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Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

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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

320 pages, Hardcover

First published April 24, 2013

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About the author

Janet Malcolm

43 books402 followers
Janet Malcolm was a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fiction works of the 20th century.

Her most recent book is Forty-one False Starts .

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,416 followers
September 25, 2017
Now this is a different kettle of fish. I just wrote a non-review for Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings in which I said I didn’t understand a word of her dense essays, all psychoanalysis and people I’d never heard of. This collection of Malcolm’s work, by contrast, has some kind of entrée. For one thing, she writes about famously reclusive artists like Salinger (“Salinger’s Cigarettes”) and Arbus (“Good Pictures”), and although she may go on a bit long (IMHO), her unique point of view and piercing intelligence makes us feel as though we are seeing something anew.

Even the Introduction by fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier has insights that tweak our imaginations: when discussing her interview and subsequent piece about Thomas Struth [photographer of the Queen], Frazier tells us Ms. Malcolm stood by her decision to include a minor exchange which made Struth look slightly ridiculous and seemed unfair because “at the level of fabulousness where Struth operates there’s a risk of everything becoming so wonderful and nice that meaninglessness sets in.”

This, perhaps, is where I did not give her enough credit in her earlier book. There is something to be said for people who can operate at the level of “the best we have” and retain their balance. Perhaps psychoanalysis is an absolute prerequisite at that level. When I proclaimed archly that her then-audience “aren’t educated that way anymore,” I meant “the best we have” now have to run the gantlet of not-particularly-well-educated public opinion rather than the considered opinion of an educated few. In the end, perhaps “the best we have” is now judged by different criterion, overlapping only partially with that category circa 1990 and earlier.

That having been said, were one conversant with some of the figures she speaks of, this would be a delicious, gossipy, and yes, insightful read. “Girl of the Zeitgeist” outlines Rosalind Krauss, formerly (at the time this piece came out in 1986) of the Artforum board.
“Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use for decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room…No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked…Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s personality—she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable—makes one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic.”
It is possible to endlessly quote Janet Malcolm’s incisive views of her subjects. So, yes, okay, I get Janet Malcolm’s special skill. At her peak production, it must have been something…to know her and/or to enjoy her pieces.

But I think the world has changed now. No point in being sad about that. And Helen Garner has nothing to be embarrassed about in her own writing. She is as clear as fast-flowing ice melt, and is bridging this changing world.
Profile Image for Wendell.
Author 41 books60 followers
August 4, 2013
The haphazard, somewhat thrown-together quality of the essays and profiles included in Forty-One False Starts keeps this collection from being a truly satisfying record of Malcolm’s writing on contemporary artists and writers. Several very brief pieces, including two near the end, should simply have been left out: they’re notebook jottings, not finished pieces; and Malcolm’s famous, long article on Ingrid Sischy, “Girl of the Zeitgeist” from 1986, has aged rather badly, perhaps because the petty, often incomprehensible art debates and feuds that Malcolm adumbrates in the piece have also aged so badly.

As she was more-or-less compelled to do in  “Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Malcolm took quite seriously the quarrel over “Primitivism” that had played out earlier in the pages of Artforum between MOMA’s William Rubin and critic Thomas McEvilley, but at a distance of many decades later, the fact of the matter is that McEvilley was right and Rubin was wrong, and virtually every serious museum has reconsidered the way it shows “primitive” art. Mercifully, too, the kind of exhibition that prompted the fracas in the first place -- in which “primitive” ritual and religious artifacts are juxtaposed with “modern” art to show ... I don’t know what exactly; perhaps the whole point of that failed experiment was nothing more profound than the desire to argue (but who was arguing, really?) that the former could be considered art, too -- has essentially disappeared. The same goes for the strange creatures that loomed so large in the late-1980s/early 1990s art world (the slightly reptilian critic René Ricard, for example, or the eternal art sharp, Julian Schnabel): their moments came and went and all the ruckus turns out to have been very small beer.

