Janet Malcolm and the Eileen Fisher sweater

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.

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3 thoughts on “Janet Malcolm and the Eileen Fisher sweater

  1. JSE says:

    And the way she presents the language of corporate governance as a kind of compulsive echolalia — a linguistic condition towards which one is to be sympathetic rather than contemptuous… amazing! Janet Malcolm is my hero.

  2. Ecshowalter says:

    I think this terrific essay is a result of the New Yorker’s effort to increase the number of women contributors and topics of interest to women, following the well- publicized VIDA surveys of gender imbalance in magazines & book reviews. I have noticed a real change and some of the best ever NYer writing. Also made me haul out my black Eileen Fisher dresses. I bought the best coat of my life there too. But Fisher herself is a remarkabe character, esp since she strikes Malcolm as an uncalculating and authentic personality.

  3. I too think Malcolm is an excellent writer, but (a) I’m not happy that she gets off the hook for faking quotes, and (b) I’m really really not happy with her apparent attempt to try to force a mistrial for a convicted killer.

    I just can’t get over that, for some reason. I can appreciate Picasso’s genius even though he beat his wives or whatever it was he did, I can enjoy the music of Jackson Browne, etc. But for some reason this Malcolm stuff sticks in my craw.

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