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Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers Hardcover – May 7, 2013

3.8 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Malcolm’s sentences are joy rides, exhilarating and alarming. Her vocabulary is crisp, savory, and stinging. Her inquisitiveness is red-hot, she is devilishly funny, and her interpretations of the lives and creations of artists and writers are electrifying. In her twelfth book, the prizewinning journalist, biographer, and essayist has gathered 16 substantial, mind-whirling pieces that span several decades and encompass the fertile range and reach of her ardent inquiries. The bravura form of her diabolically clever title essay embodies the cat-and-mouse strategies of journalist and subject as Malcolm tries to get a handle on artist David Salle. Malcolm’s passionate curiosity about the ambiguities of portraiture shapes her portraits of photographers Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, and Thomas Struth as well as “Edward Weston’s Women.” She discusses why we remain enthralled by Bloomsbury (“These people are so alive”) and affirms and defends Salinger’s genius. Taking avid pleasure in the hunt for understanding, Malcolm stalks and pounces with high intellectual appetite and moxie, then artfully crafts brainy, zestful, and nourishing dispatches from the ever-mysterious worlds of art and literature. --Donna Seaman


“No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm . . . Her influence is so vast that much of the writing world has begun to think in the charged, analytic terms of a Janet Malcolm passage.” ―Katie Roiphe, The Paris Review

“[A] master of the profile...alluring, pointed, singularly perceptive tellings.” ―The New Yorker

Forty-One False Starts [is] a powerfully distinctive and very entertaining literary experience. . . what the reader remembers is Janet Malcolm: her cool intelligence, her psychoanalytic knack for noticing and her talent for withdrawing in order to let her subjects hang themselves with their own words. . .These short pieces [are] unmistakably the work of a master.” ―Zoe Heller, The New York Review of Books

Forty-One False Starts is a remarkable and, in its strange way, gripping piece of work. It achieves the rare feat of communication something valuable about the largely ineffable ‘creative process.'” ―Zoe Heller, The New York Review of Books

“[An] invigorating new collection . . . keenly intelligent journalism that feels, always, as if it had been written by a human being, one with a beating heart, a moral compass, a wide-ranging curiosity, and a point of view.” ―Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe

“Even if you've been reading Janet Malcolm for years, the critical appreciations collected in Forty-One False Starts may surprise you. The title essay is (or pretends to be) a series of scrapped beginnings to her profile of the painter David Salle, a giant of the art world in vulnerable mid-career. If you want to write magazine prose, this alone should make you buy the book. Ranging from Bloomsbury to Edward Weston to J.D. Salinger, the entire book is full of stylistic daring, fine distinctions, and bold judgments set down at the speed of thought.” ―Lorin Stein, The Paris Review online

“[Malcolm’s] portraits of the storytellers . . . are glorious. Without any diminishment of her critical eye, she seems like she’s having more fun―when she describes Gene Stratton-Porter writing deranged children’s books, or Julia Margaret Cameron admiring England’s finest beards, or Blair Waldorf sulking over caviar at the Plaza.” ―Molly Fischer, The New York Observer

“Janet Malcolm offers a penetrating new collection of essays . . . 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. . . She might be the most gifted scene-setter in American journalism. . . 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.” ―Michael Robbins, The Chicago Tribune

“Malcolm has solidified her reputation as a guide who can expertly help readers through, as her New Yorker colleague Ian Frazier writes in the introduction to Forty-One False Starts, ‘a good big mess.' One is the sheer pleasure of her rich descriptive power, her sentences turned like spindles on a lathe. There is the historical interest: reminders of who was once fashionable, should one care. There is the cruelly perfect aim of her insults. But there is, above all, the unequaled glimpse into the mind of Malcolm the critic, which is as close as we're likely to get to the mind of Malcolm, one of our smartest, best writers, someone whose personal inscrutability and elusiveness I regret all the time.” ―Mark Oppenheimer, The Nation

“Malcolm’s severity, her terrifying neutrality―like a teacher who is capable of handling even her most despised pupils no differently than the ones she secretly adores―is part of what makes her a brilliant writer. It is also why her writing does not occasion adolescent reverence and why her image is not printed in fashion magazines. You discover Didion in high school and you read her on the beach. Malcolm you discover in college―or after―and read before you do your own work....[She] is a priestly figure; an aura of quiet surrounds her work. She is always in control....Reading even the most cerebral of her sentences, you feel smart by association rather than dumb by comparison.” ―Alice Gregory, Slate

“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 . . . 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.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review and pick of the week)


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (May 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374157693
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374157692
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #825,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jim F. Baughman on June 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I got bogged down in the VERY long essay about Artforum magazine, and I don't agree with Malcolm's enthusiasm for J.D. Salinger's writing (he's got a very narrow focus and his characters are really more petulant than anything else). But the David Salle piece which opens the collection (and furnishes its title) is a masterpiece.

