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Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm; Farrar Straus and Giroux, 298 pages ($27). In the first sentence of her Jeffrey MacDonald book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm made one of the most quoted – and near-universally despised – judgements in recent American literature: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” If one is looking at the profession through the eyes of upper-class privilege – where the folk wisdom used to be that one’s name should only appear in print when you’re born, when you’re married and when you die – there’s more than a little truth to Malcolm’s blanket moral disdain from on high. Journalism is not a tasteful profession. At rock bottom, it can’t help but appear to be an unseemly interest in the lives of others. And its methods of uncovering the hidden can’t help but equivocate and even prevaricate (if not by sins of commission, at the very least sins of omission).

Which is why The New Yorker’s tradition of what amounts to de facto meta-journalism – journalism about journalism, where at least half of its non-fiction from the beginning has implicitly been journalism ABOUT journalism – remains one of the most important traditions in American writing.

Malcolm seems to occupy the semi-scandalous position at the New Yorker that Lillian Ross once did with her profiles. Says Ian Frazier in his extravagantly laudatory introduction to this collection – her first since “The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings” in 1992” – “Janet Malcolm is a wild writer…a lot of journalism is a bedtime story you are sleepily hearing for the hundredth time but with a piece by Janet Malcolm you never know where things will lead.” Her subjects in these emblematic pieces – mostly for those strongholds of patrician exposition The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books – are: painter David Salle (the clever and formally creative title piece), photographers Thomas Struth, Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston and Irving Penn, painter Julian Schnabel, Bloomsbury, Ingrid Sischy, J.D. Salinger and the Shawn Family.

– Jeff Simon