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Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers Hardcover – May 7, 2013
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“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)
Top Customer Reviews
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."
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.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It was an interesting and well written book, but many of the people whom the author writes about were to me totally unknown, pity, but now I have a long list of book to read and... Read morePublished 13 months ago by Gonza
Essays as fine as the collage on the cover, also by the writer.Published 18 months ago by Cornelia Veenendaal
Like an angry little girl whose own mother didn't invite to help cook in the kitchen and thus had to take to her Easy-Bake Oven with which to play, the chiding, churlish cynicism... Read morePublished on May 24, 2014 by ArtistNYLA
Some people have complained here that these essays have appeared elsewhere and therefore are not "new. Read morePublished on March 20, 2014 by Theresa Twain
Her insights are brilliant. But any book of essays gets tiresome after a while. Have to space out the reading of it.Published on December 15, 2013 by Ruth Fenner Barash