His characteristic form is a kind of essay in which biography, memoir, and literary criticism flow into one another as if it were perfectly natural that they should ... In all of his essays, the life gets as much scrutiny as the work, with an eye to one particular question: How do artists come alive to their ambitions and then proceed to realize them? How does the work get made? ... Whatever their generation, these characters taken together seem to speak to our contemporary predicament: how embarrassing to admit that one has not been able to find a mate in a supposedly egalitarian, sexually liberated, post-Stonewall era so abundant in sexual and romantic possibilities ... Als will seem to be breaking some essential rule of first-person essay-writing in disastrous fashion and then turn the passage inside-out, revealing it to have a different rhetorical function than you originally thought.
...his writing is imbued with such preternatural insight and charm that it borders on the uncanny ... 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 ... He addresses his singularity most thoroughly in 'Tristes Tropiques,' the 84-page marvel that opens the book. The essay, a gorgeous and devastating elegy for the demise of his closest and longest friendship, also serves as a meditation on death, family, race, queerness, the mediasphere, and art ... But in a brilliant book of lovely writing, Als’s essay on Flannery O’Connor sticks out as the loveliest and most brilliant.
Here, reading becomes psychoanalytic self-exhibition, complete with insights on identity, sexuality, voice and the attainment of knowledge ... Als’s careful read on Capote doubles as a mind-popping take on white girls generally. He exposes the funny and calculated fissures that can open between the white-girl self we’re shown and the white-girl self we cannot know, the slipperiness of white girls as shackled objects of desire and matrices of power. Nearly all his other literary readings glisten with this panache ... His resulting critique of whiteness is effortless, honest and fearless. He doesn’t afford whites any unwitting reverence, nor any hip, posturing disdain .... Als comes across as a critic who has mastered nuance and observation but not discipline or moderation. An orgy — or gluttony — of insights overwhelms these pages ... Clearly, Als is writing against the essay’s depletion as a genre. Yet how bizarre to read so many thought-jewels delivered in such perfect prose, scattered across such sloppy form ... Blends the cultivated and the vulgar with interpretive sophistication and unbridled verve.
If you have never passed as a member of another race, had your own ethnicity constantly misread by strangers, or identified with a culture more strongly than with your own, Hilton Als’ new collection of essays will indeed be a strange journey. Through a mix of reportage and madcap monologues, The New Yorker writer has crafted an unusually sensuous book, tracking a long arc of artists and lovers who long for nothing more than to live in the skins of others ... A 'white girl' is a calling card and a cultural echo that the writer claims can be found rattling through the voices in his profiles: Truman Capote, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor ... In reading White Girls, one gets the sense that the lives of these artists and racial and sexual nonconformers are not marginal so much as marginalized by a society that lacks the words to describe them and the will to recognize them.
There is indeed the languorous quality of dream to many of these essays–particularly the first and last. There is a sharpness, an edge, a bite. And there is also an inimitable ability to make the reader–even the whitest girl with the blondest hair and the bluest eyes–feel connected to the life Als is describing from the vantage point of a big black man of the sort that terrifies many white, blonde, blue-eyed girls in elevators and elsewhere ... There aren’t many answers in these essays, but there are many questions. That’s how the best essays read: Querying everything–the battlements of a life lived. And that’s what Als does in reprise after reprise ... White Girls is no easy read, but then serious essays weren’t meant to be breezed through, they were meant to be ruminated over. These are those kind of essays, Als is that kind of writer.
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 ... 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 ... A volume of fine, albeit confusing, writing by a man who refuses to be boxed in to any one genre.
Probably the least important thing worth saying about Hilton Als' White Girls is that it's the best book of the year. I think it is, but these essays — hostile, intimate, whip-smart — brush aside such accolades ... The collection begins with 90 pages of meandering memoir that I slogged through with increasing boredom and frustration. It's hard to say so, given the essay's wrenching personal revelations, but the writing is sloppy ('Upon moving in, our neighbors phoned the police'), the tone sentimental, the structure haphazard, the whole a mess ... After that opening, though, the book turns on a thin dime ... Als isn't consistent in his deployment of the tropes of whiteness, but neither is America. The best essays here — on O'Connor, lynching, Pryor, 'Gone With the Wind,' Eminem, Michael Jackson — belong to that American critical tradition whose ambit is 'the complexity inherent in imagining what despair means to someone else and how that despair may shape arrogance,' and the sad truth that being American has too often meant the exclusion of that complexity.
Ascribing one genre to this collection would feed into the series of labels and limitations under which everyone and everything gets filed, especially when examining artifacts of pop culture—labels Als himself must ascribe to ... These musings dabble in memoir, essay, cultural criticism, even speculative fiction involving some intersection of real people and fictional characters ... Intentionally abrasive and going out of his way to be canon-shattering, Als interweaves personal revelation with cultural touchstones, sometimes hopping from topic to topic at a breakneck speed, other times examining concepts so strategically and methodically his words become scalpels, flaying open unacknowledged bias, privilege, and conflict where he sees it ... Though astounding in its scope and erudition, the book isn’t entirely without fault ... Yet while this (perhaps intentional) failure to establish a rhythm can give readers whiplash, Als skillfully and seductively reels them back in with a well-placed throwaway line that is so utterly poignant as to take one’s breath away.
White Girls feels so new, (despite the fact that it’s largely comprised of previously published material) layered and unexpected. This is an extraordinary collection of essays—a lyrical hybrid of fiction, criticism and creative nonfiction, all dealing with issues of race, gender, identity, and privilege ... He tries to subvert the form by breaking through these structural prisons, fissuring the language that supports them, presenting sentences that double on themselves and defy expectations. He calls black men white women. He turns the essay form it on its head. Als knows that great writing happens not in identifying what a person is, but in asking people what they identify with, what mask they are wearing ... Most books make a contract with the reader, but Hilton Als knows that to read without a contract is the best way to discover new shades of thought. He is a poet on the page, and his insistence on breaking the essay form defines his liberation as a writer.
There is a sense of the futility of writing and also of its necessity ... And yet, for Als, the critic’s posture is not a way of stepping back from life; it is a matter of engaging with the world. 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 ... The focus is privilege, who has it and who will never have it, and what those without it are supposed to do ... The point of this magnificent collection is that all our endeavors are contrivance and yet utterly essential just the same.
A black gay man of West Indian origins, Mr. Als writes analyses framed through the lenses of race, sexuality, and gender, but never in tendentious or predictable ways: his sensibility is too particular, too idiosyncratic for that ... Though one can quarrel with Als about Capote, and some of his other subjects, even the less successful pieces in White Girls often boast brilliant writing and original and startling observations that make one see them in new ways ... The most powerful piece in White Girls is 'Gone With the Wind,' a harrowing rumination on racism that takes as its starting point a collection of photographs depicting lynchings of African Americans.
...a mesmerizing and varied collection of essays, some previously published ... 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.
His follow-up collection is less cohesive but proves to be equally daring and nearly as experimental as his audacious debut ... 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.