These cavils aside, the marvelous title piece, “Forty-One False Starts,” a profile stitched together of forty-one leads for an article about the artist, David Salle, is both illuminating and vibrant despite  -- or perhaps because of -- its fragmentary nature. Malcolm turns out to be a spirited, articulate advocate for the much-maligned J.D. Salinger, and her “A House of One’s Own” is an intriguing reflection on the Bloomsbury mythology and its biographers, discontents and otherwise.

“Good Pictures,” from 2004, is a respectful, thoughtful consideration of Diane Arbus’s work more than three decades after the photographer’s suicide -- as well as a measured but scathing impeachment of the damage that Arbus’s daughter, Doon, has done to her mother’s work and legacy by holding Arbus’s photographs and papers in a death grip for decades; Doon’s infamous refusal to cooperate with just about anybody who wanted to write about Arbus or show her photos, the result of a putative desire to “protect” her mother’s work, is more clearly seen in Malcolm’s telling for what it is: an exercise of neurotic control whose aims are entirely personal and entirely psychological.

Other pieces in Forty-One False Starts aren’t much fun unless the reader is familiar with the work in question; fun deserts the stage entirely in “Capitalist Pastorale,” Malcolm’s omnibus review of Gene Stratton-Porter’s series of minor romantic novels, all of which were published between 1903 and 1927. Malcolm and the New York Review of Books, where the review first appeared, struggle madly to turn obscurity into a virtue in this piece, but it doesn't really work. All that happens when the air gets that rarefied is that people are liable to start gasping for breath.

Malcolm is one of the last, great New Yorker writers left standing -- not to mention the patron saint of genuine investigative reporting -- and she's one of the finest prose stylists ever to work in American English. Her body of work is not merely genius but daunting: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), In The Freud Archives (1984), The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1994), to name only a few. Forty-One False Starts doesn't diminish her reputation in the least but, as Malcolm enters her 90th decade, neither is it the vitrine she deserves.
Profile Image for Faith McLellan.
176 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2013
Janet Malcolm is a genius. Her gifts are on full, and often chilling, display here. Full of erudition, razor-sharp judgments, icy observations. Learned and scary and admirable. Would not want to be on her bad side. Agree with other readers that the last two "chapters" are disastrous additions--are there any editors left? The chapter on Bloomsbury perhaps the best. I have read this collection over a day or so and feel as if run over by a truck--in a good way.
Profile Image for Catherine.
96 reviews
August 13, 2013
This fantastic collection of essays - covering David Salle, Edith Wharton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia and Vanessa Bell, among others - is quite unlike any other I've read. Janet Malcolm takes the idea of "review" and "critique" to a different level. She truly is an original thinker and an incisive critic. I disagreed with almost everything she wrote in this collection, but, boy did she make me think. I was outraged, humbled, and enervated. I really want to have lunch with her.
47 reviews2 followers
July 12, 2013
The first sentence in Janet Malcolm's controverisal book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," is probably the most provocative line she's ever written. The book was about the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering his family, and Joe McGinnis, the writer who pretended to befriend him. The sentence is, "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." McGinnis never recovered from the persuasive Malcolm piece. To some degree, journalists (and I'm one), know that Malcolm is right.
Malcolm, who writes mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, is an essayist/journalist/critic who is alternately bewildering, smug, smart and unpredictable. The first essay in this book, about the artist, David Salle, was so annoying that I almost tossed the book aside. Not so much because of what she says about Salle ---he's predictably vain, vulnerable, funny, scared and furious about two critics, Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes who hated his work. But Malcolm's long essay is so mannered ---virtually line about Salle begins `the artist David Salle.' or `the painter David Salle that you wonder, what the hell is Malcolm trying to say. (If anything).. Malcolm seemed to spend months following him to his studio, to restaurants, parties, etc etc. The essay starts to revolve around Malcolm rather than Salle. And Malcolm is just not that interesting.
What works in the book (for me) are her essays about Edith Wharton ("The Woman Who Hated Women,")the "passionate collaboration between Edward Weston and his nudes, Diane Arbus, whom Malcolm seem to dislike and admire. But the longest essay in the book, "A Girl of the Zeitgeist," is about Ingrid Sischy, and her role as editor of Artforum. The essay runs on and on and on. By the end, you actually know more about some of the terrible artists featured in Artforum whom Malcolm clearly disdains than Sischy herself. And, in the end, you know very, very little about Janet Malcolm. Except she has a certain smugness that's distasteful.
Profile Image for Terry Pitts.
130 reviews59 followers
October 22, 2017
There is certainly much to praise in these sixteen essays on artists and writers, such as Thomas Struth, J.D. Salinger, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, and William Shawn. Malcolm knows how to keep the reader continually intrigued, sometimes to the point that we can't see exactly where her trail of bread crumbs is leading us. And she's a precise writer, who always seems to find the exact word or phrase that fits her subject and distinguishes her sentence.

