Compare this condemnation with Als’s characterization of Marshall Mathers III—the rapper Eminem—whom Als regards as a true artist. Mathers grew up in Warren, Michigan, a poor suburb of Detroit, and Als imagines him as a child “looking for words to describe his world, where blacks and whites had nowhere to go but their respective trailers,” where “white manual laborers could only hold on to the dream of whiteness by living among their own kind,” where he felt “about as welcome in the world as any black man.” In school, Mathers was the victim of black-on-white assault, and in his reaction to this and other incidents, Als sees his real triumph: “That the slings and arrows of Mathers’s outrageous misfortune in and out of school, in the outside of Detroit’s black world, did not deter him from falling increasingly in love with black music is a testament to his interest in and commitment to exploring difference.” A wonderfully convoluted sentence—no truth, it seems, is plain enough to state plainly—and a wonderfully earnest sentiment. “Exploring difference,” not exploiting difference, not ignoring difference—that is the job of the real artist, and that should also be the aspiration of every real human being. Black music made it possible for the young Marshall Mathers III to “feel articulate and alive to his white pain…. He was white. And that was his freedom.”
The majority of the essays in White Girls are concerned with the ways artists, writers and performers negotiate their own “difference,” which is to say not their race but their individuality, whatever that amounts to. “The Lonesome Place” is about Flannery O’Connor, herself a great explorer of difference, whose voice is “an uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Richard Pryor, too, was a success in this regard. He “didn’t manipulate his audiences’ white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck.” By contrast, Michael Jackson—“the man who said no to life but yes to pop”—began his career as just the kind of artist Als loves: dancing “next to [Diana] Ross, adding polish to her appealingly jerky moves; he [did] Ross better than Ross.” Later, things went wrong in Jackson’s life and art because he “was not quite that articulate or vocal about his difference”—what Als, echoing James Baldwin, evocatively calls his “freakishness.” Jackson committed the same sin as Malcolm X, and the same sin as Baldwin himself, who, as Als wrote in a 1998 New Yorker essay, “found impersonating a black writer more seductive than being an artist.” Jackson “became a corporation” and “forgot how to speak, even behind the jeweled mask of metaphor.” He gave up authenticity for the sake of his career, and in doing so he lost his art and his self.
It’s worth taking note of the subtext here. Malcolm X’s failure is a moral failure, Als seems to argue, but “Philosopher or Dog?” is first of all about the failure of a book, so that the failure being described is really an aesthetic one. (And indeed, the book is all. Als doesn’t seem interested in Malcolm X’s repudiation of all that “rage.” This is a clever rhetorical trick. By limiting himself to a discussion of the Autobiography, he limits the scope of the material he has to grapple with but doesn’t limit the scope of the argument he’s able to make.) Als’s celebration of Marshall Mathers III is really a celebration of Eminem the artist, but the implication is that Marshall Mathers III must be a fine fellow to have made such good art. And whatever the justice of this equation—aesthetic success equals moral value and vice versa—Als seems to carry the argument still further. To suggest that Malcolm X’s bad book is evidence of a failure to create and perform a meaningful personality is to suggest that personality is itself a kind of artistic production. What’s striking is the sense I get that Als really means it. Personality, affect, public life—it’s not that these things are like theater. They are theater.
* * *
Als has gained in notoriety since the publication of The Women, so he’s gone from being a “Negress” to a public intellectual, and more specifically a black public intellectual. In any case, he has become an object of regard—a semi-celebrity. He reflects on the frustrations of this transformation in “GWTW” (referring to the title of Gone With the Wind), an essay that originally appeared in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). “What is the relationship of the white people in these pictures to the white people who ask me, and sometimes pay me, to be a Negro on the page?” “Why does a colored point of view authenticate” the photographs, “no matter what that colored person has to say?” Being forced to be “a Negro on the page” makes Als a black man first of all and only secondarily an individual, a critic, a man with an idiosyncratic point of view. In becoming a black man, that is, he is trapped like Malcolm X in the discourse of poverty and privilege. It isn’t only a problem for writers “of a color”; it is a problem for people “of a color” too. It is the tragedy of American life.
But who is Hilton Als really? Is he a Negress? Is he a black man or a black writer or an “auntie man,” as he occasionally describes himself in The Women? “For a long time, I avoided being the black guy,” he writes. “I felt that adopting black nationalism would limit my world, my worldview. Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger.” Maybe so, but in the pages of White Girls he is ineluctably himself—he is Hilton Als, a human being who is also a writer—which is why this seems like a triumphant book. It is a pure expression of individuality, and in that sense it is an affirmation and celebration of individuality as well.
It’s also a reminder of what great criticism can do. Criticism, after all, is an expression of deep subjectivity. The role of the critic is to articulate a personal opinion so persuasively that it seems like a fact; a great critic is able to make a particularly heterodox opinion—even an expression of lunacy, if it comes to that—seem true and inevitable as well. Als is a great critic, which is to say that sometimes his writing is clear as glass and sometimes it’s astringently oblique. But somehow I always know what he means, and I always believe him.