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Arts & Culture

'Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers' and 'Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension'

Two writers who mix reporting and the personal essay

Photo: Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro, License: N/A

Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro

Michael Heald

Photo: , License: N/A

Janet Malcolm

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers By Janet Malcolm | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | hardcover, 320 pages

Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension By Michael Heald | Perfect Day Publishing | paperback, 192 pages

There are few nonfiction writers who are as generally feared as Janet Malcolm. One of her former colleagues at the New Yorker, where Malcolm has written for decades, once said that if she ever asked to profile him, he would get it over with and jump out the window. She is most famous, perhaps, for the opening sentence of 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.” But she is equally known for the long and expensive court case that developed out of her profile of Jeffrey Masson, head of the Freud Archives, who, Malcolm claimed, wanted to turn the archives into a place devoted to “sex, women, fun” and claimed to have slept with more than 1,000 women. Masson claimed Malcolm fabricated those quotes – but she ultimately won the case.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) collects Malcolm’s arts reporting for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books over the last few decades, and the pieces show Malcolm at the top of her game.

The title essay is one of the most avant-garde pieces of arts reporting ever written. A profile of the controversial 1980s wunderkind artist David Salle at the moment (in 1994) when he feels he has developed the skill to finally say what he wants to say and yet when the trendy art world is no longer interested in listening, Malcolm’s piece consists of 41 failed beginnings of the opening of his profile, creating a sort of collage that mirrors Salle’s work. And yet, it also raises a deeper question about Malcolm herself, as she seems to use the artists and writers to reflect her cold gaze onto her own practice so that, like Joseph Mitchell – as Malcolm puts it in her spectacular little piece on him – she “progressively risked more and more.”

“A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” her profile of Ingrid Sischy, an editor of Artforum, is actually a history of the magazine, a dissection of New York’s art world and a way for Malcolm, once again, to question her own motivations. At the end of the essay, Malcolm writes: “During the year that Sischy and I have been meeting for interviews, she has been unsparingly frank about herself. She has confessed to me her feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, she told me stories of rejection and mortification, she has consistently judged herself severely. At the same time, she has not been altogether uncritical of me. I have not lived up to her expectations as an interlocutor. She fears that I do not understand her.”

It is in profiling others that Macolm is best able to address herself. In the final essay, “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography,” she confesses that “memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character” but is instead defined by what Malcolm dubs “memory’s autism,” which is full of a “passion for the tedious.”

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