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Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  524 ratings  ·  65 reviews
A National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Criticism

A deeply Malcolmian volume on painters, photographers, writers, and critics.

Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, as well as her books about Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, are canonical in the realm of nonfiction—as is the title essay of this collection, with its forty-one "false st
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 7th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published April 24th 2013)
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Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Now this is a different kettle of fish. I just wrote a non-review for Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings in which I said I didn’t understand a word of her dense essays, all psychoanalysis and people I’d never heard of. This collection of Malcolm’s work, by contrast, has some kind of entrée. For one thing, she writes about famously reclusive artists like Salinger (“Salinger’s Cigarettes”) and Arbus (“Good Pictures”), and although she may go on a bit long (IMHO), her unique point of ...more
Jun 02, 2013 rated it liked it
The haphazard, somewhat thrown-together quality of the essays and profiles included in Forty-One False Starts keeps this collection from being a truly satisfying record of Malcolm’s writing on contemporary artists and writers. Several very brief pieces, including two near the end, should simply have been left out: they’re notebook jottings, not finished pieces; and Malcolm’s famous, long article on Ingrid Sischy, “Girl of the Zeitgeist” from 1986, has aged rather badly, perhaps because the petty ...more
Faith McLellan
May 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writers, nonfiction, art
Janet Malcolm is a genius. Her gifts are on full, and often chilling, display here. Full of erudition, razor-sharp judgments, icy observations. Learned and scary and admirable. Would not want to be on her bad side. Agree with other readers that the last two "chapters" are disastrous additions--are there any editors left? The chapter on Bloomsbury perhaps the best. I have read this collection over a day or so and feel as if run over by a truck--in a good way. ...more
Aug 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
This fantastic collection of essays - covering David Salle, Edith Wharton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia and Vanessa Bell, among others - is quite unlike any other I've read. Janet Malcolm takes the idea of "review" and "critique" to a different level. She truly is an original thinker and an incisive critic. I disagreed with almost everything she wrote in this collection, but, boy did she make me think. I was outraged, humbled, and enervated. I really want to have lunch with her. ...more
Jul 08, 2013 rated it it was ok
The first sentence in Janet Malcolm's controverisal book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," is probably the most provocative line she's ever written. The book was about the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering his family, and Joe McGinnis, the writer who pretended to befriend him. The sentence is, "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." McGinnis never recovered from the ...more
Terry Pitts
Oct 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
There is certainly much to praise in these sixteen essays on artists and writers, such as Thomas Struth, J.D. Salinger, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, and William Shawn. Malcolm knows how to keep the reader continually intrigued, sometimes to the point that we can't see exactly where her trail of bread crumbs is leading us. And she's a precise writer, who always seems to find the exact word or phrase that fits her subject and distinguishes her sentence.

Malcolm is essentially a biographe
May 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I reviewed this book over at The Millions (clickable link) ...more
Alex Sarll
With one exception*, these essays from publications with 'New York' in their titles concern writers I have no interest in reading, and artists whose work means nothing to me; the one of them I even put into Google Images was a grave disappointment compared to how luminously intriguing Malcolm had made him sound. A quarter of the book is taken up with a long piece on ructions at an eighties New York art magazine, a subject on which I would struggle to give less of a toss. And yet, when it's all p ...more
Some say the best-written reviews and critiques reveal something about the critic as much as the subject being reviewed. With that criteria, you would think Forty-one False Starts by Janet Malcolm would be brilliant, the writing being so self-absorbed.

To be fair, the title essay was fascinating and engaging, a critique of the larger-than-life artist David Salle told in 41 short sections that give us different facets and points of view on Salle; its unique form is a commentary on the writing/cre
Jun 27, 2013 rated it it was ok
As if The Journalist and the Murderer and Two Lives weren't enough for me to go by! But I read those for class, so the interesting part of observing Malcolm's writing tics is over and done with. The title essay was so pretentious that I, even as member of the expected audience, felt alienated and bored. And I'm morally opposed to the writing of seven-page essays with two full pages' worth devoted to block quotes (see The Woman Who Hated Women). ...more
Sarah Yasin
Mar 18, 2016 added it
Shelves: chesterton
Malcolm makes good sentences. While enjoyable to read, some ideas in this volume are stuck in the past, which is a shame any time an intelligent writer lingers in the past (salman rushde comes to mind). Specifically, when she differs with Chesterton, claiming there is no more pure white virtue since Hitler, only grey "decency." Hitler did not introduce large-scale evil into the world, and Chesterton was aware of atrocities we prefer not to imagine. ...more
May 31, 2013 rated it did not like it
I'm no longer a student, so I am not forced to read pretentious academic material that is in no way pleasurable. That said, I put the book down after the title essay and the one about Edith Wharton. Life's too short to read books I don't like. Also, the fact that the author has her own adjective, "Malcolmian," is exhausting. ...more
Jun 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: to-finish
Excellent collection of essays on writers and artists. I was captured by "Salinger's cigarettes" and stuck around for Virginia Woolf and Gene Stratton Porter. There's nothing earth-shaking in Malcolm's assessments, but I like her voice, and she shares enough new (to me) factoids to make it interesting. ...more
Kristina Pasko
Jul 20, 2014 rated it liked it
I don't think I could call Malcolm one of my favorite writers (this is the first book of hers that I've read), and I don't really like her style (humorless, matter-of-fact, a bit bland) but it was a good exercise to see good literary (and art) criticism meant for popular consumption. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister). ...more
Jan 13, 2014 rated it liked it
My interest waned in this a little towards the end and Malcolm's writing wasn't enough to get me absorbed in subjects I didn't have a pre-existing interest in. I enjoyed the essays on Bloomsbury and Salinger the most. ...more
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, essays
I got a little bored with a couple of these essays (surprisingly, the one about Virginia Woolf and family) but others (especially those on artists and photographers) were just brilliant.
Jul 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
Could have used another edit as there's at least three essays here that are giants (60 pages or more) that throw the collection out of balance (most of the other pieces are around 12-15 pages). But Janet Malcolms eye and prose-- piercing, probing, curious, and singular-- makes just about anything she writes beautiful. And a little scary. ...more
Oct 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This collection includes essays from 1986-2011. Malcolm’s profiles are layered and interesting. She finds the extraordinariness in the person and the situation surrounding the person and strings together each fascinating element, as if knitting a garment that when completed is presented as a gift that no one wants to return.

