Janet Malcolm's Objective

Eve Sneider

Nobody’s Looking at You, Janet Malcolm, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019, 304 Pages, $27.00

In a 2013 profile, clothing designer Eileen Fisher tells writer Janet Malcolm that she was raised to detract attention from herself, to strive towards invisibility. Fisher, who grew up Catholic, produces sleek, simple clothes for women of a certain age—garments that draw attention only from those who know to look. Even in adulthood, she abides by her mother’s guiding mantra: “Nobody’s looking at you.” In the eyes of some, the same refrain governs good journalism. The phrase supplies the title—and in some ways the ethos—of a new collection of Malcolm’s work.

Contrast that quotation with the book’s cover art: a photograph of Yuja Wang, the young and prodigious concert pianist who “is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at,” as Malcolm writes in the book’s second essay. Unlike her peers’ voluminous concert gowns, Wang is known for appearing onstage in dresses so short and tight she seems hardly to be clothed at all. In the cover image, she wears a miniature tube dress—no sleeves, no train. Her arms are raised high above the piano keys, the contours of her body all too easy to make out. She looks like she might take flight.

It is only fitting that a photograph of Wang should appear alongside the words “Nobody’s looking at you” on the front cover, and that the two profiles should appear back-to-back at the beginning of the collection. Malcolm’s essays on Fisher and Wang are two in a career’s worth of explorations of what it is like to watch and be watched, to think you see someone and then to look again. This movement between invisibility and visibility is the central tension underpinning Malcolm’s work. Given their keen eye for appearances, the two women are perfect Malcolm subjects. 

Malcolm is a writer who has made a name for herself writing about other people. From psychoanalysts to murderers to artists, characters with strong personalities and strange professions populate her work. The only piece she has ever written exclusively about herself is a short essay called “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” It is easy to read her work and miss her. As the critic James Wood once tellingly put it, Malcolm moves about her subjects “like a janitor at an orgy.” 

And yet, if you look for Malcolm while you read her, you will find that she is always there. Her essay on Fisher, whose “nobody’s looking at you” attitude makes her a somewhat challenging subject, explores the process of pinning someone down in a profile. “Pandora’s Click,” a piece that appears later in the collection, uses the template of a review to work through writing, and aging, in the age of email. In one way or another, every piece Malcolm has written about other works or people is a vehicle for parsing some aspect of her own life. 

Nobody’s Looking at You, released earlier this year, brings together eighteen previously published essays from the last twenty-odd years of Malcolm’s career. The pairing of Wang with Fisher’s words on the front cover illustrates Malcolm’s trademark position within her writing. The writer is never the subject, but she is always on view, exposed in some way by her work. Without fail, you can spot her right along the periphery, just at the edge of the reader’s line of sight. The essays that make up Nobody’s Looking at You are no exception. Divided into three parts—profiles, political commentary, and literary criticism—the book is a tasting menu of Malcolm’s work. All but one of the pieces were originally published in either the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, her two journalistic home bases.

However, just because Nobody’s Looking at You could read as a Malcolm overview does not mean the collection coheres. While many of the individual essays shine, the book as a whole falls short of capturing the full effect of Malcolm’s writing. It is difficult to know what to take away from the work. Promotional materials marketed it as “wonderfully eclectic,” which seems a generous way of saying as much. For readers looking for a path through the collection, I suggest you seek out the woman behind the words. Malcolm’s work is always at its best when you go looking for the writer who has hidden in plain sight.

In her sixty-plus year career, Malcolm has forged an original style of writing that plays with the writer’s subjective position instead of aiming at any kind of objective standard. The Journalist and the Murderer, arguably her best-known work, is a quintessential example. The article-turned-book tells the story of Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald. The former was a journalist, the latter a convicted murderer and one of McGinniss’s subjects. At the time of its publication, Malcolm was embroiled in what would be a decade-long legal battle with a former subject of her own; the issues she was probing via reporting were personal. It famously begins: “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.” Here and elsewhere, Malcolm inverts the work of writing, puzzling through the strange and subjective posture of the journalist from within the writing itself rather than ignoring her own presence in the work. 

The effect of all this is confusing, maddening, and magical. Malcolm writes herself into her prose to work through what it means to write. She is fascinated and troubled by the ways that being a person in the world requires putting together—and sometimes, making up—stories about others. The stridence and assertiveness of her written voice is an attempt not to veil the writer’s fallibility but to highlight it. 

Malcolm is not asking us to trust her. Rather, she is asking us to question everyone: journalists—sculptors of narrative and purveyors of so-called “nonfiction”—in addition to the characters that inhabit their stories. Situating herself along the edges of her work gives her the space to tell two stories simultaneously: the story she is writing, and the story of the writing itself.

In her own life, Malcolm has long been someone who hovers along the periphery, despite her prolific career. In the public eye, she is both famously controversial—for her keen criticism, for being sued by a subject for libel—and notoriously private. Gary Bostwick, a lawyer featured in The Journalist and the Murderer who later represented Malcolm in a lawsuit once said of her, “She doesn’t have great presence. She has great absence.” 

