From The New Yorker:
When I’m stuck—and I’m stuck all the time—I look at “Forty-one False Starts,” Janet Malcolm’s Profile of the artist David Salle. The piece is a strange paean to the fact of journalistic fallibility. You will never capture a subject’s real likeness. There are too many possible beginnings to choose from, too many ways to write a sentence, to disclose a detail or share an observation, and settling on one possibility forecloses all the others. But Malcolm found a way not to choose—to admit to her limitations in a way that transformed them into something wonderful, something unique, and she did it with so much style and intelligence that the rest of us can only put our pencils down and call it a day. It is a triumph disguised as failure, and the performance of the piece is unrepeatable: like the writer who wrote it, one of a kind. —Alexandra Schwartz
There are certain people for whom a first name doesn’t quite suffice, even in the minds of their friends. It feels obscene to claim Janet Malcolm as a friend. She was one, but I was never able to think of her as just “Janet.” She was always her full name in my mind. I’ve never met a person (or read the work of a person) who was so assuredly herself. Her brilliant books are nearly most amazing for what they leave out, which is everything that didn’t interest her. There was nothing dutiful in her writing: if she didn’t care about some element of a story, she just didn’t include it. She was this way in person, too, growing quiet when a conversation turned in a direction she found boring. “You can scarcely believe such people exist!” was a line I heard her say multiple times, in reference to figures she found foolish. Such a dignified and damning way of expressing distaste: doubting someone’s very existence.
Her self-assurance had a way of making life seem so straightforward. A little more than a year ago, I was telling her about the book I was writing, wringing my hands about various people who wouldn’t talk to me. Her advice was simple: “Forget about them. Just write about the people who will talk to you. That’s what I do.” It felt like a revelation. Similarly, when I invited her to attend a lecture that was going to be held near her house, she replied, “Dear Alice, thanks for thinking of me, but I don’t think so. xxxJ” I’m not sure if I’ve ever received a more inspiring or instructive e-mail.