Malcolm is essentially a biographer, writing in these essays about the lives of people who create. As someone who believes deeply in psychoanalysis, Malcolm seems to want to get to the root of their creativity, but she never succeeds - perhaps because it simply isn't possible. For example, Malcolm is always pushing to watch visual artists at work. She wants to watch artists in the studio painting or in the field photographing, as if this will reveal something secret about the act of artistic creation. It's doesn't. And for all of her interest in the visual arts, she never closely examines or provides her personal insight to any single work. That's not true for writers, whose work Malcolm can and does closely analyze.

The title essay is a great example of Malcolm's unique approach to biography. Its consists of forty-one segments, each of which appears to be a completely new attempt to begin an essay about the painter David Salle. It isn't clear whether this was a way to echo Salle's collagist approach to painting or whether it reflects an uncertainty about either Salle the man or his work, but it makes for a fascinating bit of reading.

Lurking in these essays are hints at some of the issues that have made Malcolm such a controversial writer - the slight arrogance, the occasional phrase of contempt, the New York fascination with social status and money.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 33 books1,152 followers
July 22, 2022
"Looking back on the incident, I see that Salle had also seen what any first-year student of psychology would have seen – that, for all my protests to the contrary, I had brought my art to him to be praised. Every amateur harbors the fantasy that his work is only waiting to be discovered and acclaimed; a second fantasy– that the established contemporary artists must (also) be frauds – is a necessary corollary." (26)

"The artist David Salle has given so many interviews, has been the subject of so many articles, has become so widely inscribed as an emblematic figure of the 80s art world that it is no longer possible to do a portrait of him simply from life.  The heavy shadow of prior encounters with journalists and critics falls over each fresh encounter. Every writer has come too late; no writer escapes the sense of Bloomian belatedness that the figure of Salle evokes. One cannot behave as if one had just met him, and Salle himself behaves like the curator of a sort of museum of himself, helpfully guiding visitors through the exhibition rooms and steering them toward the relevant literature" (9).

" 'Why are dire images done by a homosexual more correct than those done by a heterosexual'? 
'Because in art politics, to be homosexual is, a priori, more correct than to be heterosexual. Because to be an artist is to be a double outsider. That's the correct condition. If you're a straight artist, it's not clear that your outsiderness is legitimate. I know this is totally absurd. But the act that in our culture it does fall primarily to gays and blacks to make something interesting. Almost everything from straight white culture is less interesting, and has been for a long time' " (32).

"Were their lives really so fascinating, or is it simply because they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another that we find them so? Well, the latter, of course. No life is more interesting than any other life; everybody's life takes place in the same 24 hours of consciousness and sleep; we are all locked into our subjectivity, and who is to say that the thoughts of a person gazing into the vertiginous depths of a volcano in Sumatra are more objectively interesting than those of a person trying on a dress at Bloomingdale's? The remarkable achievement of the Bloomsbury writers and artists was that they placed in posterity's hands the documents necessary to engage posterity's feeble attention--the letters, memoirs, and journals that reveal inner life and compel the sort of helpless empathy that fiction compels" (72).

