Someone left last week’s New Yorker in the coffeeshop where I’m working right now, or rather “working” because what I’m actually doing is pausing to read the profile of Eileen Fisher by America’s greatest living essayist, Janet Malcolm.
Malcolm arrives in an Eileen Fisher sweater:
The sweater is a remarkable garment. On the hanger it looks like nothing — it is buttonless and ribbed and boxy — but when worn it becomes almost uncannily flattering. Everyone who wears it looks good in it. Eileen then said something surprising, namely that she had not designed my sweater. Twenty years earlier, she had stopped designing; she had turned this work over to a design team that has been doing it ever since, at first under her supervision and now under that of a lead designer.
Like a tiny short story — Malcolm has brought Fisher a gift, the gift of wearing the sweater she designs, and Fisher, casually and without much thought — “like nothing” — dismisses it. Malcolm’s disappointment colors the paragraph and retroactively makes poignant her extravagant praise of what is, after all, just a sweater.
This is what the New Journalism — I mean the old New Journalism, not tweetable listicles — was supposed to be about. Moments where the journalist’s hand is visible: in the picture, but not obscuring the subject. Rather, harmonizing with it, in a way that, if you are not Janet Malcolm, is very hard to bring off.