30 Books 2013: Carolyn Kellogg on Janet Malcolm’s ‘Forty-One False Starts’

by Carolyn Kellogg | Mar-10-2014


In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg offers an appreciation of Janet Malcolm’s criticism finalist, “Forty-One False Starts” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

How to begin?

There are many wrong ways to write an essay; finding the right way is the tricky part.

The title essay in Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts” holds the key to understanding the collection of works on writers and artists as a whole. The 35-page piece on David Salle begins, goes for four meaty paragraphs, trails off, and begins again. And again. And again. Each time, there is a slightly different angle, a different point of entry:  setting, scene, a physical description, a personal observation, a memorable quote, a theme. With this 1994 story in the New Yorker, Malcolm deconstructs the idea of the artist profile, revealing its limitations, its frustrations, its shortcomings, while, of course, writing an artist profile after all.

Published over the course of 25 years, the essays in Malcolm’s collection focus on visual artists and the writers of Bloomsbury, photographers Daine Arbus and Julia Margaret Cameron and Edward Weston, Salinger’s work and Edith Wharton’s, muses and  editors. Malcolm is a superior journalist, a relentless observer, a writer who can be present on the page without demanding undue attention.

These essays reveal what a gifted journalist can do to convey the meaning of creative work and the importance of artists and writers to our culture. But she reminds us of the frustrations and failures of her endeavor, and points out that her narrative choices preclude others that might have been just as true.


Carolyn Kellogg is staff writer at the L.A. Times where she writes reviews, features, covers the publishing industry and maintains the award-winning book blog, Jacket Copy. Her reviews have appeared in other publications, including Bookforum and the Columbia Journalism Review. She can be found on Twitter @paperhaus.



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