Monday, 23 June 2014

Book review: Forty-one false starts, Janet Malcolm (2013)

Among all these fabulous pieces my stand-out preference is a 72-page article about the editor during the 80s of a New York art magazine, originally published in the New Yorker, partly because it attests to the writer's abiding interest in the arts; she would never have thought to do the piece unless she had not personally been affected by the change in editorial style of Artforum, you think. A long article, the piece has that deep structure which is so hard to distinguish at first, but which all along is working to organise the writer's words. It contains extended sections of direct speech from art critics, mainly, but also from artists. The topic is such a strange idea though it coheres - but this is the kind of odd thing that fans have come to rely on Malcolm to deliver.

For journalism students the name Malcolm is almost shorthand for intelligence and quality in journalism, and this book delivers both in strong doses, like a good morning coffee. You wonder how the stories were assigned, or dreamt up, whichever the case may be, but you are constantly delighted with the acute eye of the writer, the depth of research, and the commitment to delivering strong stories. Like the Katrina Strickland book I reviewed a few days ago, this is a keeper, because it's pretty certain that one day you'll want to go back and reread one of the pieces because it will have remained with you in some way you cannot immediately anticipate.

There is plenty here to puzzle over and to think about. This is a very strong book, despite the drab cover which has something decidedly belonging to 70s amateur design about it. Of course, the pieces range in time over a period of 30 years, so appropriating that particular aesthetic is not out of place. It just doesn't do justice to the power and colour of Malcolm's writing.

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