Recursions, Part 2: Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts”

This is the second in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

“Forty-One False Starts,” by Janet Malcolm

I finished Malcom’s Forty-One False Starts about a week before writing this, and I have to say I found it more entertaining than enlightening. Malcolm is a vigorous and vivid writer, and she devotes a great deal of time to research and interviews (of her living subjects, at least), enacting a sort of participant-observer study for each contemporary artist. That said, sometimes her pieces struck me as highly-refined gossip columns, especially as she tended to focus on the more bizarre or freakish aspects of the writers and artists she profiles. A sort of Hunter S. Thompson with cleaner language and more East Coast snootiness. There’s no need to excuse this; it just wasn’t to my taste, even though I greatly enjoyed reading the book. (I react similarly to David Sedaris, whose humor is too often tainted with cruelty.)

Of course I had misled myself at first, assuming it would be critical analyses of the works, not anecdotal profiles of the creators. But the subtitle does says “Essays on Writers and Artists,” and she does repeatedly designate her doings as a kind of precursor to biography. Although I am a photographer myself ( or perhaps because of that), I found her several profiles of photographers least compelling; the long article on Bloomsbury, however, was fascinating, especially since I’d just read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It was interesting and appeared to cleave closely to source materials, while acknowledging that, of course, the writers of those source materials had their own agendas.

Still, while a look at famous people’s dirty laundry is always amusing, is it all that important? Everyone has dirty laundry, and everyone periodically cleans up their act for posterity. After ten thousand years of history, should this still be a surprise? Is it truly news that artists can be egotistical, and still be loving, if only selectively?

Malcolm constantly constructs well-written scenarios that amount to what I once heard referred to as “Gosh-Wows,” putting her subjects on display the way Victorians used to tour both homegrown freaks and outlandish foreigners for the bourgeoisie to leer at. I am probably in a small minority here, but I think an increase in critical distance on Malcolm’s part would have told us more about artists and their relationship to art than I feel I gained from this book.

That said, I do intend to read more Woolf, in good part because of Malcom’s essay on Bloomsbury. So maybe it all works out.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg