White Girls

White Girls

by Hilton Als

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“The read of the year.” —Junot Díaz

White Girls, Hilton Als’s first book since The Women 16 years ago, finds one of The New Yorker's boldest cultural critics deftly weaving together his brilliant analyses of literature, art, and music with fearless insights on race, gender, and history. The result is an extraordinary, complex portrait of “white girls,” as Als dubs them—an expansive but precise category that encompasses figures as diverse as Truman Capote and Louise Brooks, Michael Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. In pieces that hairpin between critique and meditation, fiction and nonfiction, high culture and low, the theoretical and the deeply personal, Als presents a stunning portrait of a writer by way of his subjects, and an invaluable guide to the culture of our time.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Rich Benjamin

[Als]…critique of whiteness is effortless, honest and fearless. He doesn't afford whites any unwitting reverence, nor any hip, posturing disdain. Some of his remarks on race and sexuality—so original and mordant—may offend the mullahs of pious multicultural liberalism (and will certainly offend conservatives). Als floats outside political and cultural orthodoxies, and this independence, this integrity, gives White Girls much of its charm…White Girls…blends the cultivated and the vulgar with interpretive sophistication and unbridled verve. Als's prose is sterling precision, his head a disaster area, a wretched, beautiful self-exhibition you can't wrest your eyes from.

Publishers Weekly

New Yorker critic Als (The Women) delivers his first book in 15 years—a mesmerizing and varied collection of essays, some previously published. His eponymous “white girls” include Louise Brooks, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and others. 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.” In his opening essay, “Tristes Tropiques,” Als revels in his relationship (“twinship”) with the unnamed SL (“Sir or Lady”), noting that the relationship defies categorization in an America that “is nothing if not about categories”: “There was no context... to understand us... two colored men who were together, not lovers, not bums, not mad.” 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. Agent: Jeffrey Posternak, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

From the Publisher

A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
Winner of the LAMBDA Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction
One of the A.V. Club’s Favorite Books of the Year
One of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2013
“Als is one of the most consistently unpredictable and surprising essayists out there, an author who confounds our expectations virtually every time he writes . . . Magnificent.” —David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“Effortless, honest and fearless.” —Rich Benjamin, The New York Times Book Review
“A comprehensive and utterly lovely collection of one of the best writers around.” —Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe
“Exhilarating . . . audacious.” —Jan Stuart, San Francisco Chronicle
“The writing itself stands as the most spectacular performance . . . brilliant lunacy.” —Melissa Anderson, Bookforum
“Als has a serious claim to be regarded as the next James Baldwin.”  —Alexander Larman, The Observer (UK)
“[Als] deconstructs traditional hierarchies of American identity and creates kaleidoscopic portraits of these artists, and of himself.” —Rachel Arons, The New Yorker 
“[Als’s] theories are so original that they’ll make you think differently about race and gender whether you’re a white girl or not . . . his sharper ideas will be debated for years.” ––Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
“This is a book that readers will want to spend the rest of their lives with: a searching, insistent, and thoroughly wise collection." —Molly McArdle, Library Journal (starred Review)
“Cultural critic Hilton Als might have written the essay collection of the year with this month’s White Girls, if indeed it were merely a book of essays. Instead, each piece explores so many genres—melding fiction with fact, the deeply personal to the staid journalistic profile—that Als isn’t so much playing multiples chords at once as multiple pianos . . . Als has created a work of art.” —Christopher Bollen, Interview Magazine
“These essays defy categorization . . . This was a book I hated as much as I loved it for the incisive cultural criticism that has made me question nearly everything.” —Roxane Gay, The Nation
“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.” —Andrea Battleground, The A.V. Club

“I read Als not only because he is utterly extraordinary, which he is, but for the reason one is often drawn to the best writers—because one has a sense that one's life might depend on them. White Girls is a book, a dream, an enemy, a friend, and, yes, the read of the year.”
—Junot Díaz

Library Journal

New Yorker drama critic Als returns with his first book since 1996. This collection includes essay, memoir, and fiction—all touch on questions of identity, race, and gender. Fluid and fluent. (LJ 9/1/13)

Kirkus Reviews

Meditations, appraisals, fictions and personal inquiries about sex, race, art and more from the longtime New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic. In the Kirkus review of Als' (The Women, 1996, etc.) first book, we praised the author for his "ability to combine extreme honesty with sharp critical discourse, his willingness to explore the shadows of complex lives, including his own, that challenge clichés about race and gender without ever sacrificing intellectual rigor." His follow-up collection is less cohesive but proves to be equally daring and nearly as experimental as his audacious debut. 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. When Als summarized his feelings on Gone with the Wind in the New Yorker in 2011, he was delicate. The essay with the same title here comments on a photography exhibition, asking, "So what can I tell you about a bunch of unfortunate niggers stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched?" 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781940450254
Publisher: McSweeney's Publishing
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 381,419
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

