As a collection, Forty-One False Starts falls to the side of indiscriminate, especially the several shorter essays at the end that felt like they were included more because they ﬁt the theme of artists and writers than because they had something truly remarkable to say. Maybe they were victims of placement, but they probably stand out more because most of the essays are so good, most especially the titular, opening essay in which Malcolm composes a proﬁle of the artist David Salle through forty-one possible openers for the essay, an exploration of an artist’s process that also exposes its own process.
In essays about the legend of the Woolf sisters and Bloomsbury and how the Upper East Side romanticism of J. D. Salinger in Franny and Zooey was not so well-received when it was ﬁrst published, Malcolm discretely explains a lot of the factual background while capturing the enchanting natures of her subjects. There’s a very long essay “Girl of the Zeitgeist” from 1986, which is ostensibly a proﬁle of Artforum’s Ingrid Sischy, but it traverses through interviews with many diﬀerent people around Sischy, one a time, before she actually appears in interview with Malcolm, that is also becomes about much more. It’s so very long, but I found the discussion of mid-1980s controversy around a MOMA show trying to connect modern art to “primitive” pieces from various cultures fascinating, most especially how the argument played out across several issues of Artforum. (Now such a brouhaha would probably happen over a couple hours on Twitter.)
While many of these essays don’t require a reader to be familiar with the topics, as they have enough background info to establish context, others either do demand familiarity or even a personal interest in the topic, as the essay about Gene Stratton-Porter’s romance novels — which I have never read and now deﬁnitely never well. While I was expecting a bit more cohesive collection, this is almost like picking up an issue of The New Yorker that is comprised solely of Janet Malcolm essays, no ﬁction, poems, or cartoons (except some of these essays were originally published in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review).