorder and always taking copious notes. She is determined to understand not only whether his ideas have merit but also if the man himself is trustworthy.
When she pulls together her research and sits down to write, the writer decides to combine parts from many of the interviews she’s conducted into one, presenting them as a single, extended conversation that occurred at her first meeting with the subject. This technique, known as compression, allows writers to manage chronology and control the pace of their narratives.
Unfortunately, when the article appears, the man in the profile doesn’t like what he reads. In fact, he sues both the writer and the magazine for libel. And much of what he finds objectionable is in the writer’s depiction of that first meeting (which wasn’t actually one meeting at all).
As you have probably realized, this is a true story. The writer in question, Janet Malcolm, was sued for a hefty sum—$7.5 million, according to The New York Times—by Jeffrey Masson, a Sanskrit scholar and psychoanalyst who was also, for a brief time, the curator of the Freud Archives. Malcolm’s initial meeting with Masson occurred at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. In the first installment of her subsequent two-part article for The New Yorker, Malcolm used the restaurant as her primary setting for the entire piece, including for conversations that did not in fact take place there. In a long monologue by Masson that continued for several pages, Malcolm allowed him to reveal his foibles: He seemed at once rash, narcissistic and voluble.
Masson objected to Malcolm’s depiction of him, initially alleging that she had falsified quotes. In fact, Malcolm was generally able to substantiate, with either tape recordings or notes, that she was quoting Masson accurately, although she could not corroborate several of Masson’s most damning statements, made during an interview conducted in the kitchen of her New York apartment—not at Chez Panisse—because her tape recorder had been on the blink, her notebook later lost.
The litigation that ensued lasted for 10 years and involved two separate trials (the first trial resulted in a hung jury). As the case continued, Masson’s attorneys changed tack and went after Malcolm on five particular quotations that she could not substantiate. Although she was not sued for her use of compression per se, Malcolm did acknowledge that she combined a large number of interviews into one, and Masson's attorneys attempted to use this fact to undermine her credibility. As a result, when compression was brought up while she was on the stand during the second trial, Malcolm was forced to defend the technique. She testified that Masson’s pages-long monologue at Chez Panisse was necessary, explaining that his “speaking style is an essential part of his character.” The jury in the second trial found in her favor, and Janet Malcolm was finally cleared. But her experience shows that although compression may often be a sound choice artistically, it is also rife with danger.
Other celebrated writers have come under fire for using this technique. Take the case of Vivian Gornick. In the summer of 2003, during Goucher College’s low-residency MFA program, Gornick admitted that her memoir Fierce Attachments had included a fictitious walk with her mother, an amalgam of many similar walks. (In the aftermath of the ensuing debate, Gornick reframed the controversy by describing her use of the scene as an example of compression.) Gornick’s case is, in many respects, quite different from Malcolm’s: Memoir presents its own challenges and, to some extent, demands its own set of rules. In the absence of transcripts from interviews, memoirists must recreate scenes and conversations to the best of their abilities. But even when they have transcripts, writers can’t just cut and paste from them into stories: Literary journalists such as Malcolm often edit out the repetitions, unfinished sentences and digressions that mar ordinary speech, using a form of compression to present a subject as thoughtful and coherent.
Ironically, Malcolm testified that this concern had motivated her treatment of Masson, stating “I needed to present [his monologue] in a logical, rational order so he would sound like a logical, rational person.” Malcolm’s defense goes straight to the heart of the ethical problems raised by this technique. Obviously, all writers omit ums and carefully use punctuation to clarify a speaker’s meaning. But what should a writer do when an exact adherence to chronology will leave the reader bewildered or when a literal rendering will fail to reveal the hidden meaning behind the bare facts? Where does one draw the line? And had Janet Malcolm crossed it? Martin Garbus, a libel lawyer in New York, praised the verdict in an interview with The New York Times but added these cautionary words: “What is common is taking large quotes, squishing them and moving them around. What is not common is being as loose as she was. Journalists now know that if you do this, you do it at some risk.”