It’s a position that makes sense when you consider that Malcolm has been on the margins as long as she has been alive. Born Jana Wienerova in 1934 to Czech Jews, Malcolm and her family fled to New York City in 1939, just in time to escape Nazi persecution. Fearing anti-Semitism, her parents changed their name to Winn and sent their daughters to Lutheran Sunday school. The story resembles that of a minor character named George in “Three Sisters,” who asked his émigré parents about religion for the first time as an adult and only then discovered they were both Jewish. No doubt, this anecdote stood out to Malcolm during her reporting. As little girls, she and her sister learned of their heritage when they came home from Sunday school spouting anti-Semitic slurs and their parents had to tell them who they were.

Selfhood continued to be a source of internal strife through early adulthood, not least because Malcolm came of age at a time when women’s autonomy was under question. After high school, she moved west to attend the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree in English and became an editor for the campus humor magazine. During her junior year, she married Donald Malcolm, a fellow editor. It was a time when women were expected to trail their husbands. Malcolm followed in the footsteps of hers, joining the staff at the New Republic and later the New Yorker, where he was also a writer.

Still, it would be a while before her career in journalism really took off. Malcolm did not publish her first work of true reported writing until 1978, when she was already 44 years old. By this time, new trends had cropped up in American nonfiction. In particular, writers of the self-anointed school of “New Journalism” were playing with ways to make nonfiction more entertaining using techniques borrowed from fiction. Often, these literary journalists would insert themselves into a story to tell it from the inside. The reportage of Capote, Wolfe, or Didion often hinged on the writer’s immersion into the world being documented.

For Malcolm—a woman, an immigrant, a Jew, and a late bloomer—writing reported nonfiction came from someplace less settled and more urgent. The boundaries of the self feel different when you have always been on the fringe. Rather than immerse herself into a scene for the purposes of reporting and writing it, Malcolm began using her marginal position to unmoor her readers from the shores of easy interpretation and delve deeper into the questionable ethics of writing nonfiction.

As such, the foundational works of the Malcolm canon are largely those where she engages most explicitly with writers and writing. It follows that the most successful essays in Nobody’s Looking at You play with many of the same ideas. In the pieces that stray from this territory, Malcolm foregrounds her subjects and allows that second story—the story of reporting, of bumping up against perspective, of meaning-making—to take the back seat. This is especially true of the second section of the collection, whose unifying theme is politics, broadly defined. Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and Jon Stewart make for interesting characters, certainly, but all are made duller in the seeming absence of our reliably unreliable narrator. These pieces are easier and more comfortable, and thereby far less interesting to read.

By contrast, the chapters of Nobody’s Looking at You that dive headfirst into matters of the writing life are an elevated read. One striking example is “The Storyteller,” Malcolm’s 2017 profile of Rachel Maddow, known for cultivating a televised persona who hooks viewers by indulging asides. In the article, Malcolm becomes fixated on a distant relative, Ben Maddow, to whom the news anchor has little, if any, connection. Rather than edit out her obsession or move past it, Malcolm uses it as a vehicle for commenting on Maddow’s narrative style and, by transit, her own. “Why am I telling you this?” Malcolm asks, discussing Ben:

“When I told Rachel of my fascination with Ben Maddow and of my feeling that by inserting him into a piece that was supposed to be about her I was imitating her forays into left field, she nodded in agreement. ‘It’s our form of exhibitionism,’ she said. ‘Here’s what I’m interested in. Here’s what grabs me.’”

All of this is an exercise in figuring out how a person may tell a story. We are meant to understand that Malcolm writes about Maddow to write about herself. What’s more, Malcolm makes clear her own ethical qualms with this situation. It is as inevitable as it is wrong that she should have a role in Maddow’s story.

Throughout her career, especially in moments when she has come under fire, Malcolm has rationalized her use of the subjective position by claiming that her written “I” is a character. She once told an interviewer she has as much in common with her “I” as Clark Kent does with Superman. It’s a stance she echoed in “I Should Have Made Him for a Dentist,” the piece that concludes her new collection. “We know that Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov are not the same person,” she writes. But “[when] author and narrator share a name, we are only too prone to forget that the latter is a literary construct.”

“I Should Have Made Him for a Dentist” is nominally a review of Making It, the autobiography of political commentator and leftist-turned-neocon Norman Podhoretz, on the occasion of its 2018 reissue. But, as with all of Malcolm’s best writing, there’s a second story being told at the same time, one in which the writer shows her hand. Here, Malcolm is concerned with how, if ever, an autobiography can be cleaved from the writer’s life. Throughout the essay, she sticks to the party line that “Norman,” as she calls the book’s narrator, is distinct from Podhoretz. One can easily be understood without the other.

But in the final lines of the article (and thus the collection) Malcolm flips that idea on its head. She claims that while reviewing Podhoretz’s book she attempted to abide by “the New Critical ideal of textual fidelity: don’t muddy the waters with the stuff surrounding the text.” There was something missing. Ultimately, she tells us now, she realized that to do so would be to read the work less fully and less well. “In the case of Making It,” she writes, “the mud clinging to the tale… may be crucial.” We should be suspicious, Malcolm suggests, of writers and stories that come away too clean. The mud caked to their edges is the point.

Eve Sneider is a recent graduate of Yale College. An exhibit she curated of materials from Janet Maclolm’s archive is on view in Sterling Memorial LIbrary through October 6.