Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013.
Nico Rosario, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Janet Malcolm about her book Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2013 NBCC awards.
From the Publisher: 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 starts,” or serial attempts to capture the essence of the painter David Salle, which becomes a dazzling portrait of an artist. Malcolm is “among the most intellectually provocative of authors,” writes David Lehman in The Boston Globe, “able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight.” Here, in Forty-one False Starts, Malcolm brings together essays published over the course of several decades (largely in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books) that reflect her preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She explores Bloomsbury’s obsessive desire to create things visual and literary; the “passionate collaborations” behind Edward Weston’s nudes; and the character of the German art photographer Thomas Struth, who is “haunted by the Nazi past,” yet whose photographs have “a lightness of spirit.” In “The Woman Who Hated Women,” Malcolm delves beneath the “onyx surface” of Edith Wharton’s fiction, while in “Advanced Placement” she relishes the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels of Cecily von Zeigesar. In “Salinger’s Cigarettes,” Malcolm writes that “the pettiness, vulgarity, banality, and vanity that few of us are free of, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.” “Over and over,” as Ian Frazier writes in his introduction, “she has demonstrated that nonfiction—a book of reporting, an article in a magazine, something we see every day—can rise to the highest level of literature.” One of Publishers Weekly's Best Nonfiction Books of 2013.
Janet Malcolm’s collection of essays, Forty-One False Starts, is full of striking and provocative voices from many of the 20th century’s most noted writers and artists. As I read each essay, I found myself challenging the interviewees and often times I wondered what Ms. Malcolm's responses were, not only to her subjects (or in one case, herself in the past), but to the issues/ideas raised during the conversations. I decided to send her a few intriguing quotes and elicit her reaction, as well as share my own views on the subjects at hand…
"The fact is that in our culture it does fall primarily to gays and blacks to make something interesting. Almost everything from straight white culture is less interesting, and has been for a long time." David Salle, "Forty-One False Starts," pg. 32
I found this quote interesting because as a person of color, I often find the opposite to be true. It seems that most celebrated art, at least visual arts, film, and TV (is that art?) are from the perspective of the "Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarch," to quote bell hooks. I'm curious what you thought of Salle's statement at the time and what, if anything, has changed about this over time.
"To enter the state of absorption in which art is made requires reserves of boorishness that not every exquisitely courteous person can summon but that the true artist unhesitatingly draws on." Janet Malcolm, "Depth of Field," pg. 44
This portrait of the 'true artist' is a pervasive one, mostly because many artists I know fit that description. Does this describe your writing process? Do you consider yourself an artist?
"'Why are you interested in art in the first place?' ... Presumably this powerful experience then makes you want to go on and think about it and learn about it and write about it. But you must have at some point been ravished, been seduced, been taken in. And it's this experience that is probably what one calls an aesthetic experience. And it probably doesn't have very much to do with the message." Rosalind Krauss, "The Girl of the Zeitgiest," pg. 201
The writer Ben Lerner sneeringly refers to this phenomenon as a "profound experience of art" in his book, Leaving the Atocha Station. There seems to be a resistance to this concept, especially in the contemporary art world, as if it is fabricated or cliche. But like Ms. Krauss, I believe this kind of experience is essential to one's understanding and appreciation of art. I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on this subject...
Dear Nico Rosario,
Since all your questions are about quotations, I will answer them as if they were one question.
You want to know what was going through my mind when these provocative things were said during my interviews with David Sale, Thomas Struth, and Rosalind Kraus and I can only say that I did not respond to them in the way I would have responded if we were having an ordinary conversation. While interviewing people, I am interested in what they think -- not in what I think of what they think and whether I agree or disagree with it. My purpose is to draw them out. If I comment on what they say, it is with the idea of drawing them out further, not to assert my views for the sake of asserting them. When I argue with an interviewee I do so in the service of his or her portrait and not because I care -- or care very much -- about the argument.
Your strong, cogent, somewhat hostile reactions to the three quotations please me. It suggests that I chose well (from the many parts of the interviews that didn't appear in the pieces) and that I interviewed well.
P.S. I just realized, while soaking in the tub, that your quote from the Depth of Field piece using the word 'boorishness' was written by me rather than spoken by Struth. The line was meant to be funny and, I hope, speaks for itself.
Janet Malcolm is the acclaimed author of many books, including In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial; Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (for which she received the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography); and Burdock, a volume of her photographs of a “rank weed.” Malcolm writes frequently for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
When not on the dance floor, Nico Rosario splits her time between writing about pop culture, making mixtapes, and Easy-Jetsetting.