She also skillfully demolished the blowsy excess of the catalog of the SanFrancisco Art Museum's Diane Arbus exhibit, making the point that learning every last jot of trivia about a person does not contribute to understanding them. I will remember this line forever: "What Helen of Troy did in her spare time, and what she was "really like" as a person, are not questions that torture us."
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Format: Paperback
Janet Malcolm's best pieces usually turn on crime, psychoanalysis, and/or the art of journalism itself, which she has famously suggested are all interrelated. She also harbors a great love for literature and the arts, and though she's turned more and more to these other interests in her recent years, its only allowed her to produce one classic (THE SILENT WOMAN, about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes) that can stand alongside her very best book-length essays on the earlier obsessions, such as IN THE FREUD ARCHIVES and THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER. The pieces collected here concern her artistic interests, and though almost all are enormously enjoyable (few non-fiction writers today write in such an intelligent and lively fashion), they're not as well thought-out as her pieces on non-artistic themes. Too often Malcolm will make a grand assertion without backing it up: in "Salinger's Cigarettes," for example, she takes head on the many critics of Salinger's Glass family stories and asserts his novella "Zooey" is his masterpiece without ever really showing why she thinks that (and even undercuts her grand claim by agreeing the famous "Fat Lady" anecdote that forms the novella's climax is "condescending"). Similarly she groups Wharton with the second tier of American novelists without really telling why. The better pieces are mostly the longer ones: there's a nice profile on the much loved German photographer Thomas Struth on the eve of a grand commission (photographing Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip for their official anniversary portrait), and a very fine piece on the myth of the Bloomsbury group and how the memoir of Angelica Garnett (the daughter of Vanessa Bell and niece of Virginia Woolf) disrupted it.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I mostly know Janet Malcolm from reading (some of) her essays in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. And truth be told, the only one I remembered was the essay that became the book Iphigenia in Forest Hills. In short, I frankly bought this on pedigree and vague memories of good writing, a bad premise.

So I put this book down after the first 5 essays, 2 on artists, 3 on writers. The first one, which gives the book its title, was entertaining, but she clearly got carried away with the *notion* of her essay (the 41 false starts reflecting on and relating to Salle's work), to the ultimate expense of her actual subject. The second, on Struth, gave me some hope as it was actually pretty good, albeit on an artist I know nothing about.

Her writing on writers was all strikeouts for me: she doesn't get Wharton at all, her Woolf/Bloomsbury piece wasn't much more than an abbreviated biography, and her Salinger piece was momentously uninsightful.

So I had to put this down. If there's a theme here, it's that Malcolm gets entranced with some idea or notion and, with that idea in hand, is as likely as not to misread her subject, or to forget them, or occasionally to notice something about them. Unfortunately, that last option just wasn't happening often enough.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I like reading about the art world and creativity and even if I didn't I would like to read what Janet Malcolm Writes about it. It was a nice surprise to find that one of the players in her art world drama had gone to my high school in Cincinnati and I always wondered what happened to him. The role of esoteric art critic in New York City seems to be a natural extension of who he was as an outspoken, rebellious student in an elite, college preparatory high school in the Midwest. I also find it interesting when anybody can make some sense out of the mishmash of what I view as the New York City art world. I believe Tom Wolfe is correct when he said that the word makes the message in the art world. It is not what you see is what you get it is what you see is formed by the art critic you are listening to about that piece of artwork.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Malcolm is one of the dimmer stars in the New Yorker stable. Unlike most writers, she admits journalism an on-going act of betrayal. You gain the confidence of the mark, pump out the information you think is interesting or contradictory, and then do the knifing. Somebody else gets to mop up the mess because you are onto the next sucker.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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