Books

Janet Malcolm Will Make You Smarter


An essential new collection from one of the great journalists of our time.



When it comes to Janet Malcolm, readers usually fall into two categories. You’re either a fan, or you’ve yet to discover her.

Her fans love her for her notorious books. The Journalist and the Murderer opens with the controversial statement: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” And In the Freud Archives, got Malcolm sued for libel when the subject of the book claimed she had fabricated quotes that characterized him as a narcissist and a womanizer.

But controversy is indicative of Malcolm’s style—she’s not interested in making friends. It’s hard to believe that this aggressive Czech-born journalist and critic got her start in 1975 at The New Yorker writing a column about something as benign as interior design. Since then, she’s taken on psychoanalysis, Sylvia Plath, true crime, Chekhov, and Gertrude Stein. She’ll make you smarter; of this there’s no doubt. But if her reputation intimidates, you’re in luck. Her essays are a gateway drug to her larger works.

41 False Starts is Malcolm’s latest collection of essays, her first since 1992’s The Purloined Clinic. In it Malcolm takes her exacting razor to the likes of Edith Wharton, “The Woman Who Hated Women,” Artforum’s former editor Ingrid Sischy, J.D. Salinger, Diane Arbus, and the Bloomsbury Group, pausing briefly to reflect on Chekhov and her own struggles with autobiography.

Since this is Malcolm we’re talking about, you don’t have to have an English degree to enjoy these essays. She’s no stuffy academic. If you haven’t actually read any Virginia Woolf, Malcolm’s writing will send you speeding to your local library to find a book of her letters. Even if you’ve never paid a thought to the royal family, her essay, “Depth of Field,” about an art photographer who suddenly finds himself responsible for their official portraits, is an absolute delight. Conversely, you might think you know the work of J.D. Salinger by now, but think again. In “Salinger’s Cigarettes,” Malcolm will show you just how genius Franny and Zooey is as she points out Salinger’s remarkable attention to detail, down to every last toke of the cigarette.

But Malcolm also has a sense of humor. The collection is named for the essay “41 False Starts,” a collection of forty-one false starts to a profile of the painter David Salle. Not only does Malcolm succeed in profiling Salle, she also illustrates that attempting to capture a person’s whole life or work in one profile is in a sense, completely ridiculous—there are so many avenues a writer can take, so many things to focus on, or to totally ignore.

This suspicion of biography is the unifying theme of this collection. As readers we’re eager for cohesive narratives of our favorite artists, and as a result their legacies fall victim to eager biographers or family members who aren’t necessarily interested in accuracy. So why read criticism at all? What’s the point? Malcolm obviously feels it’s her duty as a writer to pursue the truth of the matter at whatever cost (even legal retribution). And for that reason, she’s a writer you must read.

Like a tough professor, Malcolm is the perfect balance of an exacting intellect and a passionate mind, the person who lights a fire under you and motivates you to think for yourself. 

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