"But while other nineteenth century and early-twentieth-century sentimental novels have fallen by the wayside, as dull as they are ridiculous, even the most risible of Stratton-Porter's works remain oddly readable. One mocks them but goes on turning their pages. Stratton-Porter had the crucial ability of the popular novelist to make the reader want to know what happens next to people in whose existence he does not for one minute believe" (139). 

"Cameron had other strategies for throwing a veil of romance over the the  goings-on in the chicken house" (157).

"Walter Benjamin's famous notion in his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' that works of art lose their aura once it becomes possible to reproduce  them does not apply to photography itself. On the contrary, each time a photograph is reproduced it acquires aura. Even a photograph of no special distinction will take on aura if it is reproduced over and over again. The distinguished portrait of Marcella--hidden from the world's view for thirty years--gleams out of Arbus's photographic universe like a new star" (176).

"Artists' books were a pleasing expression of the decommodification ideology: where art books are about art, artist's books are themselves art of a sort--art that is mindful of its social responsibility, art that refuses to be a precious commodity, art that is cheap, multiple, without aura" (219).

"One has to remind oneself, of course, that every present is disorderly, that art history is an artifact of time, and that certain temperaments tolerate chaos better than others" (222).
Profile Image for Alex Sarll.
5,773 reviews231 followers
May 4, 2015
With one exception*, these essays from publications with 'New York' in their titles concern writers I have no interest in reading, and artists whose work means nothing to me; the one of them I even put into Google Images was a grave disappointment compared to how luminously intriguing Malcolm had made him sound. A quarter of the book is taken up with a long piece on ructions at an eighties New York art magazine, a subject on which I would struggle to give less of a toss. And yet, when it's all processed through the eye of Janet Malcolm, it becomes fascinating; a case study of the passing of cultural authority from education to money, a sketch for a novel by the WASP Iris Murdoch of an alternate universe, a typological prefiguration of the cable series about the Melody Maker which nobody will ever make. Her questing intelligence reminds me of Montaigne, but where for all his curiosity he was always ultimately looking inwards, Malcolm needs to turn her gaze on the world. Indeed, the book ends with a fragment from an abandoned autobiography in which she confirms just that. It's a shame, of sorts; I am far more interested in her than in most of her subjects. But so long as she keeps letting that analytical mind play, the subjects it finds don't really matter.

*On Bloomsbury - though as with her book on Plath, the only Malcolm I've read before, it's as much about the cultural afterlife of the phenomenon as the thing itself.
Profile Image for Genevieve.
Author 7 books125 followers
October 26, 2014
Some say the best-written reviews and critiques reveal something about the critic as much as the subject being reviewed. With that criteria, you would think Forty-one False Starts by Janet Malcolm would be brilliant, the writing being so self-absorbed.

