I have read a lot of books in public places, but I don’t think I have ever been judged so much by others as when I noticed people giving me quizzical, even bitter glances, as I sat reading White Girls, the latest collection of essays by Hilton Als, the longtime writer and critic for The New Yorker. The irony, of course, is that the title has little to do with the book, which sort of makes sense, since Als’ M.O. is not a polemic on the “evils” of white women or even white privilege, but rather critical analysis of how black men and women have confronted white privilege, culturally, sexually and sociologically.
In his 5 December 2013 review of White Girls for The Chicago Tribune, Michael Robbins believed that the last third of the book would qualify as “the best book of the year,” but that the first 90 pages was a “meandering memoir” that he “slogged through with increasing boredom and frustration.”
I read Als very differently. While the first 94 pages comprised a memoir on race and relationships titled “Tristes Tropiques” that was at times enervating, I also found it to be brutally honest, especially on the challenges that Als believed he and his partners faced as black gay men, particularly in confronting AIDS.
However, the final third of the book that Robbins found so delightful was, for me, a confusing and bewildering trek. While the subject matter of the essays seems fairly easy to discern – Richard Pryor, Buddy Ebsen, Andre Leon Talley, Louise Brooks and Jean-Michel Basquiat – reading Als work is fraught with difficulty, most notably in his Faulknerian tendency of moving from third person to first person and then back with seemingly no indication of an impending transition.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the essays “I Am the Happiness of This World” and “You and Whose Army?” In the former, Als writes about Louise Brooks, the American silent film star, and then becomes Brooks, writing in the first person; in the latter, Als begins the essay in first person as a voiceover artist for adult films, then becomes Richard Pryor’s sister, and then becomes Als again, writing about Virginia Woolf whom he refers to as “Suicide Bitch”.
Als really shines in the middle portion of this collection, where, over the course of five consecutive essays, he uses Flannery O’Connor, Gone with the Wind, , Eminem and Michael Jackson, to mount one of the most charged attacks on the white establishment that has ever been penned. Als’ gift is his reinvention of famous figures, but from the angle of how well they succeeded or failed to confront white supremacy and privilege, or in their (in)abilities to give blacks a voice.
While Gone with the Wind incurs a good deal of wrath from Als, he has the same opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and views Harriet Beecher Stowe just as negatively as Margaret Mitchell. Regarding O’Connor as an “American master”, Als suggests that the public today “often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness, Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence – Southern blackness.” In other words, says Als, “O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism.”
In his essays, “GWTW” and “Philosopher or Dog”, Als’ aims his flail of evisceration first at the world of white editors, “who constitute what we call Publishing.” They hire black writers who are asked to describe race in “cartoon proportions, thereby making the coon situation ‘clear’ to a white audience.” But then, Als goes after the very same black writers, to ask why so many, so easily spend their careers writing on race, without challenging the establishment.
White Girls is more than just a collection of essays on race and sexuality. It’s more than “just” literary and cultural criticism. It’s a volume of fine, albeit confusing, writing by a man who refuses to be boxed in to any one genre. The only way to end this review is with a quote from Als himself, who has this to say about compromise:
Writers of a color write stupidly on this wall of race for the approval of very stupid people who, in granting their approval, may decide not to kill you. If these stupid people decide not to kill you, something must be compromised, given up. Generally, what is compromised is one’s voice. That voice – it is all a writer has.