Janet Malcolm, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, is perhaps best known for her much-contested judgment on the unavoidable duplicity of journalists. Describing how the nonfiction author Joe McGinniss befriended and then betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two young children, Malcolm declared: “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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness.” Malcolm argued that this provocation was not a condemnation of journalism, but a goad for its practitioners to “feel some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship.”
As those sentences make clear, Malcolm is rarely less than a fierce presence on the page, a relentless interrogator (or is it prosecutor?) of the people and subjects she writes about so well. Her new collection of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, is eclectic: it includes long profiles, reportage, analysis, and book reviews. Among those profiled is Eileen Fisher, the founder of the popular and expensive women’s clothing line. The title of Malcolm’s book is provided by the stern advice concerning pride that Fisher received from her Catholic mother growing up. It was a lesson in humility that fundamentally shaped Fisher’s diffident personality and self-effacing management style. In the essay “Performance Artist,” Malcolm spends a good deal of time with a very different but equally celebrated woman, the brilliant young pianist Yuja Wang. Wang’s flamboyant, short and skintight outfits, “accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels,” have helped to make her a sensation on the classical-concert circuit. The pianist comes across as playful, even endearingly innocent, as well as confident and professionally ambitious. In short, someone determined to have people look at her. The story of Manhattan’s Argosy Bookshop, a family business now run by the three elderly daughters of the shop’s founder, Louis Cohen, is another study of personality and craft. The sisters’ father had miraculously managed to hold on to the store, which sells old and antique books as well as maps and prints, while other small businesses around him fell victim to skyrocketing Manhattan real-estate prices. Anyone who loves books and bookstores will be captivated by Malcolm’s description of the sights, sounds, smells, and charms of the Argosy. “The work of the bookshop is indeed agreeable work,” she writes. “You could even say that it isn’t real work. It has none of the monotony and difficulty and anxiety of work. The cartons of books are like boxes of chocolates. Each book a treat to be savored.”
There are a few less successful pieces in this otherwise strong collection. Malcolm’s usually winning enthusiasm for the idiosyncratic and esoteric doesn’t quite come off in her profile of George Jellinek, the host of The Vocal Scene, a classical music program that ran for many years on New York’s classical-music radio station, WQXR. Jellinek, a Hungarian refugee whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, led an extraordinary life: fleeing Europe, landing in Cuba, fighting against the Germans with the U.S. Army, and waiting tables in the Catskills before ending up in radio programming. Malcolm herself comes from a Czech refugee family, and she is particularly engaged when writing about New York’s Central European immigrant community. Her parents made a point of mastering English. “The pride that my father and his fellow émigrés took in their ability to stroll through the language as if it were a field of wildflowers from which they could gather choice specimens—of stale standard expressions and faded slang—is touchingly evoked in Jellinek’s radio commentaries,” Malcolm notes.
Malcolm herself is quite at home in that field of wildflowers, and she’s a ruthless pruner of stale and faded language. But she doesn’t communicate the pleasure she derived from Jellinek’s radio program nearly as well as she conveys the enchantment of the Argosy Bookshop, though it’s possible readers with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of classical music may find Jellinek a more engaging personality than I did.