To be fair, the title essay was fascinating and engaging, a critique of the larger-than-life artist David Salle told in 41 short sections that give us different facets and points of view on Salle; its unique form is a commentary on the writing/creative process itself. But all the other essays in the collection didn't really keep my attention. It could be my limited knowledge of the contemporary art world, which is Malcolm's area, and is a world itself that is self-absorbed and insular. Sorry, this book wasn't for me, though I may not have been registering the writerly brilliance in its full form due to my lukewarm interest in the subject matter.
Profile Image for Blaine.
47 reviews2 followers
June 28, 2013
As if The Journalist and the Murderer and Two Lives weren't enough for me to go by! But I read those for class, so the interesting part of observing Malcolm's writing tics is over and done with. The title essay was so pretentious that I, even as member of the expected audience, felt alienated and bored. And I'm morally opposed to the writing of seven-page essays with two full pages' worth devoted to block quotes (see The Woman Who Hated Women).
Profile Image for Sarah Yasin.
Author 8 books11 followers
March 18, 2016
Malcolm makes good sentences. While enjoyable to read, some ideas in this volume are stuck in the past, which is a shame any time an intelligent writer lingers in the past (salman rushde comes to mind). Specifically, when she differs with Chesterton, claiming there is no more pure white virtue since Hitler, only grey "decency." Hitler did not introduce large-scale evil into the world, and Chesterton was aware of atrocities we prefer not to imagine.
Profile Image for Vonetta.
406 reviews14 followers
November 25, 2013
I'm no longer a student, so I am not forced to read pretentious academic material that is in no way pleasurable. That said, I put the book down after the title essay and the one about Edith Wharton. Life's too short to read books I don't like. Also, the fact that the author has her own adjective, "Malcolmian," is exhausting.
Profile Image for refgoddess.
492 reviews2 followers
July 19, 2013
Excellent collection of essays on writers and artists. I was captured by "Salinger's cigarettes" and stuck around for Virginia Woolf and Gene Stratton Porter. There's nothing earth-shaking in Malcolm's assessments, but I like her voice, and she shares enough new (to me) factoids to make it interesting.
Profile Image for Kristina Pasko.
336 reviews2 followers
July 25, 2014
I don't think I could call Malcolm one of my favorite writers (this is the first book of hers that I've read), and I don't really like her style (humorless, matter-of-fact, a bit bland) but it was a good exercise to see good literary (and art) criticism meant for popular consumption. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister).
Profile Image for Blair.
Author 2 books44 followers
February 10, 2014
My interest waned in this a little towards the end and Malcolm's writing wasn't enough to get me absorbed in subjects I didn't have a pre-existing interest in. I enjoyed the essays on Bloomsbury and Salinger the most.
Profile Image for Whitney Borup.
1,028 reviews43 followers
May 8, 2018
I got a little bored with a couple of these essays (surprisingly, the one about Virginia Woolf and family) but others (especially those on artists and photographers) were just brilliant.
Profile Image for Jasmine.
21 reviews14 followers
April 29, 2022
Janet Malcolm has the ability to take shopworn subjects and themes (Virginia Woolf, Arbus, Salinger, true crime, biography, photography, life vs text) and restage them with startling freshness. This freshness comes not from any flashy new angle but its opposite— her clarity, her ability to cut through years of accumulated critical layers so that you for one brilliant moment can glimpse the Thing itself as if alive. Malcolm’s disdain for emotional obfuscations and pretty flourishes, her sympathy to a particular kind of conservatism and aristocracy of the intellect, make her a critic unlike any you’ll find today. I have so many parts underlined and notes and observations jotted that suggest the manic state of thought this book put me in. I think this mania wasn’t bound to any one idea or conclusion to be drawn— rather, I was desperate to stay suspended in that momentary flash of insight which existed outside of my mind and only in her words. Criticism is ultimately movement— a chasing of the real— and here is a rare case where you feel it brush the ankles.

(Also to small souls whining about how this essay shouldn’t have been included, that essay dated badly, blah blah blah— don’t you find yourself tiresome? I can’t imagine finishing this book without a sense of awe and humility even if you didn’t care for it.)
Profile Image for Kevin.
Author 3 books313 followers
July 18, 2019
Could have used another edit as there's at least three essays here that are giants (60 pages or more) that throw the collection out of balance (most of the other pieces are around 12-15 pages). But Janet Malcolms eye and prose-- piercing, probing, curious, and singular-- makes just about anything she writes beautiful. And a little scary.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
43 reviews1 follower
October 11, 2014
This collection includes essays from 1986-2011. Malcolm’s profiles are layered and interesting. She finds the extraordinariness in the person and the situation surrounding the person and strings together each fascinating element, as if knitting a garment that when completed is presented as a gift that no one wants to return.

I am not an insider in the art world and I had to look up all of the artists she profiled. But I never felt like an outsider while reading the essays. My googling was a result of my interest, not in Malcolm’s omission or inaccessibility.

