41 False Starts

Janet Malcolm masterfully records the process of creation
July 18, 2013

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41 False Starts
by Janet Malcolm (Granta, £20)

To read Janet Malcolm is to realise how timid most writers are by comparison. The first piece in 41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is a long profile of the painter David Salle. Describing two years of interviews she conducted with Salle in order to write the essay, Malcolm says casually, “I did not find what he said about his work interesting (I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting).” Even so, the essay itself is unfailingly interesting, a gripping experiment in form—it is made up of 41 attempts at writing the beginning of the article—which paints a vivid portrait of an artist struggling to understand his own work.

Malcolm has a perfectionist’s fascination with failure. What makes her unusual is that, unlike most critics, she is not interested in triumphantly pinpointing artists’ mistakes but in recording the process of creation. The contingency of art is one of the great themes of this book. What makes Salle decide that one of his abandoned works is “one of the worst things I’ve done in years,” when to an outsider it looks similar to his successful works? What makes the photographer Thomas Struth choose to display one image and discard another? These kinds of questions haunt Malcolm’s own work—there is often a moment where she pulls away the curtain to reveal how she has been shaping proceedings and how the story could have been told differently. In the hands of most writers this would be self-indulgent, but here it feels not only illuminating but essential.