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.
Salle, she informs us, “never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever.” Her ingeniously structured portrait of him is an essay in 41 parts, most of them brief, all of them beginnings. Together they’re meant to echo his canvases: “To write about the painter David Salle is to be forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences,” she explains in the 40th miniature. Except that Malcolm reworks her brushstrokes, fascinatingly, over and over again.
The 16 pieces collected here include profiles and criticism, some hefty, others mere squibs. A 1986 essay on Artforum is among the most sprawling, and one of the oldest. All were published after psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson famously sued Malcolm, unsuccessfully, for libel in 1984. Since the mid-’80s, her writing seems less self-satisfied, yet her acuity undiminished, as is her sense of fun.
An alluring partisan vivacity buoys Malcolm’s discussion of Bloomsbury, from 1995, and she is delightfully enthusiastic about Cecily von Ziegesar’s “Gossip Girl” novels. So what if they’re “of Hostess Twinkie immateriality”? They are, she contends, “strange, complicated books,” amounting to a “transgressive fairy tale.” “I will not give away whether Blair does or doesn’t get into Yale,” she teases, and she is right to avoid the spoiler: Even if you have never for a moment considered reading a “Gossip Girl” novel, Malcolm will tempt you toward trying one.
Enticing us to think afresh is Malcolm’s task throughout these essays, and she is particularly incisive when she believes there is wrong to be righted. “The world of Edith Wharton’s novels — sometimes erroneously thought to be the actual world of late-nineteenth-century New York — is a dark, nightmarish place peopled by weak, desperate men and destructive, pathetic, narcissistic women,” she begins in her 1986 piece “The Woman Who Hated Women.” Wharton, she argues, “is not the wan, old-fashioned realist we have taken her to be,” but rather a modernist whose novels are “pervaded by a deep pessimism and an equally profound misogyny.”
In “Salinger’s Cigarettes,” from 2001, she leaps to the defense of the famously reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger and his “modest wish for privacy,” which, she says, “was perceived as a provocation and met with hostility.” “The pain caused Salinger by the crass, vengeful memoirs of, respectively, his former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret, may be imagined,” she writes. And this is one of the qualities that set Malcolm apart: She does imagine such pain. She does not cling to the writer’s self-serving myth that there is no ethical problem with making material of other people’s lives. In a 2007 piece, she recalls her response to Lillian Ross’s 1998 memoir of her life with the fastidiously private, married New Yorker editor William Shawn: “Ross’s heedless chronicle of their forty-year-long affair (with photographs to buttress her words in case anyone doubted them) seemed an especially brutal violation of trust.” But she allows that “the book reads differently” with the passage of years. “Ross’s revelations about Shawn’s intimate life that seemed distasteful when he was freshly dead now seem merely — interesting.”
The weakest piece in the collection is the most recent, a profile of photographer Thomas Struth from 2011. Did Malcolm choose it for inclusion because she had been so drawn to him? She describes him, gushingly, as “the kid in the class everyone wants to sit next to,” and this is the clue we’re in danger. Too great an emotional investment can be an enormous obstacle to writing well about someone. Her brief eulogies for Shawn, under whom she worked at The New Yorker, and for Joseph Mitchell, also a staff writer there, cloy a bit.
But the Shawn piece, the shortest in the book, gives us a hint about Malcolm’s formation as a writer. She and the others he taught by example “sought to eliminate from our writing the pretentiousness, intellectual shallowness, moral murkiness, and aesthetic limpness that come naturally to the pen,” Malcolm attests. She, for one, has been astonishingly successful at that. To whatever degree it was her editor’s doing: Thank you, Mr. Shawn.