Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘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.

 

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Smashwords, William Weintraub

‘Why Rock the Boat’ by William Weintraub

Fiction – Kindle edition; Smashwords; 160 pages; 2011.

The first law of journalism is that something must always be found to fill the space between the advertisements.

I love a good journalism novel and this one, by Canadian writer William Weintraub, fits right into that category. First published in 1961, Why Rock the Boat is about a rookie reporter, Harry Barnes, trying to make a name for himself on a Montreal newspaper that is in serious financial trouble.

Surviving redundancy

Harry hopes he can survive the constant rounds of lay-offs on the Montreal Daily Witness by making himself indispensable, but first he has to get off the general assignment beat (doing mundane jobs such as taking down the names of funeral attendees for publication) and onto the slightly more prestigious hotel beat (interviewing interesting guests).

He knows that if he keeps practising his writing during quiet moments in the office he will get better at his job. What he doesn’t realise is that he should never leave his joke stories lying around for they are bound to get published, whether by accident or design. And so that is how one of Harry’s practise stories makes it into print:

DRUNK SENTENCED
“This man was corned, loaded and pissed to the very gills,” Judge Elphege Boisvert said in Criminal Court yesterday as he sentenced Philip L. Butcher, local newspaper executive, to two years’ hard labour. Butcher, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, was arrested Tuesday in the lobby of the Imperial George Hotel, where he had climbed up the big Christmas tree and, with obscene cries, was throwing ornaments down on passing citizens.

Fortunately, Harry gets away with it, and an older reporter, whose career is on the slide, gets blamed — and sacked — for it instead. This sets into motion the pattern of the novel: a succession of blackly funny set pieces about Harry’s cheeky mishaps, all of which he somehow manages to get away with.

Feels contemporary

Why Rock the Boat is set in the 1940s, but there’s so much about it that feels relevant today — almost 80 years on.

It not only debunks the myth that newspapers were hugely profitable until the arrival of the internet and social media, it dismisses the idea that there was ever a “golden age” of journalism where ethics always trump the chase for profit.

And it shows how journalistic jobs have always been under threat, whether through lack of resource or a misunderstanding of what journalists actually do so that others feel they could do it better. For example, the following paragraph, about PR people taking over the world, feels deliciously spot-on today:

Public Relations, Erskine had told him in the car on the way up, was the coming thing. Reporters would eventually become relics of the past, with practically all stories “pre-written” by firms like Erskine-Gainsborough-Gotch and “tailored” to fit each paper’s needs. All of them, from the humblest Bellringers to the mightiest Rotary Club, would have their P.R. agencies to tell “their story” for them in a way that would create the best impression. Industry, labour, government, police forces, criminals, lawyers, churches – everybody would have their P.R. outlets to make sure the papers got things straight. Newspapers would just have a few editors to get the press releases ready for the printers. Eventually, Erskine said dreamily, the editors themselves might be eliminated and the press releases would go directly to the printers. What about reporters, Harry had asked. There would be no jobs for them. No, said Erskine, there would be plenty of work for them in the P.R. agencies, turning out the press releases.

Role of women

Perhaps the one element that makes the book seem slightly dated is the role of women in the media.

In this novel, Harry is bewitched by Julia Martin, a rival reporter on another title, who just happens to be female, something rare in the newspaper game. When he is put on the same beat as her, Harry’s superior, Scannell, offers the following advice:

“The whole subject of women in the newspaper business is extremely disagreeable,” Scannell was saying. “But we have to face up to it, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now this is – um – a little embarrassing,” Scannell said, lighting a cigarette and butting it out. “But women reporters can be fantastically competitive. There is no feminine wile they will not use to get a story. Weeping, of course, is standard procedure. Hence the term sob sister. But they have far more insidious methods. You know, of course, what I mean.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“It can be pretty sordid, my boy,” said Scannell. “But a female reporter may go to great lengths to get a male rival to share his exclusive story with her. She may even – uh, how shall I put this? – she may even offer him certain – uh – favours. Do you understand?”

As you may imagine, I highlighted a great deal of quotes from this book, because it’s so deliciously funny in places. No one is immune from Weintraub’s scathing commentary: readers (or “civilians” as he describes them) are dull and small-minded, advertisers are too easily offended, editors are bullies, newspaper managers are hypocritical and only interested in money, not a free press, and reporters are cynical and manipulative.

There’s some terrific characters in it, including Philip Butcher, whose role on the paper is two-fold: to keep news out of it and to fire reporters whenever he feels like it, and Scannell, the City Editor, an anxious man who “showed an un-Witnesslike interest in the actual content of the paper”.

