Robert Lipsyte Essay - Critical Essays

Lipsyte, Robert


Robert Lipsyte 1938–

American young adult and adult novelist, nonfiction writer, and journalist.

Lipsyte's diverse works combine a creative sensibility with journalistic instincts and skills. As sports columnist for The New York Times, he distinguished himself by his thoughtfulness, insight, and commitment to truth. It is generally felt that these same qualities distinguish his novels and nonfiction works, many of which utilize sports as their subject or background. Lipsyte bases much of his work on the struggles of individuals to maintain and develop their sense of self-worth in the face of hostile and negative forces within society.

In Lipsyte's first novel for a young adult audience, The Contender, a young boy caught in a ring of sex, violence, and drugs in his Harlem neighborhood comes to a kind of spiritual transformation as he endures the rigors of training to become a champion boxer. Although Alfred does not become a champion he gains the self-confidence and vision he needs to transcend his situation. This is consistent with Lipsyte's belief that having the spiritual strength to meet a physical challenge is more important than having the physical strength to win. In Sportsworld: An American Dreamland, a retrospective collection of his thoughts about the world of athletics, Lipsyte mourns the fact that much of the joy of such activity has been lost, replaced by an intense emphasis on winning for winning's sake. His second novel for young adults, One Fat Summer, is another exploration of the value of challenge in the young person's search for self-confidence. In this work, the overweight, self-conscious protagonist comes to terms with himself and his peers through an arduous summer of cutting lawns. Lipsyte has also written several novels for adults, such as Something Going, a novel about horseracing which he cowrote with Steve Cady. He also collaborated with Dick Gregory on the latter's autobiography.

Critics have commended Lipsyte's efforts to portray real and fictional personalities with reverence for their depth and complexity. He has been criticized, however, for being overly moralistic and didactic when commenting on the evils of society, and for creating incomplete characterizations, especially in his adult works. Some critics find Lipsyte's fiction most successful; others feel that his nonfiction is superior. Critics from both groups, however, commend the freshness of his approach. Young people who are attracted to Lipsyte's books have discovered a writer who combines enthusiastic coverage of sports with perceptive awareness of social issues and human nature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 5.)

Edward B. Hungerford

In the manner of modern adult fiction, Lipsyte writes [in The Contender] from deeply within the boy's self and the life of the ghetto. The reader suffers with Alf's humiliations, is stirred by his strivings. Mechanics disappear, and between reader and struggling boy no obstacle stands. A fine book in which interest combines with compassion and enlightenment. (p. 43)

Edward B. Hungerford, "Ages 12—Up," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1967 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), November 5, 1967, pp. 38, 43.∗

Nat Hentoff

Far too many writers of fiction for the young seem to believe their primary function is to teach rather than to create textures of experience which are their own reasons for being. [In "The Contender," Robert Lipsyte] alternates between these two roles….

On [a] homiletic level, the material is so neatly and obviously manipulated that virtue will have to be its own reward because "The Contender"—as a whole—fails as believable fiction. In several of its parts, however, didacticism recedes, and lo, there is life! In particular, whenever Lipsyte writes about boxing itself he indicates how intensely evocative he can be and he moves the reader beyond maxims into participation.

Lipsyte is most convincing in his unfolding of the inner transformation of a boy gone slack into a boxer gradually responding to different and compelling rhythms as he is driven by self-stretching imperatives, as emotional as they are physical. Within his factitious outer framework Lipsyte occasionally lets his main character become palpable.

It is when he leaves the gym and the ring that Lipsyte is too often content to map the road to salvation, rather than explore much more deeply the present ghetto terrain of his dropout. Can the lessons in more-than-survival that are learned in the ring be as easily applied as "The Contender" promises in neighborhoods where the rules of the game and the odds are set by distant outside societal forces? If the Horatio Alger approach is to be at all relevant in a work of fiction set in the ghetto, it needs to be considerably updated and treated with much less naiveté than here.

Nat Hentoff, "New Books for Young Readers: 'The Contender'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1967, p. 42.

Susan O'Neal

Admirably, the author tries to portray Alfred's world [in The Contender] through the boy's own eyes, and like [Frank Bonham's] Durango Street, in his own language, but too often Mr. Lipsyte oversimplifies. For instance, white characters are paragons of interest and devotion; black nationalist ideas invariably come from the mouths of addicts and thugs, thus constituting a kind of guilt by association. Most important, only one way of responding to complicated problems is made to appear valid. Alfred's decision to compete by conventional methods is considered by the author to be the only proper action and is pitted against the attitude of Alfred's unsuccessful friends that, in any case, "Whitey" won't let you make it in his world. The implication whether intended or not, is that Alfred's friends are the chief cause of their own trouble. Such assignment of blame, however, makes the very real pressures that provoke these feelings in the ghetto teen-agers seem trivial. As a sports story, this is a superior, engrossing, insider's book; but as social commentary on problems in a Negro ghetto, it is a superficial, outsider's book which doesn't increase real understanding.