The title essay, “Forty-One False Starts,” is an entertaining and fascinating look at the artist David Salle. Malcolm structures the story into forty-one segments, all possible beginnings to a longer article. Each segment reveals something about David Salle, what it means to be an artist, and the art world in the early 90s (or perhaps more accurately, post-80s) in a way that she would not have been able to do just by writing a straightforward piece with another structure. The repeated use of “David Salle,” his full name, in each segment as if it really was a new beginning contributed to an atmosphere that he is unknowable, his is a full name, a famous artist’s name. She mentions this in the article - how Salle is very accessible, will say ‘yes’ to almost every interview invitation- yet the tone and structure of Malcolm’s essay reinforces again and again that David Salle remains inaccessible. However, the article is very accessible, and it is in this accessibility that the reader is reminded of her own false-starts, her own introductions to others and the utter unknowability of others.

One other essay that struck me as brilliant and entertaining was the patch-work profile of Ingrid Sischy in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (1986). Malcolm comes at Sischy from every angle, beginning the article with Rosalind Krauss who provides a bit of history about Artforum and also represents the old guard. This is important because Malcolm is revealing the changes in art criticism to her audience. We learn with every new person introduced a little more about how things were and why Sischy is important in this new world that began at the start of the decade, 1980. Yet this essay goes to unexpected places. While Malcolm is building the story of the zeitgeist, we get glimpses of Sischy and at the end we learn that Sischy has not been entirely happy with Malcolm’s work. This is the climax of the article (yes, this article has a climax) and we reinterpret the entire article. Malcolm’s various interviews with others, her approach to get to Sischy’s core by probing the people around her and the people who came before her, is about more than the zeitgeist. It is about Sischy who is “a pleasant, intelligent, unassuming, responsible, ethical young woman who had not a trace of the theatrical qualities I [Malcom] had confidently expected.” This implicates Malcolm and the reader. We expect wild eccentricities from a young editor of the leading art magazine of its time but we get a regular, good person. It is Malcolm who transforms the profile into something wild and eccentric through her structure, tone, and imagination.

I loved these essays.
Profile Image for Julia.
495 reviews
December 25, 2018
when she left she left behind by accident a tiny little tube—a fragrance? a perfume oil? a scent? i don't know the technical vocabulary—of what is, apparently, bois de balincourt, and i told her, and she said, well, we'll just have to see each other again, won't we. that, i thought to myself, or mail it, although i knew why that wasn't articulated. at just about the same time, the same part of the looming week, maybe even the same day, i was lent this copy of forty-one false starts, which i almost certainly wouldn't finish before my—temporary? long-term? permanent?—departure. you can just mail it back to me, i was told. unspoken: or you won't have to. it's not that i'll have to mail one of them (in the end, either way, the tube feels far too delicate to mail) but that the neat dichotomy is just so obviously there.

always weird to have things around that obviously aren't yours: the redolent tube, the copy of forty-one false starts, which is torn and stained and adorned (dog ears, post-it notes) in a way that never happens to my books (i don't know, i don't know, i forgot about an alice notley book in a sleeve in my backpack for nearly a year in college and when i rediscovered it, it was mostly just very...curved, rather than bent) and which my mom noticed immediately. softened corners again.

