Janet Malcolm courts controversy with honesty. The New Yorker writer has had infamous, high-profile legal tangles with at least two of her subjects: former Freud Archives director Jeffrey Masson and true-crime writer Joe McGinniss. Malcolm immerses herself into researching her stories, sometimes spending years with the person she is profiling. When she finally sits down to write about them, she pulls no punches. The much-quoted opening line of The Journalist and the Murderer, her book about McGinniss, may express her own feelings about her profession: “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.”
Malcolm’s new book, Forty-one False Starts, collects a number of magazine pieces she wrote about artists and writers between 1986 and 2011. Varying greatly in length—her tribute to legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn is a page long, while a piece on Ingrid Sischy’s reinvention of Artforum magazine clocks in at a languorous 75—these essays bear all of Malcolm’s hallmarks: prickly intelligence, astute observations, crisp prose and a guarded confidence.
The book takes its name from its ingenious first piece. As the title implies, it provides 41 rejected attempts at beginning a profile of the artist David Salle, a megastar painter in the 1980s whose reputation had started to wane by the time Malcolm began interviewing him in the early 1990s. A bit of postmodern legerdemain, the masterful article manages to capture the essence of the artist and his art while pretending to never get very far. What makes it work is Malcolm’s talent for looking at the larger canvas, as it were, and also honing in on the telling details that distill her subjects’ fundamental nature. This gift is why she is that rare writer who can convey a visual medium through words.
Malcolm is no less astute when appraising—and reappraising—writers. Virginia Woolf features in a lengthy piece that reconsiders the legacy of the Bloomsbury Group, and particularly Vanessa Bell (who, of course, was a painter as well). In another, she argues that Edith Wharton is erroneously viewed as a realist writer rather than a satirist worthy of the company of Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and Don DeLillo. Two writers of popular fiction, writing 100 years apart, are subjected to Malcolm’s critical scrutiny, with somewhat surprising results. One is the now mostly forgotten Gene Stratton-Porter, who, at the beginning of the last century, turned out wildly popular romantic sagas with materialism (and proto-fascism) at their heart. The other is Cecily von Ziegesar, whose Gossip Girl series for teens this highbrow critic embraces for its comic subversiveness.
In his introduction to Forty-one False Starts, Ian Frazier—another peerless New Yorker writer—observes, “When a good jolt of defamiliarization knocks the rust off your perceptions, you don’t forget.” After reading Janet Malcolm, we don’t forget. She offers new ways of looking at the old and the unexamined alike, and in doing so makes looking at art an art itself.