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Review: "Forty-one False Starts" by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm offers a penetrating new collection of essays

By Michael Robbins

2:29 PM EDT, May 11, 2013

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Janet Malcolm is not an art critic or a literary critic. She's a journalist, and I don't say that with condescension. She's a journalist the way Joan Didion is — the kind who recognizes, as she put it in the first sentence of "The Journalist and the Murderer" (1990), that "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." Which is to say that Malcolm is a different kind of critic. In her best books — "In the Freud Archives" (1984) and "The Silent Woman," her 1994 "afterlife" of Sylvia Plath — she is a penetrating critic of personality and situation.


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She's so penetrating, in fact — and her writing so seductive and entertaining — that I always begin reading her books in a kind of critical defensive crouch. I resolved to figure out why this is as I settled in with Malcolm's latest, "Forty-one False Starts," a collection of sundry pieces on artists and writers. Finding myself charmed by the opening chapters (on the painter David Salle, to whose work I am indifferent, and the photographer Thomas Struth, whose work I love), but lacking a firm grounding in art criticism, I sent my art-historian sister a link to the Struth essay and asked for her thoughts. Her response:

Oh! It's Janet Malcolm. She wrote a great portrait of the art criticism scene in the late '80s ["A Girl of the Zeitgeist," an oral history of Artforum magazine, included in the new collection]. I've liked her in the past for providing insight into the real bodies behind the highfalutin discourse of art criticism and theory. I also learned something about Struth in reading the essay. It's worth noting that she's able to go to a place that's currently taboo in art theory/history (still!): namely biography.

That was it. Malcolm bestows on (or restores to) writers and artists the messiness and contradiction and confusion of biography, and draws conclusions about their work from the details of their lives. It's not that she's unaware of the pitfalls of what Frank Ellis called the biographical fallacy. But her métier is the long-form profile: She writes about artists, not art. She's interested in the art critic Rosalind Krauss' personality: "she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable." It's amusing to read Amazon's customer reviews of Malcolm's coverage of a Queens murder trial, "Iphigenia in Forest Hills" (2011; average of three stars): Her writing is "biased," "creepy," "voyeuristic," "prejudiced," "irritating." Of course it is; those are its virtues.

The profile, as Malcolm practices it, is a collaboration; in a short piece on why she abandoned an attempt at autobiography, she writes that her work "has been all but done … by one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another." This means that her writing is loud with other voices — in "A Girl of the Zeitgeist," she goes to interview the art critic Barbara Rose and simply lets her talk for three full pages without any authorial interruption. A less confident writer would have felt the need to assert herself here and there, would have worried that setting down a three-page quotation was a dereliction of duty. Malcolm's instincts are uncanny: Rose's unpleasant rant (about how she and her cohort were major intellectuals, but everyone nowadays just wants to write about Talking Heads) is spellbinding.

Malcolm speculates that she "became a journalist precisely because she didn't want to find herself alone in the room." This captures the intimacy of the conversations she has with her subjects — she gets to know them: "We could go to a museum together," she suggests to Salle — and her attention to the spaces they inhabit. Too many interviewers ask artists and writers questions about their work ("Where do you get your ideas?" is the cliché, but it's not far off). Malcolm says, "I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting." I think I actually sighed with contentment when I read that sentence: finally, someone who gets it.

It's the portraits of the artists that are the big draws here — the profiles of Salle, Struth and "Artforum" account for almost half the book, and there are shorter pieces on the photographers Edward Weston, Julia Cameron and Diane Arbus. The title essay is structured as a series of possible introductions to a profile of David Salle. The fiction that each is a "false start," that the profile never actually gets underway, allows Malcolm to approach the artist from several angles, to elicit from him and from their meetings something of the contradictory profusion that characterizes his paintings. She might be the most gifted scene-setter in American journalism:

Gagosian … walked through the room casting looks here and there, like Rick in Casablanca checking the house. Pincus-Witten and Foye, again on duty, skimmed about on anxious, obscure errands. Salle (playing the Paul Henreid role?) wore a dark jacket over a tieless white shirt and jeans, and was only slightly more reserved, detached, and watchful than usual. I left before the Vichy police came.

Malcolm notices things. Even as I disagreed with her reappraisal of J. D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey" — in which her willingness to give over her word count to plot summary and quotation backfires — I marveled at her noticing the author's manipulation of space. In fact, she's so deft an observer — so rich are her descriptions and insights — that you might find yourself rushing through a piece and only remarking afterward how fine her sentences are. She writes of "the tulipomaniacal drama of the contemporary art market"; Struth's pictures give her "the feeling of not understanding what one is seeing, of not knowing the functions of madly tangled wires and tubes and cables and mysterious flanges and pulleys and levers."

It isn't that Malcolm gives us a sense of what her subjects are "really like" — for one thing, they remain as aware as we of the constructedness of the situation. Rather, she elucidates the reasons we want to know about the people who create the forms we're drawn to. At the end of the "Forty-one False Starts," she says of her abandoned autobiography that she has "failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about." But she has succeeded in making those strangers terribly interesting, even if at times more strange — and that, too, is an art.

Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."

"Forty-one False Starts"

By Janet Malcolm, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 298 pages, $27