The Magazine

One Writer’s Bloc

Sometimes Janet Malcolm gets it right, and sometimes not.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By PETER TONGUETTE
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That the best essays here concern the visual arts is undercut by the complete absence of plates. It would have been nice, for example, to see a few of Diane Arbus’s Family Albums portraits to go along with Malcolm’s precise, elegant, and enthusiastic descriptions. On the other hand, her title essay, about the painter David Salle, starkly illustrates the frustrations of Malcolm’s approach of sticking closely to her subjects. Frazier explains that Malcolm, inspired by Salle’s collages, “chooses a similarly nervous and impatient approach to describing him and his work, progressing by repetition, revision, erasure, and stopping whenever she feels she is heading into an area that might be sort of dead.”

In other words, Janet Malcolm has written a series of prospective beginnings. But instead of evoking Salle’s work—none of which we actually see, of course—we are left feeling cheated of a real piece. When is a false start also a dead end?

Peter Tonguette is the author, most recently, of The Films of James Bridges.