Susan O'Neal, "Junior High Up: 'The Contender'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the November 15, 1967 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1967), Vol. 92, No. 20, November 15, 1967, p. 78.

Mary Silva Cosgrave

[Alfred's story in The Contender] is a grim and frightening one, but one that does hold out some hope for Negro teenagers in a restless Harlem seething with hostility. There are warm relations with understanding adults and flashes of humor to relieve the agony. If it is honesty and realism that teen-agers want in their books, this is one for those who have not yet switched to books for adults.

Mary Silva Cosgrave, "Stories for Older Boys and Girls: 'The Contender'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1967, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIII, No. 6, December, 1967, p. 759.

Kirkus Reviews

Not tips but performance [are covered in Assignment: Sports]…. The line-up is seasonal, with a little personal journal-ese by Lipsyte introducing each, from the Mets' first spring training … to, well, "Winter Thoughts of a Bush-League Ballplayer" who's ahead of the long-lost game except when "the air is faintly touched with the smell of the outfield grass." [Some] of Lipsyte's best pieces are illimitable, like the tale of Bozo Miller, the world's champion eater, and the 'no-sob-story' "Athletes in Wheelchairs Compete for the Paralympic Team." "I found in sports a very rich field for writing," observes once-great Russian weight-lifter Vlasov, and so has Lipsyte; countering the 'fun and games' aspersion, he...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Walter B. Chaskel

[Robert Lipsyte] has collected in Assignment: Sports … a sampling of his articles and vignettes from the world of sports which transcend mere reportage to achieve a kind of literary quality rare in standard newspaper writing. He moves beyond line-ups, box scores, and statistics to reveal the essence of the people who have chosen sports as a way of life. His vision encompasses a vast panoply of human activity: from the individuality of boxing to the collective unity of collegiate rowing; from the adulation of a golf hero to the loneliness of the race track bettor…. Wise use of this outstanding addition to any collection could open a world of fine writing to sports fans addicted to statistics.


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Sam Elkin

In his detached style and writing rhythms, Lipsyte makes "Assignment: Sports" the unsentimental report about sports figures and sports. "The sweetness drained out of the afternoon," he writes in a long piece about Muhammad Ali. Not only does this image pungently rise off the printed page, it is the quintessence of what the book is about—the winners, the losers, the in-betweeners…. [The] book makes it because finally you realize that only the background is sports.

Which means you don't have to be a fan or even knowledgeable about sports to understand Lipsyte's own admission that "the crowd roared with a bloodlust that never fails to frighten me at prizefights." Or the Russian weight-lifter, his...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

John W. Conner

Any adolescent who has enjoyed The Contender will need no introduction to Robert Lipsyte's new book [Assignment: Sports] or encouragement to read it. The same careful control of language, the same ability to develop a well-rounded character through conflict with a sport are evident….

Robert Lipsyte never castigates, never ridicules, and rarely praises his characters…. As a reader completes each article, he senses Robert Lipsyte's insight on human frailty. The effect is devastating. Pretense is stripped away and the athlete is revealed as Lipsyte sees him. Lipsyte's ability to capsulize life effectively permeates Assignment: Sports. It is a rare skill and adds immeasurably to...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

John S. Simmons

My admiration for and promotion of [The Contender] is because it adheres to certain established traditions for adolescent fiction … and yet also reflects some recent, significant trends in popular, well-written novels for young people. Lipsyte's ability to produce a picture of life which is credible for today's adolescents and at the same time stay within those constrictions which continue to be observed by hot-eyed censors of "school literary materials" is a tribute to his craftsmanship…. (p. 116)

There is a good bit of didacticism [in The Contender], but it is not out of proportion and Lipsyte on occasion places two adult pontificators, Spoon and Uncle Wilson, in slightly ironic...

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Publishers Weekly

[Cady and Lipsyte] combine for a novel ["Something Going"] that horseracing devotees may take to but others are likely to find much ado about pretty little. There's hardly a live character in the lot…. The big shots apparently live happily ever after but just about everyone else either has been compromised or winds up a loser.

"'Something Going'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the January 8, 1973, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 203, No. 2, January 8, 1973, p. 62.

(The entire section is 88 words.)

Jon L. Breen

Thoroughbred racing has become a popular subject for writers of fiction. In Joe McGinniss' The Dream Team … we had the bettor's viewpoint; Lipsyte and Cady give us the point of view of the horseman and the track executive [in Something Going]. Although this is not as fine a work as McGinniss' book, it is a fairly good example of a certain type of popular novel: one in which a specialized background is delineated authoritatively and in detail. It has a large cast of not-too-complex characters; many subplots; and carefully measured quotas of sex, violence, and other types of confrontation. There's "social significance," too, in the rather heavy-handed, ironic treatment of the heartless executives and...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Pete Axthelm

["Something Going"] is about thoroughbred horse racing, but it is definitely not recommended to anyone who cherishes a belief in the romance of the turf. "Something Going" is a hard-edged, thoroughly unsentimental look at a precarious old-world society in the throes of an upheaval it can't even begin to comprehend. There are no heroes among the pompous aristocrats, struggling horsemen or exploited stablehands in this fast-moving book; there are only lost and frightened men, grasping desperately at crumbling pillars of tradition that can no longer support the structure of a world whose time is past. (p. 93)

[Lipsyte and Cady's] novel is loosely based on the horsemen's boycott that tore open New York...