White Girls

By Hilton Als

McSweeney's Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Hilton Als
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936365-81-4


I loved looking at him. I loved listening to him. In 1999 he said about me to me: "You have infant schema. Children and animals will always love you." In 2000 he said: "The downside about what you've written is the special pleading angle. You're not greater than the subject." In 2001 he said: "Are we codependent? Beyond." He also said: "I don't care." In fact, "I don't care" was his most frequently spoken phrase. That was the worst kiss ever, I don't care. I'm so glad you like my pictures, maybe the world at large will never see them, I don't care. From 1999 on I wondered how I could make him care. I saw our twinship dissolving in words I could not control, words that stressed SL's Billie Holiday, don't-careish attitude, even as my I stressed itself on page after page. Neither of us could stop himself: by 2002 we were breaking out of our we casing through an explosion of self-expression, and the disavowal of self-expression the world would not look at his pictures, and his love, the world, would see me no matter how much I tried to hide in my universe of stage sets and the crud behind it. I would not leave him, and yet he felt I had already left him, the words were going out into the world more and more frequently from 2003 on, even as I loved SL's pictures, body, and voice, more than my words, and always more and more; but that wasn't the point, the attention I received wasn't happening to him, and in any case, SL implied, as our talk went on, even as it dried up, that, as an unreconstructed seventies lesbian, the commercial world of magazines and praise was corrupt, why would I want any part of that, why care, I don't care.

Blame it on capitalism. Despite SL's Laura Nyro–like abhorrence of business and his utterly touching and captivating struggle with modesty, he tied himself up—as he tied himself up in a Comme des Garçons shirt, or lovely turban—in a debate about the meaning of his I, the ego as a form of aggression. He would not put that fellow—his I—forward; he gave SL the spiritual creeps. And yet there was his I, who was a superior artist, and art must be seen for it to matter to other people. In any case, what colored person has ever handled attention well? For years there was no Michelle Obama. And the colored people we saw become famous—Jean-Michel Basquiat and the like—could not reconcile all that love with their former degradation. I could not handle the attention I received for my writing; it was not separate from SL's relative invisibility on the art market. Despite the fact that SL always married stars who knew he was a star, the world can absorb only the obvious, and for whatever reason I was more obvious to the world at that time than my twin, the same as me, only different.

SL's struggle for recognition became my own. I didn't mind. In fact, I loved the process. It all felt like an Earth, Wind & Fire song, full of effort and hope. One helps, and there is sometimes less of oneself, or one's I in the effort. SL and I were comrades, we would get through it, the world would love him as much as I did. But the world would not. Once, after we became friends and SL moved on from the weekly where we met to a magazine that was part of a big, lady-centered corporation—they published magazines whose major themes were weddings, eyebrows, and the like—SL would describe how few black men worked there, and how they never talked to one another. Some time later, I got a job at the same company—by then, SL had quit to pursue his own work—and as he waited in the lobby for me one day, SL looked on as I talked to two black men who worked in fashion. As we walked away, SL exclaimed: "Oh, my God, when I saw that, I couldn't believe the building didn't explode!" Presumably the city's cultural life—which, after 1980 or so, was dominated by white female gallerists, curators, critics, and the like—would have exploded if it had accepted SL's photographs and video work along with my praise, and that is how they treated him: as being too much. In 2001 his pictures were too much. In 2002 his appearance was too much. In 2003 his morals showed people up too much. Where was this man of high principles supposed to fit in the highly unprincipled worlds of art and fashion that he aspired to and disdained, a world where success was based as much on personality, body type, and eye color as it was on any recognizable skill (sometimes more so)? And by aspiring to those worlds, was SL not returning to Europe in a way, hankering to love that which he could not be, which is to say a white woman?

Since I have always preferred to live in the next generation of hope, it was the children of those art-world ladies who worried me. Living in their male-identified world of having it all, the mothers who toiled in the corridors of photography and literature and the like couldn't be bothered with feminism because what is feminism but humanism; they didn't want their children—particularly their girl children—to make the mistake they'd made at Brown or Yale or Berkeley or whatever, which is to say believing feminism and thus humanism had any value at all, and would get them anywhere in this stinking world. So they let their daughters say whatever they wanted under the guise of free "self-expression," but what amused those mothers—the same mothers who would not mother SL's longed-for career—was listening to, and watching, their daughters' aggression. One such little girl told me that if I shaved my beard, I'd look like CeeLo Green. Another little girl told her mother that she didn't like the way I smelled. Another asked how I could be happy, considering that I looked like a gay Unabomber? These were the children of the mothers SL longed to kiss, and protect, even as my wounds would not heal and shall never heal because now I have the hatred of a white woman and if SL doesn't think his unconditional love of them and ultimately wary love of me didn't contribute to the immense loss of our love, he's crazy.


Excerpted from White Girls by Hilton Als. Copyright © 2013 Hilton Als. Excerpted by permission of McSweeney's Publishing.
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