‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

4 thoughts on “‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

    • The Journalist & The Murderer is excellent. In my early 20s I had read the memoir / seen the mini series that is the subject of the court case in Malcolm’s book so it resonated pretty strongly. Plus, as a trained journo it brought home a lot of home truths.

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  1. If I’m researching a subject then I’ll happily read essays about it, but essays just for the sake of them have never interested me. So I guess I’m saying the topic comes first, not the writing – which often in newspaper and magazine essays seems to be a form of showing off.

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    • Well, they’re not what I would call strict essays — they have the trademark journalistic flair of excellent feature writing so are easy, enjoyable and entertaining to read. Where I struggled was her pieces for the New York Review of Books because they were about people/books I had no interest in and she never seemed able to bring them to life for me. It’s why I only ever took out a 6 month subscription to the Times Literary Supplement: the pieces in that were full of self importance and the writing style didn’t appeal.

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