Janet Malcolm’s new book provokes the question: why don’t our own best writers do more in the media?
By Simon Wilson. Illustration by Scott Kennedy.

I got asked to eat cat food on television the other day, by a gifted writer who said he’d be doing it with me. I said no, but I hope I didn’t deter him from trying it himself.
Actually, what I really hope is that he writes it up and gives it to this magazine to publish. He’d be insightful about what eating cat food on TV might tell us about ourselves, and he’d be funny too.

But he won’t do that. He, like way too many of the really good writers in this country, can’t be bothered writing for mainstream media anymore. He’s happy enough to tweet.
Meanwhile, there’s an essay on my desk by another writer, who has been fretting about whether to adopt this or that mode of writing. It’s a writing exercise about a writing exercise, by someone who has been hothoused in one of the country’s university writing programmes, and is both beautifully written and dead on the page.

I found it a little bit irritating. Not entirely because of the subject — I believe you can write well for a general readership about anything, if you’re good enough. But if a writer does want to share their writerly concerns with us, they need to make them fascinating and they need to draw larger themes and ideas from them. My would-be contributor was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do either.

Do I blame the writing courses? I don’t know. I’m not privy to the ways they value writing. Do they praise a raft of elegantly turned phrases that do not compel readers to care about the subject? Or do they see that as a disappointing waste of talent?

And now, here’s Janet Malcolm’s Forty-one False Starts, a wonderful collection of essays largely focused on the 1980s New York art scene. That may sound as unpromising as, “Oh dear, what’s the best kind of writing to do right now?”, yet you don’t have to be an art aficionado to love this book.

That’s because Malcolm knows how to speak to a wider audience. She illuminates her topics with a frank, witty gaze and a superb grasp of storytelling, and she treats them as a springboard to larger themes.

Read Simon Wilson's full thoughtful piece here.

Additionally Simon Wilson here is the 5 minute interview yesterday on the topic with Tim Wilson. for TVNZ’s internet service - use this link :