not to linger. the book is great, obviously; obviously there was a time some years ago when i kept on nearly buying it and didn't for whatever reason; but nicer to read someone else's, to read in tune with someone else's pencil. kind of a relief to know someone has, say, already read and savored the same exact copy of some of these essays/articles, mostly because it lets me indulge in my favorite activity, being effusive over text while gripped in that weird post-completion adrenaline ("adrenaline"). this time it was for "girl of the zeitgeist," the most delicious and quasi-novelistic piece, the one that so miraculously and joyously balances attentive patterning (the slowly circling conversations set in lofts on downtown streets...) with a loping ranginess, the sense it could go on forever deep into itself and i'd be perfectly satisfied. perfect piece! more perfect than the obviously perfect forty-one false starts. it makes me wonder now if some of the bits, the characterizations, that rubbed my friend the wrong way were purposeful, or at least self-indulgently present, present for the purpose of malcolm's own characterization: the one who occasionally falters and hasn't yet realized it. or maybe it's just more fun to read rich reportage novelistically—but i give janet malcolm the credit for writing something that lets me do that in the first place.
Profile Image for Laura.
94 reviews
January 22, 2019
was not eager to read this one but as usual with Janet Malcolm I was spirited along a path of erudition that didn't feel like hard labor, and rewarded with insight.
Profile Image for Molinos.
320 reviews417 followers
August 17, 2022
A Janet Malcom llegué hace muchos años por recomendación de mi amiga Bárbara Ayuso que me dijo: Moli, tienes que leer El periodista y el asesino y le hice caso porque Bárbara tiene mucho criterio y, además, me conoce bien.

Cuarenta y un intentos fallidos es una colección de artículos, la mayoría publicados en el New Yorker, en el estilo del New Yorker y esto, si no conoces la revista y su tono, es posible que te sorprenda, que te llame la atención. Las primeras cincuenta páginas están dedicadas a David Salle que seguro que, en su día, a Janet Malcom le pareció lo suficientemente interesante como para dedicar cuarenta y una aproximaciones (de ahí el título del libro) a su personaje, a su perfil... ahora, en 2022, no lo es ni de lejos. Cuando vas por el intento catorce David Salle hace bola y te interesa entre muy poco y nada. Del resto de ensayos los que más me gustaron fueron los dedicados a todo el círculo de Bloomsbury como familia, como colectivo que ocupaba un espacio físico, una convivencia, una rutina. El ensayo titulado Una casa propia es estupendo y (que me perdonen los fans de Virginia) mucho más interesante que Una habitación propia. Hay también ensayos sobre varios fotógrafos: Struth y sus vistas de ciudades, de Detroit especialmente, Julia Margaret Cameron y también Edward Weston y su historia con la también fotógrafa Charis Wilson y este fotón. ¿Recomiendo este libro? Pues a ver, tiene cosas buenas pero para empezar con Malcom mejor El periodista y el asesino.
Profile Image for Brendan.
616 reviews12 followers
January 27, 2016
I received a promotional copy of this book through the First Reads program.

Rating: Somewhere in the 3 to 3 1/2 range.

I really like the title piece. "Capitalist Pastorale" is a waste of time. The others fall somewhere in between, with "Edward Weston's Nudes" being one of the better pieces and the Bloomsbury piece falling flat.

There are whiffs of elitism and NYC-centrism scattered throughout the book. She likes to quote other writers, and does so a bit too much for my taste. Sometimes it seems as though she's quoting merely for the opportunity to disagree.

She comes across as an intelligent woman who knows her subjects. I certainly learned from her writings. So it's possible that her other books are better than this one.

A couple minor quibbles: she mentions an artist who takes other artists' work and signs her name to it, then passes it off as her own. I'm a bit surprised this is even legal. I'm disappointed that this "artist" is being taken seriously, regardless of legality. Also, a significant portion of the book is about visual art: paintings, photographs, etc. But there aren't any photos of the art. I don't know if this is due to legal restrictions or not wanting to make the book longer or whatever. But it might have been nice to see some of the pieces.
Profile Image for Aseem Kaul.
Author 1 book23 followers
January 12, 2014
How amusing that a book called Forty-one False Starts should start off strong and gradually peter out towards the end!

The best pieces in Janet Malcolm's book are the ones in the beginning: the profile of David Salle that gives the book its title is one of the most creative and insightful pieces I've read in a long while, the piece on the Bloomsbury legend is fascinating, and her take on Salinger's Franny and Zooey left me itching to re-read that book.

