Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, as well as her biographies of 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 become a dazzling portrait of an artist. "She 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." Forty-one False Starts brings together for the first time essays published over the course of several decades (many from The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books) that reflect Malcolm's preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She explores the "dominating passion" of Bloomsbury to create things visual and literary, the "passionate collaborations" behind Edward Weston's nudes, and the psyche of the German photographer Thomas Struth.
She delves beneath the "onyx surface" of Edith Wharton's fiction, appreciates the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels, and confronts the false starts of her own autobiography. As Ian Frazier writes in the introduction, "Over and over Malcolm has demonstrated that an article in a magazine-something we see every day-can rise to the highest level of literature."