Moments of cruelty exposed

By Rhonda Dredge

Cruelty to animals will touch the nerve of most readers and Janet Malcolm uses it to great effect in her latest book of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, just released by CBD company Text Publishing.

In a profile of New York fashion designer Eileen Fisher, known for her simple yet elegant styling, Malcolm noticed that a pet cat was forced to live outside in the snow.

Malcolm used this chilling observation to challenge the designer. 

Biographers like to pick up telling details and use them to pierce the defences of their interview subjects whereas hacks will use clichés such as “woman of steel” to portray those who do not succumb to their jibes. 

Malcolm works as a staff journalist for the New Yorker and instead of jumping to any conclusions she returned to question the designer about her cat and gave her space to explain why she didn’t allow it inside.

Some readers find the New Yorker style too ponderous and descriptive. Conflict is often played down in the service of a longer yarn that takes time to unfold.

Malcolm began her writing life as a fashion columnist and this shows in her approach to style. She was married to a reviewer at the magazine then when he died she married the editor, so she could be called an insider but she never smacks of privilege.

The book includes profiles of New Yorkers, accounts of political events and more traditional essays on literary history. Most appeared in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books.

One essay on the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge looks at the rhetorical approaches of the questioners and Malcolm is able to show how cleverness can be a cover for lack of soul. 

The losers are those in court where the judge consistently favoured the big guys over the small.

Moments such as these in which potentially cruel practices are examined are the most memorable in this essay collection and even though they occurred in the political maelstrom of New York they are relevant here.

As a staff journalist for the New Yorker, Malcolm is the envy of many professionals in Australia. She has time to write her pieces, often returning again and again to talk to her subjects. 

CBD-based company Text Publishing is noted for the imports on its publication list and translations of international titles that might not otherwise make it into the country. 

Malcolm is well-known to those who read biography for her book on the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The Silent Woman was taught in universities here and it rewrote the rule book for biographers.

This collection of Malcolm’s shorter magazine pieces is just as reflective.

Malcolm is a considered writer. She takes care before rushing in to use the nominative case, preferring to load up her writing with detail that she picks up in a grounded, non-judgmental kind of way.

Her points are large but they appear to be small.

The tactics of the Republicans in the confirmation meant that the judge never had to account for the actual decisions he made in court.

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