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
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. The cleverly structured title essay presents Malcolm's "false starts" for a profile of postmodern painter David Salle: the "1950s corporate-style" sofa in his Tribeca loft, the mess of ripped-out magazine pages and illustrations on his studio table, the things critics say about him, what he says about himself. Its fragments mirror the appropriated pictorial scraps in Salle's work. In another highlight, "A Girl of the Zeitgeist," first published in 1986, Malcolm (In the Freud Archives) tracks the fresh but controversial direction Artforum took under then-editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy. She returns to photography in a number of essays, profiling Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian-era amateur whose portraits mix the ridiculous with the inspired; Diane Arbus, who snapped pictures of tramps, freaks, and transvestites; and Edward Weston and Irving Penn, photographers who produced very different types of nudes. She traces the history of the Bloomsbury Group, reassesses a favorite childhood novel by Gene Stratton-Porter, and defends J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey from the criticisms of his contemporaries. 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.