Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Writers and Artists
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013)
A couple of years ago, Janet Malcolm accompanied Thomas Struth, the German photographer, to a shoot at a solar panel factory near Dresden. Malcolm was eager to watch Struth at work; she was profiling him for the New Yorker, where she has written since 1963. But as the day stretched on, Struth became so absorbed in the project that he neglected Malcolm, stranding her at the facility long after they were set to leave—a rare slight from a normally considerate man. Eventually, she “rather crossly” took a taxi back to the city.
The anecdote—which appears in Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Writers and Artists, a new collection of 16 of Malcolm’s pieces from the last 30 years—is just one example of Malcolm identifying an artist behaving badly. One of the joys of reading her work—and this volume is no exception—is watching how she hacks through the myths that surround her subjects. Malcolm doesn’t write fan letters, even when she is a fan.
She is perhaps best known for The Journalist and the Murderer, the 1990 book that famously opens with a description of journalists as “morally indefensible.” Despite that introduction, the book is not an indictment of journalism. Rather, Malcolm insists that even if the enterprise results in collateral damage—the subjects of the reporting who are inevitably disappointed, hurt, or confused by the published piece—it is still a worthy pursuit. We shouldn’t flinch away from journalism just because it isn’t pretty.
In the same way, she seems to argue, we should confront and accept the selfishness, strangeness, and weakness of artists, novelists, and poets—not only because their creative output is valuable but also because we are all selfish, strange, and weak.
If Malcolm is harsh, it is a harshness based on a belief in her subjects’ strength. (And she is just as harsh with herself, repeatedly pointing out her own failings as a reporter—the moment when her fingers get too cold to take notes or her conclusion that, for one of her profile subjects, “I have not lived up to her expectations as an interlocutor.”) A tough article won’t seriously harm these subjects, she contends, but silence will.
“Of course, my crossness was unjustified,” she concludes in the Struth piece. “To enter the state of absorption in which art is made requires reserves of boorishness that not every exquisitely courteous person can summon but that the true artist unhesitatingly draws on.”
Take Gene Stratton-Porter, the racist author of a series of early 20th-century young adult novels, who nonetheless possesses “an imagination of almost life-threatening febrility.” Or Diane Arbus, the photographer of freaks, who apparently comes across as “brooding and morbid and sexually perverse and absurd”—this in her daughter’s monograph of her work.
Malcolm brings the same clear-eyed appraisal to “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.” Ostensibly a profile of Ingrid Sischy, the 27-year-old unknown who became the editor of Artforum in 1979, the 75-page whopper is a capsule of the 1980s New York City art world, an examination of the controversies over Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” sculpture and the Primitivism in 20th Century Art show at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a series of devastating vignettes wherein art world luminaries (Julian Schnabel, Rosalind Krauss, Serra) skewer themselves on their own words.
Writers, particularly biographers, come in for similar thrashings. If journalism is immoral, biography is suspect. “Like canned vegetables,” Malcolm writes, “biographical narratives are so far removed from their source—so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or a diary entry.”
(What a simile.)
Anytime a scene might become too romantic or a personage too exalted, Malcolm’s sense of humor swoops in like a fist to the chin. Charleston House, the English cottage (now museum) where Bloomsbury doyenne Vanessa Bell lived, is reminiscent of Anton Chekhov “as perhaps all country houses situated in precariously unspoiled country, with walled gardens and fruit trees and not enough bathrooms are.” J. D. Salinger is the “universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye” and the “seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.”
If her subject isn’t suitably ugly, Malcolm alters the structure of the piece to undercut the predictable narrative. The volume’s title essay is a series of introductions to a never-realized profile of the artist David Salle. (Of course, the false starts become their own profile, in the same way that Salle’s postmodern pastiches became their own original artworks.) Malcolm opens the Struth piece with the artist photographing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—a once-in-a-lifetime commission—but barely mentions his best-known pictures, of crowds of gallerygoers, and only in the final paragraphs.
“These ‘audience’ pictures are intermittently amusing but, to my mind, a bit trite,” she writes. “We have seen pictures of unself-consciously gaping tourists before.”
If there is any weak spot in the collection, it is the few entries that are pure literary criticism, without reporting. Something about pitting Malcolm against limp texts, rather than breathing humans, takes out the crackle of the writing. (Is it any wonder that Malcolm describes herself as “someone who probably became a journalist precisely because she didn’t want to find herself alone in the room”?)
The pieces are loosely organized to highlight connections, with a piece on a memoir by Allen Shawn coming before a short tribute to his father, William Shawn, the vaunted editor of the New Yorker, for example. But it would also be useful to know something about where and how these pieces first appeared, in addition to the year they were published, to get a sense of what Malcolm herself thought she was doing with the piece. (Are these book reviews, essays, profiles? Is their publication tied to a specific event?)
Fittingly, the last piece is called “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” Ironically, Malcolm’s holistic approach fails her for the first time. Is it that she can’t face her own critiques? Or that she can’t get the distance to figure out what those critiques should be? “Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness,” she writes. “I see my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love.”