Ariel Levy on the Book That Changed Her

As told to
Ariel Levy. Photo: Getty Images

In Reading Women, the Cut talks to women who interest us about the books by women that transformed the way they think.

The title essay of Janet Malcolm’s book Forty-one False Starts came out in 1994, when I was in college. It’s a profile of the painter David Salle, but it’s called Forty-one False Starts because Malcolm writes 41 different ledes. Each one is a different way you would approach writing a profile, but nothing’s redundant or repetitive. It does everything a magazine profile should do: There’s a narrative arc, and by the end you have a fully actualized, complicated sense of this guy and his work. The fact that she had taken this form, the magazine profile, and came up with something completely new was mind-blowing to me. It was like, Oh my god, magazine journalism could be art.

Reading Janet Malcolm is so thrilling because it makes you realize as a nonfiction writer, the sky’s the limit. The writing itself on a sentence level is just bananas. It’s so smart. It’s crackling with intelligence, and also really lyrical and elegant. Having been a magazine journalist now for 20 years, I’m more impressed than ever, because I know how hard it is to write a piece that sings — that really does something, and stands the test of time. It’s like, fine, David Salle isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue the way he was in 1994, but the piece is as interesting as ever because it’s also about the nature of art, and Malcolm’s own aspirations for creating art. She brings up such fascinating, deep questions.

Forty-one False Starts by Janet Malcolm
$9, Amazon
The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy
$16, Amazon

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Ariel Levy on the Book That Changed Her