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Janet Malcolm flashes fresh light on artists and writers

There’s an occlusion in the rest of us, we writers: a blockage, stubborn and opaque, lodged somewhere between what we mean to express and what we manage to convey. The bracing, oxygenated clarity of Janet Malcolm’s prose suggests she doesn’t suffer similarly ­— though that is probably an illusion, fostered by her extraordinary ability to give verbal shape to thoughts, perceptions, feelings we might be only dimly aware of having had until she places them, crystallized, on the page in front of us.

“As I write about him now — I haven’t seen him for a month — I feel the return of antagonism, the sense of sourness.” That is Malcolm in the title piece of her invigorating new collection, “Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers,” articulating an emotion we journalists, in our ostensible immaculate objectivity, aren’t supposed to admit having about our subjects. At the time, in the early 1990s, her subject was the postmodern painter David Salle, whom she interviewed extensively over two years, and whom she also liked to the point of sometimes thinking — and here is another journalistic worry — that she was “overliking him.” Self-scrutiny is a part of her process and, though not always overtly, a part of her product: 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. That’s not as common a combination as it ought to be.

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