While the romantic element of the story is a little clichéd — young male virgin tries to impress beautiful colleague by doing and saying things that aren’t exactly true — in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. This is a fun story with plenty of belly laughs and it makes a worthy addition to my collection of novels about journalists and old-time journalism.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one in January 2012 after I’d seen a review by the late KevinfromCanada. We both shared a love of newspaper novels, so as soon as I saw this one on Kevin’s blog I knew I had to buy it! 

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Green Light Press, literary fiction, Nathanael West, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Green Light Press; 108 pages; 2011.

I’m quite a sucker for books written or set during the Great Depression. Nathanael West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, fits into this category, but I’m afraid it didn’t really tickle my fancy.

This dark and comic tale about an agony aunt on a Manhattan newspaper is described in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as an “interesting examination of the problematic role of Christianity in the modern world”. But for me it serves as a warning to be careful of what you wish for.

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the title is actually a young, fervently religious man eager to be a success. He eagerly takes the newly created newspaper job answering people’s personal problems even though many of  his colleagues regard it as a joke. He takes a more pragmatic, long term approach, seeing it as a mere stepping stone to something more desirable at a later date. Perhaps it might even win him Brownie points with God.

His column would be syndicated and the whole world would learn to love. The Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. He would sit on the right hand of the Lamb.

But over time he comes to realise that the job is not a joke; that he has an important role to play in the moral and spiritual welfare of those who write in to him seeking advice.

He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
If this makes the novella seem horribly righteous, let me assure you that it is not. It’s profoundly dark in places, littered with references, many of them euphemistic, to sex and sexual practices, and there’s a menacing undercurrent of misogyny running throughout (I was shocked by several references to women in “need of a good rape”).

Miss Lonelyhearts is not the angelic young man he strives to be. Desperate to be seen as a man of honour, he asks his long suffering girlfriend to marry him, only to keep avoiding her for weeks on end. He also develops unwise attachments to troubled readers but doesn’t seem to be able to extricate himself from complicated, unethical relationships. Indeed, he’s everything you would not want an agony aunt to be.

Some people might find humour in these situations, but to be honest, this kind of comedy is generally lost on me. The saving grace is that Miss Lonelyhearts is short and takes just a matter of hours to read; I might have begrudged a longer book for wasting my time.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it on 9 February 2012, but not sure what provoked me to do so. Maybe it was the price (77p!), the idea it was about someone working on a newspaper and therefore might fall into my “newspaper novel” category, or the fact it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I use for inspiration when I’m not sure what to read next.

Australia, AWW2016, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Sonya Voumard, Transit Lounge, true crime

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

Non-fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this month (9 April) marked my 20th anniversary working in journalism, while earlier this week (29 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman and it had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

I remember the event clearly, because I had only started my first proper job as a reporter a few weeks earlier. While we didn’t actually cover the shootings in our pages (it was a rural newspaper in Victoria more focused on local events), we had the radio on in the newsroom listening to updates on the Monday. It was all rather strange and terrifying, because after Bryant killed all those people on the Sunday he held some others hostage in a local B&B for a day, before setting the property and himself on fire. (He was later found guilty and given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.) Now, all these years later, any mention of the Port Arthur massacre immediately transports me back to that time with a kind of shuddering dread.

The relationship between journalists and their subjects

Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre, recently published in Australia by Transit Lounge, looks at that tragic event and explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It draws inspiration from one of my all-time favourite reads, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and it’s also clearly influenced by Helen Garner’s true crime reportage (specifically This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial and Joe Cinque’s Consolation).

But its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, which tried to examine what made the killer carry out such a horrendous crime. In the process of writing their book, the two respected broadsheet journalists found themselves embroiled in an ethical — and legal — minefield when Carleen Bryant, Martin’s mother, withdrew her support for the project. She later sued them over the use of her personal manuscript and accused them of exploitation.

As any journalist will tell you, there are always two sides to every story, and Voumard, who is a respected journalist and academic herself, tries to flesh these out — with mixed results. For as much as I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir, part ethical investigation, I felt that it was designed with one aim in mind: to discredit Wainwright’s and Totaro’s work. Funnily enough, Wainwright and Totaro did not want to take part in Voumard’s project, directing her to the public record instead, a decision that proved challenging, as the author points out in Chapter 15:

Any suggestion that a writer should abandon a project because one or more of the key individuals declines to be interviewed would, I believe, be defeatist and contrary to the journalistic function of shining a light where some would prefer it not to be shone. […] When interview subjects decline to participate, you look and dig deeper elsewhere in the knowledge that no story begins with an exact destination mapped out. You discover the vast and rich landscape of the public record. If you are dogged and fortunate you may uncover hitherto unseen material that sheds light on some of the sorts of answers you need.

Despite this setback, Voumard slowly builds her case by examining written records — emails, newspaper articles, public appearances and passages from Wainwright and Totaro’s book. But that is only part of the story, for The Media and the Massacre looks at the wider issues of “the writer’s treachery” by looking at how journalists operate, what their roles are in the broader scale of things and how the media handles complaints.

