I was underwhelmed by Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; it wasn’t as profound as I hoped or as engaging. It was fine, just not great. But I was taken with her discussion of the problem for the journalist / nonfiction novelist – or, I would add, perhaps biographer – of needing to select a subject who is ‘a ready made literary figure’. She argues that journalist McGinniss chose a subject in murderer Jeffrey MacDonald who just wasn’t interesting enough:

… a murderer shouldn’t sound like an accountant. But in fact – as every journalist will confirm – MacDonald’s uninterestingness is not unusual at all… [W]hile the novelist, when casting about for a hero or a heroine, has all of human nature to choose from, the journalist must limit his protagonists to a small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulizing nature, who have already done the work on themselves that the novelist does on his imaginary characters – who in short, present themselves as ready-made literary figures.

What McGinniss should have done is ‘recognized MacDonald’s ordinariness, abandoned the project of writing about him, and once again taken up the search for the larger-than-life subject that is as crucial to a journalist’s work as the quest for a rare image is crucial to the photographer’s art.’ (pp 70-72)

She’s at least a little bit right. Contemplating my first biography, I was taken with a dangerous and deluded idea that you should be able to write a biography about anyone, that everyone’s life was interesting enough to sustain a book in the right hands. It was probably reading the life of Matilda Jean Franc, Australia’s greatest temperance novelist, and contemplating writing the life of J.S. Battye, state librarian and ardent Freemason, that cured me of my notion. I fell on my feet, I chose a subject who was interesting enough, had left enough archives, and in need of a new biography. It could have gone very badly. I chose KSP in a hurry, really, but this time around I am taking too long and vacillating.