For many people, literary criticism has stuffy, academic connotations. Or at least, it’s not considered a fine tradition or associated with artfulness. In this view, criticism is strictly vocational, a job one does to help prospective buyers decide whether or not to purchase whatever book’s under review––the capitalist side of literature, in other words. To anyone who even somewhat takes this view, I present Hilton Als’s White Girls, which, along with Ali Smith’s Artful, is one of the most fascinating and personal works of criticism published in the last few years.
Als—a staff writer at The New Yorker—is a brave writer, one unafraid of taboos. But Als isn’t out to be deliberately provocative––it’s just that his interests are mired in complex and uncomfortable subjects, and his language refuses to adhere to political correctness, but instead probes each topic with the passion of an artist. His essay “The Women,” opens with this sentence: “Truman Capote became a woman in 1947.” He’s referring to the outwardly feminine photograph that appeared on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first book. “And the woman he became in this photograph,” Als continues, “wanted to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.”
This is not the kind of diction ordinarily associated with literary criticism. Rock critics write like this, sure, but not New Yorker staffers, right? Well, what a relief. How has it been that the people studying and commenting on some of the most important art being produced use language that rarely reflects the joyous expression of these same works? Where are the critics in tune to the contemporary moment?
Here Als writes about Eminem’s influences:
To say, as many critics have, that whites steal from blacks who originate important work in music or fashion is beside the point. Black American style has had a prevailing influence on the way Americans dress and create music for decades now, long before Black Panther wives were covered in Vogue.
Mathers, Als writes, “never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn’t feel white and privileged,” noting that “part of Mathers’s genius lies in his ability to market his story to the white counterculture. He knew he wasn’t the only wigger out there.” Als’s language here––direct, honest, uncompromising, almost offensive––is part of Als’s ethos: he doesn’t just write about his subjects; he engages with them.
As engrossing and liberated as Als’s voice is, it’s his spirit that gives White Girls its true beauty. Als has the soul of a storyteller. More specifically, he has the soul of a fiction writer. Many of these essays are flights of critical fancy in which he adopts the voice of his subject. In “I Am the Happiness of This World,” Als becomes Louise Brooks, the famed silent film star. “I am Louise Brooks,” the piece opens, “whom no man will ever possess.” This kind of ventriloquism is the realm of the fiction writer (Oates and Mailer writing in the voice of Marilyn Monroe, for instance); but Als’s piece does double duty: it’s a wonderfully wrought story and a scathing work of criticism, directed, in part, at critics themselves:
And yet these men did seek to possess me, again and again, and primarily as authors of a text––biography, film criticism, memoirs––that features my name and descriptions of myself––or herself, the “star”––and sometimes photographs as well. But they did it for themselves. They did it by becoming authors of a text in which they are in control of me or herself, that thing that moves them to want to define and fix me through language that is not my own.
The least an object can do is shut up. Speech is impertinent.
Brooks is silent no more, and her point is revelatory, especially since her words directly contradict Als’s ostensible project: by giving Brooks language, he allows her to state that she can’t be constrained (especially by men) to that very language. Only an artist would be willing to engage in such self-condemnation, and only a true artist would suffer through it for the sake of the piece.
In one of the book’s most arresting essays (if we can even call them that), Als takes on the voice of Richard Pryor’s sister, an erudite woman tinged with cynical bitterness. Here Als’s combination of voice and critical acumen startles as much as it enlightens. Writing about Virginia Woolf (whom she refers to as “Suicide Bitch”), Pryor quotes from A Room of One’s Own: “It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine Negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.” Pryor interprets this as: “Who gives a shit about a colored bitch; your invisibility is your freedom,” concluding, “I resent Suicide Bitch. I resent her talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room.” Such abrasive assertions contain profound questions about Woolf’s seminal work: how are women of color supposed to take Woolf’s feminist tenets? Does Woolf’s work speak to them at all?
From “Tristes Tropiques,” the book’s deeply personal and heart wrenching opening, to “It Will Soon Be Here,” its meditative closing pages, Als challenges not just conventional views of literature but the very approach. Als, like Smith, has opened up the field of criticism, invigorating it from the throws of cerebral aloofness and esoteric exclusion. Maybe now readers will view criticism as not only the fine tradition that it is, but also as an art. And, with writers like Als around, an art to be reckoned with.
About the Reviewer
Jonathan Russell Clark's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Chautauqua, Buffalo Almanack, Thrasher Magazine, Edge Boston and Dig Boston, for which he was a book and theater critic. He is currently in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is at work on a novel.