Forty-one False Starts

Forty-one Salse StartsForty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
Janet Malcolm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 7, 2013), 317 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.23

Janet Malcolm published an essay collection in 2019 entitled Nobody’s Looking at You. It received positive reviews, but when I read the Kindle sample I could not get engaged. The essays were quotidian in nature, which is fine. The subject matter just didn’t intrigue me. But when I stumbled on Forty-one False Starts the subtitle caught my attention. The book is indeed exactly what the subtitle suggests. The essays originally appeared in three New York publications: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review.

The title essay is also the first essay in the book. It is an interview with artist David Salle, something I didn’t find particularly interesting. On the other hand, Malcolm’s essay on the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf and company, contained some interesting context about the relationships within that circle of family and friends. Malcolm is a devotee of JD Salinger and does nothing to hide the fact. In her Salinger essay Malcolm speaks poorly of both Joyce Maynard and Salinger’s daughter, both of whom wrote books that were not flattering towards him.

Malcolm can delve into the realm of TMI. She writes about how the wife of art critic John Ruskin filed for annulment after six years of marriage because the marriage had never been consummated. Why she waited six years I have no idea, but she did. Ruskin admitted that this was the case, stating, “Her person was not formed to excite passion.” Malcolm cites the art historian Mary Lutyens who suggests that Ruskin was put off by his wife’s pubic hair. His familiarity with the nude female form came from painting and sculpture, where such is not represented. I could have gone on with my life perfectly well without encountering that factoid.

In other essays, Malcolm offers a look at the life of Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter (author of Girl of the Limberlost), the photographers Julia Cameron and Diane Arbus, and New Yorker editor William Shawn. Malcolm discusses photographer Edward Weston and delves into the fact that Weston regularly got into bed with his nude models. One problem with writing essays about photographers is that we don’t have the photographs Malcom discusses to look at. But such is the nature of essays published in periodicals like the ones in which these appeared. (And in any case, a quick Google search can turn up the desired image.)

Many of the essays in this volume offered useful material and valuable insight, Ruskin aside. Then there were the one or two essays in which I wondered why Malcom bothered to go there. There is a seventy-five page dissection of the people and controversy surrounding the journal Artforum. Malcolm interviews many of the players and as a bonus she describes the New York City lofts in which they lived. It all seemed to me much ado about very little. But this essay originally appeared in The New Yorker, and is just the sort of pointless trivia the magazine is sometimes guilty of publishing.

Overall, however, Malcom offers some entertaining and educational reading about artists, writers, and photographers.

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