Easy-to-read prose style

The best bit about the book, which originally began life as a doctoral thesis, is how easy it is to read. Voumard has an effortless prose style and despite tackling some big subjects she puts things into context using simple jargon-free language, as you would expect from any good journalist.

Like Garner and Malcolm, she inserts herself into the story, taking the reader on a journey as she uncovers evidence or interviews subjects for the book. I tend to like this style because by showing the working practices of a journalist the reader comes to understand how news stories and feature articles, or, in this case, a book are put together. And you can see how journalists often bring their own prejudices and subjectivity to their work even though they operate under the guise of “objectivity” and “truth-telling”. But at times I felt Voumard was adding extraneous detail that wasn’t always needed simply to emulate a narrative non-fiction “style”.

Yet there’s no doubt that The Media and the Massacre is an important book in the canon of literature that examines the pitfalls of journalistic work and the ethics surrounding the relationship between reporters and their subjects. It raises important issues about the ways in which journalists communicate with their subjects, especially when working on books or longer form journalism and collaborative projects, in order to prevent fallout (of both the ethical and legal variety) at a later date. And it also highlights the ways in which journalistic behaviour has ramifications for the people who are interviewed in the aftermath of tragic events whether these be victims, first responders or eyewitnesses. It shows, as Voumard so eloquently writes at the outset, how journalists constantly tread a difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous, line:

At our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.

The Media and the Massacre is currently only available in Australia, where you can buy it direct from the publisher’s website.

This is my 24th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 18th for #AWW2016. 

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Jay Mcinerney, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

Bright-lights-big-city

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 240 pages; 1992.

What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be?  Yes, there’s a little bit of cocaine use in it, but this is a brilliant and memorable novel about one of my favourite subjects in fiction: journalism. And, like many books of that ilk, it’s essentially a black comedy — and one that felt very close to my heart.

Going off the rails

The story revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife Amanda, a beautiful (and now famous) model, but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, by night he’s out clubbing with his friend Tad and trying to “lose himself” in drugs and (possibly) sexual encounters of the one-night stand kind.

The entire narrative is told in the second person employing a voice that is by turns self-deprecating and pathetic. For most of the time, he knows he’s pushing his luck — he often turns up late for work, struggles to carry out his work properly and is constantly harangued by his boss, the impossible-to-please Clara, aka Clingfast — but he also feels slightly aggrieved that he’s been passed over for promotion and isn’t able to use the full range of his creative talents in the (lowly) Department of Factual Verification.

When he’s given an article to check about the French election close to deadline you know things aren’t going to pan out well:

There is no way you will be able to get everything in this article verified, and also there is no graceful way to admit failure. You are going to have to hope that the writer got some of it straight the first time, and that Clingfast doesn’t go through the proofs with her usual razor-tooth comb.

I think it’s this aspect of the book that especially appealed to me. I’ve done my fair share of fact-checking for magazines and it’s not always an easy task — even with the internet at my disposal. But this is the 1980s. There is no internet, no smartphones. Instead there are “thousands of reference books on the walls” , “skeins of microfilm” and “transcontinental telephone cables”. For our poor old narrator, who somehow exaggerated his ability to speak French on his resume, there are dozens of phone calls to make to Paris to verify certain facts. Needless to say he has to “fudge it” a little.

At a little after ten, you put the proofs on Clara’s desk. It would at least be a relief if you could tell yourself that this was your best shot. You feel like a student who is handing in a term paper that is part plagiarism, part nonsense and half finished. You have scoped out and fixed a number of colossal blunders, which serves only to make you more aware of the suspect nature of everything you haven’t verified. The writer was counting on the Verification Department to give authority to his sly observations and insidious generalisations. This is not cricket on his part, but it is your job that is on the line. There has only been one printed retraction in the magazine’s history and the verificationist responsible for the error was immediately farmed out to Advertising.

It is, of course, all down hill from there…

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Heartbreaking reasons for a life falling apart at the seams

Most of the lightning-paced narrative comprises a series of set pieces, most of which are very funny indeed, but the story is not all humour and lightness. Underpinning our narrator lurching from one crisis to the next are deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships.

As much as it would appear that our narrator goes off the rails because his beautiful, social-climbing wife ran off with someone else (a metaphor for shallowness if ever there was one), there’s more going on than one might initially expect. As the story wends its way towards what looks like an inevitable conclusion we discover just why his life is crumbling all around him — and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, this is a book set in New York in the 1980s, but forget any reviews you might have seen which paint Bright Lights, Big City as a portrait of excess or rich people doing bad things. This is a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. There are a lot of painful realisations in Bright Lights, Big City, all rounded out by a redemptive, satisfying ending. I’ve read a lot of great novels this year, but this one has to be up there with the best.