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Forty-One False Starts : Essays on Artists and Writers
by Janet Malcolm

Overview -

A National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Criticism

A deeply Malcolmian volume on painters, photographers, writers, and critics.
Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives "and "The Journalist and the Murderer," as well as her books""about Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, are canonical in""the realm of nonfiction--as is the title essay of this""collection, with its forty-one "false starts," or serial attempts""to capture the essence of the painter David""Salle, which becomes a dazzling portrait of an artist.""Malcolm is "among the most intellectually provocative""of authors," writes David Lehman in "The Boston Globe," """able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions""of insight."
Here, in "Forty-one False Starts," Malcolm brings together essays published over the course of several decades (largely in "The New Yorker "and "The New York""Review of Books") that reflect her preoccupation with artists and their work.  Read more...


 
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More About Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcolm
 
 
 
Overview

A National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Criticism

A deeply Malcolmian volume on painters, photographers, writers, and critics.
Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives "and "The Journalist and the Murderer," as well as her books""about Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, are canonical in""the realm of nonfiction--as is the title essay of this""collection, with its forty-one "false starts," or serial attempts""to capture the essence of the painter David""Salle, which becomes a dazzling portrait of an artist.""Malcolm is "among the most intellectually provocative""of authors," writes David Lehman in "The Boston Globe," """able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions""of insight."
Here, in "Forty-one False Starts," Malcolm brings together essays published over the course of several decades (largely in "The New Yorker "and "The New York""Review of Books") that reflect her preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She explores Bloomsbury's obsessive desire to create things visual "and "literary; the "passionate collaborations" behind Edward Weston's nudes; and the character of the German art photographer Thomas Struth, who is "haunted by the Nazi past," yet whose photographs have "a lightness of spirit." In "The Woman Who Hated Women," Malcolm delves beneath the "onyx surface" of Edith Wharton's fiction, while in "Advanced Placement" she relishes the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels of Cecily von Zeigesar. In "Salinger's Cigarettes," Malcolm writes that "the pettiness, vulgarity, banality, and vanity that few of us are free of, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger's helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines." "Over and over," as Ian Frazier writes in his introduction, "she has demonstrated that nonfiction--a book of reporting, an article in a magazine, something we see every day--can rise to the highest level of literature."

One of "Publishers Weekly"'s Best Nonfiction Books of 2013

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780374157692
  • ISBN-10: 0374157693
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
  • Publish Date: May 2013
  • Page Count: 298


Related Categories

Books > Literary Collections > Essays
Books > Language Arts & Disciplines > Authorship

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-02-18
  • Reviewer: Staff

Bringing together a quarter-century's worth of subtle, sharply observed essays on artists and writers, this collection chronicles not just life events and artistic influences, but also the amorphous subjectivity of biography itself. The cleverly structured title essay presents Malcolm's "false starts" for a profile of postmodern painter David Salle: the "1950s corporate-style" sofa in his Tribeca loft, the mess of ripped-out magazine pages and illustrations on his studio table, the things critics say about him, what he says about himself. Its fragments mirror the appropriated pictorial scraps in Salle's work. In another highlight, "A Girl of the Zeitgeist," first published in 1986, Malcolm (In the Freud Archives) tracks the fresh but controversial direction Artforum took under then-editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy. She returns to photography in a number of essays, profiling Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian-era amateur whose portraits mix the ridiculous with the inspired; Diane Arbus, who snapped pictures of tramps, freaks, and transvestites; and Edward Weston and Irving Penn, photographers who produced very different types of nudes. She traces the history of the Bloomsbury Group, reassesses a favorite childhood novel by Gene Stratton-Porter, and defends J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey from the criticisms of his contemporaries. These unstinting essays investigate how a consensus forms relating to a body of work or an artistic movement, how attitudes toward art change over time, and how artistic legacies are managed—or mismanaged—by children and heirs. (May)

 
BookPage Reviews

Artists and writers under Malcolm's microscope

Janet Malcolm courts controversy with honesty. The New Yorker writer has had infamous, high-profile legal tangles with at least two of her subjects: former Freud Archives director Jeffrey Masson and true-crime writer Joe McGinniss. Malcolm immerses herself into researching her stories, sometimes spending years with the person she is profiling. When she finally sits down to write about them, she pulls no punches. The much-quoted opening line of The Journalist and the Murderer, her book about McGinniss, may express her own feelings about her profession: “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.”

Malcolm’s new book, Forty-one False Starts, collects a number of magazine pieces she wrote about artists and writers between 1986 and 2011. Varying greatly in length—her tribute to legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn is a page long, while a piece on Ingrid Sischy’s reinvention of Artforum magazine clocks in at a languorous 75—these essays bear all of Malcolm’s hallmarks: prickly intelligence, astute observations, crisp prose and a guarded confidence.

The book takes its name from its ingenious first piece. As the title implies, it provides 41 rejected attempts at beginning a profile of the artist David Salle, a megastar painter in the 1980s whose reputation had started to wane by the time Malcolm began interviewing him in the early 1990s. A bit of postmodern legerdemain, the masterful article manages to capture the essence of the artist and his art while pretending to never get very far. What makes it work is Malcolm’s talent for looking at the larger canvas, as it were, and also honing in on the telling details that distill her subjects’ fundamental nature. This gift is why she is that rare writer who can convey a visual medium through words.

Malcolm is no less astute when appraising—and reappraising—writers. Virginia Woolf features in a lengthy piece that reconsiders the legacy of the Bloomsbury Group, and particularly Vanessa Bell (who, of course, was a painter as well). In another, she argues that Edith Wharton is erroneously viewed as a realist writer rather than a satirist worthy of the company of Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and Don DeLillo. Two writers of popular fiction, writing 100 years apart, are subjected to Malcolm’s critical scrutiny, with somewhat surprising results. One is the now mostly forgotten Gene Stratton-Porter, who, at the beginning of the last century, turned out wildly popular romantic sagas with materialism (and proto-fascism) at their heart. The other is Cecily von Ziegesar, whose Gossip Girl series for teens this highbrow critic embraces for its comic subversiveness.

In his introduction to Forty-one False Starts, Ian Frazier—another peerless New Yorker writer—observes, “When a good jolt of defamiliarization knocks the rust off your perceptions, you don’t forget.” After reading Janet Malcolm, we don’t forget. She offers new ways of looking at the old and the unexamined alike, and in doing so makes looking at art an art itself.

 
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