White Girls

By Hilton Als

(McSweeney’s Publishing, $24, 300 pages)

Who is this author?

Hilton Als has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for 20 years, and a theatre critic for the magazine since 2002. Before that, Als was a staff writer for The Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He also has contributed to The Nation, New York Review of Books and other publications and collaborated on screenplays, and he edited the catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art 1994-95 exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” In 1996, “The Women,” about gender, race, and personal identity, was his debut book.  A winner of multiple awards, Als has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan and Smith College.

What is this book about?

Als, who is black, gay and brilliant, returns to the themes he explored in “The Women” in this collection of pieces, many of which ran in the New Yorker. Don’t let the title “White Girls” mislead you: the subjects of his essays may not be white nor female, but they represent for him a cultural elite, not necessarily high-brow but crucial to our understanding of contemporary writing, art and music. Here you will find Als’ probing meditations on figures as diverse as Truman Capote, Eminem, Richard Pryor and Flannery O’Connor.

Why you’ll like it:

Hilton’s writing, as New Yorker readers know, is simply gorgeous, but never simple. While this essay collection certainly is challenging, it is worth your time and appreciation. This is one of those books that can change the way you think about the world and the larger-than-life icons who shape our understanding of our culture. If you have never read his New Yorker pieces, this collection will show you what you have been missing.

What others are saying:

Salon says: When Hilton Als talks about white girls, he doesn’t just mean young Caucasian women. In his new essay collection, “White Girls,” the New Yorker theater critic addresses a variety of cultural figures who register to him as white girls. The collection merges memoir (beginning with a lengthy appraisal of a long-term relationship with a straight man over the years) and cultural criticism. Figures addressed include Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Eminem — all of whom merge cultural capital and success, traditionally defined, with the perpetual underdog’s self-aggrandizement and an outsized sense of personal drama..Als’s turns of phrase are memorable, but it’s his flair and confidence — fictionalizing Richard Pryor’s family and using them as characters, for instance, or, somewhat brutally, representing fashion-world eminence André Leon Talley as a figure who’s effectively turned himself into a sanitized stereotype for white enjoyment — that keep one turning the pages. Like any true critic, Als is able to synthesize information and his own opinion; unlike many, he flits between generic distinctions in order to tell a bigger, broader story about cultural capital, what it means to have it, and how one gets it.”

“Als’s greatest gift as a critic is his generosity. While the assertions that he makes are frequently provocative (“Truman Capote became a woman in 1947.” ), they’re delivered with such panache and prove so accurate that the reader never chafes. He is able to assess whatever he chooses in a clear-eyed, interesting way, making incisive critiques and asserting generalities that never sound grandiose or unfounded like lesser critics (i.e. the rest of us) often do,” says The Boston Globe.

The Los Angeles Times says: “White Girls” is a collection of essays that blurs the line between criticism, memoir, even fiction and nonfiction — 13 takes on, among others, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson, Louise Brooks and Truman Capote, all of whom represent the figure of the “white girl” in actual or invented ways. . . . Most of the pieces in “White Girls” use their subjects as a starting point, but the genius has to do with where Als goes from there.

Thus, Eminem (or Marshall Mathers, as Als refers to him, getting underneath his persona) is not just a white boy appropriating black music, nor is appropriation a particularly clarifying lens. “To say, as many critics have,” Als writes in one of the book’s many provocative passages, “that whites steal from blacks who originate important work in music or fashion is beside the point. … Unlike many of the whites he grew up with, Mathers never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn’t feel white and privileged. Als is not denying Mathers’ whiteness, just saying that it’s trumped by class, by economics, by his awareness of being on the outside looking in.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Meditations, appraisals, fictions and personal inquiries about sex, race, art and more from the longtime New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic. . . . Gathering his diverse subjects under the umbrella term “white girls,” which he applies equally to Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor, Als assembles something of a greatest hits of his own strengths, which are considerable. His longer essays are the most personal; “Tristes Tropiques,” an elegant recollection of friends and lovers in the age of AIDS, opens the book. Naturally, observations on culture rise to the top as well. “White Noise,” about rap icon Eminem, and “Michael,” about the elusive pop star, offer pointed insights into American culture’s obsession with image. Readers who only know Als’ work from his insightful magazine essays may be startled by his diversions from form here. . . . Leapfrogging from straightforward journalism to fiction written in other personas, the author demonstrates a practiced combination of cultural perception, keen self-awareness and principled self-assurance. Als’ work is so much more than simply writing about being black or gay or smart. It’s about being human”.

Says Publishers Weekly: “New Yorker critic Als . . . delivers his first book in 15 years—a mesmerizing and varied collection of essays, some previously published. . . . Using his subjects as a springboard to analyze literature, photography, films, music, television, performance, race, gender, sexual orientation, and history, Als offers wry insights throughout. For example, he notes how O’Connor’s readers often overlooked “the originality and honesty of her portrayal… of Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence—Southern blackness. . . .  Highly attuned to popular culture, Als is a writer of many moods—meditative, sardonic, haunting, funny, reflective, and unconventional. Whether agonizing over photos of black lynchings (and realizing that the true meaning of the N-word is a “slow death”), or constructing a critique of Virginia Woolf in the voice of Richard Pryor’s sister, he proves to be a compassionate writer looking for unity—even if it can’t always be found. “

When is it available?

Hilton Als’ fascinating book is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany and Mark Twain branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.