The essays that follow are nowhere near as interesting. Oh, they are still fine pieces--diligently researched, keenly observed, and lucidly written--but they lack the sense of timeless immediacy that marks Malcolm's finest works. At some point, halfway through Malcolm's piece delightfully written by long-winded piece on Ingrid Sischy you find yourself wondering "why do I care?", and that realization is fatal to everything that follows.
Profile Image for Hank Stuever.
Author 3 books2,016 followers
January 22, 2014
After the memorable title piece, which was fantastic when it first ran in the New Yorker and is still 98 percent as fantastic now (but caution to all writers who are thinking of aping it: the structure worked exactly once), most of the rest of these Malcolm articles should be labeled "for serious fans only."

These are deep -- and deeply intellectual -- essays on well-known and also arcane subjects of art, literature, photography. My favorite piece, after "Forty-One False Starts," is "Capitalist Pastorale," about the strange work of Gene Stratton-Porter, a now-obscure novelist who was very popular in the early 20th century. This book is worth sampling here and there to see which (if any) of the subjects grab you, while having a look at how Malcolm does what she does in her magazine pieces. I think I prefer her book-length subjects much more, especially "The Journalist and the Murderer" as well as "Iphigenia in Forest Hills" and "The Crime of Sheila McGough."
Profile Image for Harriet.
Author 16 books78 followers
February 21, 2015
I'm not a fan of literary or art criticism--too much talking about art by people who can't make it, usually. But this book goes far beyond the usual artspeak to say real and important things about the artists and writers represented here and about their work. The title essay is a smart and evocative meditation not just on its subject, the painter David Salle, but on the absurdly difficult process of trying to capture the essence of a person in words. Together the 41 "false starts" make a complete story, one that conveys more between the lines than among them. Perhaps my favorite essay in the book, "Capitalist Pastorale," is a brilliant and down-to-earth explication of the work of Gene Stratton-Porter, author of "A Girl of the Limberlost" and many other works, most of which have thankfully been lost, or at least not widely read. This is a book to be savored, kept on your nighttable (I kept it on mine for a year), dipped into and re-read.
525 reviews38 followers
June 8, 2017
Unshowy, unhurried, eventually insightful writing about culture and people. The longer pieces are interesting in being rare examples of long-form journalism about culture and people, as opposed to the more common short-form cultural critique, of which there are also some examples here. There's much that's admirable and somewhat inspiring in this book, but - and there is a slight but - while it's rewarding enough to grip, it's rarely if ever as satisfying as more conventional books of cultural critique or more journalism can be. Malcolm avoids the easy route, and the world is better for also having writers in it who want to and can do that, but her air of careful consideration is inevitably less compulsively winning than a brassier, brasher style. She's a journalist of precise observation, rather than a nerve-touching hack. There aren't many like her, and should be more. But if it's sparkle or fire you're after, look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Kallie.
483 reviews
April 4, 2014
This is not a book of essays; these pieces are reportage and should be read as such. Malcolm's work in this book seems to me more about connecting with her subjects and her subjects' subjects (i.e. painting), which are also of great personal interest to her, and persuading them to reveal themselves and their unique relationships to their subjects -- an interest that differentiates her work from that of biographers who primarily seek gory childhood and marriage details. Not that M would refuse such details; anything is grist for her mill, and she reports on her own behavior too. Her observations and writing are brilliant and original, and a turn-on in so many respects. I have read few non-fiction books straight through; this was one of them.
Profile Image for Keight.
362 reviews12 followers
November 26, 2018
As a collection, Forty-One False Starts falls to the side of indiscriminate, especially the several shorter essays at the end that felt like they were included more because they fit the theme of artists and writers than because they had something truly remarkable to say. Maybe they were victims of placement, but they probably stand out more because most of the essays are so good, most especially the titular, opening essay in which Malcolm composes a profile of the artist David Salle through forty-one possible openers for the essay, an exploration of an artist’s process that also exposes its own process. Read more on my booklog
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