Janet Malcolm may end up best known for a single paragraph: the one that starts her 1990 book “The Journalist and the Murderer.”
“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,” she writes there. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The indictment is more powerful because Malcolm never renders herself immune.
And yet, if “The Journalist and the Murderer” — which examines the relationship between Joe McGinnis (the journalist of the title) and Jeffrey MacDonald (the murderer) — is Malcolm’s signature effort, the position it stakes out is a hallmark of all her writing, which involves getting people to reveal what they might prefer we never know. It’s an intention reminiscent of her contemporary Joan Didion, who, in her 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” declares that “people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
This sense — of the moral ambiguity (or indefensibility) of journalism — weaves through Malcolm’s new “Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers,” even though she never articulates it as such. Gathering 16 pieces, most originally published in the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker, it is a book about both art and how art is received in the culture, which, in Malcolm’s view, is often less a matter of aesthetics than of style.
“He was going to be forty the following September,” she writes in the title piece, a 1994 profile of the artist David Salle. "… His moment was passing. Younger painters were receiving attention. He was being passed over. But he was also being attacked.” Salle is an almost perfect Malcolm subject: “a tense, discontented man, with a highly developed sense of irony.” That this may not be how he wishes to be seen is one of the tensions of the essay, which unfolds, as the title promises, in 41 fragments that orbit their elusive subject like planets around an empty sun.
“Salle cultivates the public persona,” Malcolm writes, “but with the detachment of someone working in someone else’s garden. He gives good value — journalists come away satisfied — but he does not give himself away.” And yet, at the same time, he cannot help but reveal himself, even inadvertently. “I don’t know why I keep talking about this,” he tells Malcolm, referring to “the subject of his reception,” his frustration about how his work is judged. "… I feel that all I do is complain about how badly I’m treated, and this is so much not what I want to be talking about. But for some reason I keep talking about it.”
Malcolm’s method is illuminated by the structure of the piece. She keeps coming back, letting Salle talk himself into tighter circles, until what emerges is not just “good value” but a deeper sense of who he is.
It’s a dynamic that emerges more than once in “Forty-One False Starts,” primarily in the four long pieces around which the collection is built. At the center of all of them is Malcolm — not just as observer but as catalyst, provoking exposures we might not otherwise see.
One of the most devastating moments here comes in “Depth of Field,” when her subject, the German photographer Thomas Struth, cites “the Paris photographs of [Eugène] Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust,” only to admit, a moment later, that he has not read Proust. “As we were leaving the café,” Malcolm writes, “Struth said, ‘I feel bad about Proust and Atget.’ Struth is a sophisticated and practiced subject of interviews. He had recognized the Proust-Atget moment as the journalistic equivalent of one of the ‘decisive moments’ when what the photographer sees in the viewfinder jumps out and says, ‘This is going to be a photograph.’ I made reassuring noises, but I knew and he knew that my picture was already on the way to the darkroom of journalistic opportunism.”
What’s fascinating about this is that Malcolm somehow renders Struth as sympathetic, not in spite but because of his blunder: It humanizes him. The same is true of Salle, or Ingrid Sischy, the onetime editor of Artforum who centers the kaleidoscopic “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a profile Malcolm stretches until it becomes a new thing, a social history of the 1980s lower Manhattan art world that encapsulates its conflicts (in essence, populism versus elitism) without exactly taking a side.
Much of the rest of “Forty-One False Starts” is taken up with critical pieces: reconsiderations of J.D. Salinger, Edward Weston and Diane Arbus; reviews of Allen Shawn and the YA fiction series “Gossip Girl.” Still, if this writing seems almost entirely of its moment, Malcolm gives it resonance.
Her take on Salinger is particularly vivid, a look at the Glass family saga that recasts it (also) through the filter of aesthetic populism, a position to which she returns — “the heroes and heroines of our time,” she writes at one point, are "… the obsessively hardworking people whose cumbersome abstentions from wrongdoing and sober avoidances of personal display have a seemliness that is like the wearing of drab colors to a funeral” — throughout the book.
Even “A House of One’s Own,” the most beautiful piece in the collection, brings something of that perspective, unexpectedly and powerfully, to a consideration of Bloomsbury.
“Were their lives really so fascinating,” Malcolm asks, “or is it simply because they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another that we find them so? Well, the latter, of course. No life is more interesting than any other life; everybody’s life takes place in the same twenty-four hours of consciousness and sleep; we are all locked into our subjectivity, and who is to say that the thoughts of a person gazing into the vertiginous depths of a volcano in Sumatra is more objectively interesting that those of a person trying on a dress at Bloomingdale’s?”
Forty-One False Starts
Essays on Artists and Writers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 298 pp., $27