I am not an insider in the art world and I had to look up all of the artists she profiled. But I never felt like an outsider while reading the essays. My googling was a resu
Dec 25, 2018 rated it liked it
when she left she left behind by accident a tiny little tube—a fragrance? a perfume oil? a scent? i don't know the technical vocabulary—of what is, apparently, bois de balincourt, and i told her, and she said, well, we'll just have to see each other again, won't we. that, i thought to myself, or mail it, although i knew why that wasn't articulated. at just about the same time, the same part of the looming week, maybe even the same day, i was lent this copy of forty-one false starts, which i almo ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
was not eager to read this one but as usual with Janet Malcolm I was spirited along a path of erudition that didn't feel like hard labor, and rewarded with insight. ...more
I received a promotional copy of this book through the First Reads program.

Rating: Somewhere in the 3 to 3 1/2 range.

I really like the title piece. "Capitalist Pastorale" is a waste of time. The others fall somewhere in between, with "Edward Weston's Nudes" being one of the better pieces and the Bloomsbury piece falling flat.

There are whiffs of elitism and NYC-centrism scattered throughout the book. She likes to quote other writers, and does so a bit too much for my taste. Sometimes it seems a
Aseem Kaul
Jan 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
How amusing that a book called Forty-one False Starts should start off strong and gradually peter out towards the end!

The best pieces in Janet Malcolm's book are the ones in the beginning: the profile of David Salle that gives the book its title is one of the most creative and insightful pieces I've read in a long while, the piece on the Bloomsbury legend is fascinating, and her take on Salinger's Franny and Zooey left me itching to re-read that book.

The essays that follow are nowhere near as
Hank Stuever
Jan 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
After the memorable title piece, which was fantastic when it first ran in the New Yorker and is still 98 percent as fantastic now (but caution to all writers who are thinking of aping it: the structure worked exactly once), most of the rest of these Malcolm articles should be labeled "for serious fans only."

These are deep -- and deeply intellectual -- essays on well-known and also arcane subjects of art, literature, photography. My favorite piece, after "Forty-One False Starts," is "Capitalist
May 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I'm not a fan of literary or art criticism--too much talking about art by people who can't make it, usually. But this book goes far beyond the usual artspeak to say real and important things about the artists and writers represented here and about their work. The title essay is a smart and evocative meditation not just on its subject, the painter David Salle, but on the absurdly difficult process of trying to capture the essence of a person in words. Together the 41 "false starts" make a complet ...more
Jun 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Unshowy, unhurried, eventually insightful writing about culture and people. The longer pieces are interesting in being rare examples of long-form journalism about culture and people, as opposed to the more common short-form cultural critique, of which there are also some examples here. There's much that's admirable and somewhat inspiring in this book, but - and there is a slight but - while it's rewarding enough to grip, it's rarely if ever as satisfying as more conventional books of cultural cr ...more
Apr 01, 2014 rated it liked it
I have always respected the ability of the pen. But I have never seen the sharpness and strength of the pen until I had read a Janet Malcolm piece. Malcolm's writing has always either opened my eyes to the art world, or forced me to appreciate how everything either stems from this world or attributes to it; everything contributes to everything, and has meaning. This collection of her essays has only served to deepen my respect for her and the pen as her instrument of wonder. I will honest that t ...more
Apr 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is not a book of essays; these pieces are reportage and should be read as such. Malcolm's work in this book seems to me more about connecting with her subjects and her subjects' subjects (i.e. painting), which are also of great personal interest to her, and persuading them to reveal themselves and their unique relationships to their subjects -- an interest that differentiates her work from that of biographers who primarily seek gory childhood and marriage details. Not that M would refuse su ...more
Oct 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: women-writers
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 ...more
Paul Wilner
Jun 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Salinger piece is wonderful, and feisty, with several well-chosen ripostes in the direction of his detractors )Malcolm's specialty, in her gentlewoman's way) and the Virginia Woolf and Ingrid Sischy pieces are also delightful. (banal word, just read them and you will see, the Woolf thing in particular is just amazing, particularly acute in the way she dissects the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa). ...more
Nov 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Janet Malcolm is just SO SMART. And her essays, most of which have been published before in the New Yorker, but maybe not all of them, are quite diverse in both subject and writing style. These range from David Salle to Hilaire Belocq and everywhere in between. I read it in fits and starts, an essay here, another one a week later. Absolutely fascinating.
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Janet Malcolm is a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fi

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