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Jonathan Yardley

[Unfortunately "Liberty Two"] does not build with much suspense or persuasiveness—two essential ingredients of the political thriller…. [Lipsyte's] debut as a novelist is a distinct disappointment. Perhaps the greatest surprise to anyone who followed and admired his journalistic career is that the tough-mindedness of his sports writing is replaced here by easy sentimentality….

[Lipsyte's people] are burdened with cliché: the misguided zealot, the rich and cold-blooded manipulator, the man caught in the middle, the girl who captures and frees his heart. They are stock characters in a political set-piece, capable perhaps of piquing the reader's mild curiosity but not of engaging his emotions....

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Fred Rotondaro

[Robert Lipsyte] was one of the first, and I'm referring to the recent past, who wrote critically about the sports world; for he knew that sports figures had blemishes just like the rest of us. Lipsyte's column disappeared one day but I soon found out that he was turning to free lance writing. "Liberty Two" is the result….

Unfortunately, Lipsyte's abilities have not carried over into this new venture…. The toughness that was once a staple of Lipsyte's columns is now gone. The narrative vivacity that was present even in short items is now mired in the description of people we don't care very much about because we've seen them all too often.

A novel should either tell an...

(The entire section is 188 words.)

John R. Coyne, Jr.

[Liberty Two has a good] plot, intriguing characters, superb visual qualities that will translate easily into a first rate film, authentic dialogue, a thoughtful and detailed picture of contemporary American society, and above all, with its Watergate analogies, timeliness…. [Central figure Charles] Rice is the quintessential fascist leader—charismatic, pure, single-minded, somehow managing to evoke both fear and adoration. Not an easy character for a novelist to draw. But Lipsyte handles the problem adeptly by telling Rice's story through a troubled and complex narrator, Cable, a figure much like Jack Burden in [Robert Penn Warren's] All the King's Men. A fascinating novel, especially if you believe...

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Roger Kahn

No one reading "SportsWorld" will doze. Lipsyte's portraits of Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath ring beautifully. His political commentary proceeds from a decent respect for mankind. But in the end "SportsWorld" works as an entertainment, not as social commentary, which, indeed, may be true of sports itself.

"SportsWorld" is Lipsyte's newspeak for the hierarchy of owners, television executives and journalists who sell and propagandize spectator sports. He dislikes their collective view for its hyperbole, its cynicism and its preachment that watching games automatically ennobles the spirit. Then he asserts, "The 1972 Arab massacre of Israeli athletes was a hideously logical extension of SportsWorld...

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Paul D. Zimmerman

For fourteen years, as the most original and elegant writer on the sports staff of The New York Times, Robert Lipsyte served as a high priest of that secular religion he now calls SportsWorld. He promoted its mythologies, helped enshrine its gods—but with a growing disaffection that has given birth to this persuasive volume of dissent. "SportsWorld" is more than Lipsyte's record of his own loss of innocence and growing apostasy. And it is more than a peppery chronicle of the changing sports ethos of the '60s and '70s, although the book sparkles with insightful portraits of figures ranging from the self-protectively spaced-out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Muhammad Ali, Lipsyte's premier subject throughout his journalistic...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Betsy Hearne

[One Fat Summer is a] smoothly written, funny-sad story of growing up male and fat in the fifties…. [It] is satisfying to watch a more-than-200-pound self-loather get himself an exhausting job, stick to it, defy some rural Mean Street hecklers as well as the more insidious hold of his loving family, and reject his own diving champion role model. The author … builds sympathy, tension, and a nicely mixed—if not always subtle—feeling for each character.

Betsy Hearne, "Children's Books: 'One Fat Summer'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1977 by the American Library Association), Vol. 73, No. 13, March 1,...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

In [One Fat Summer,] Robert Lipsyte's first novel since The Contender, Bobby Marks recalls much more than the weight lost cutting Dr. Kahn's "chlorophyll monster" of a lawn that summer of 1952. He remembers the deadly peanut butter strangles and ice cream headaches of overeating; the good, jittery fear that the lawnboy he replaced will pulverize him ("your ass is grass, faggot, and I'm the lawnmower"); the loss of his best friend Joanie, whose nose job makes her vain, no longer a fellow freak; the late summer confrontation with his crazydrunk, rifle-toting nemesis. But Bobby can take it. Underneath all that fat he's a spunky city kid, occasionally escaping to Mittyesque daydream …, more often knifing...

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Stephen Krensky

The time [of "One Fat Summer"] is 1952, and Lipsyte mingles the flavor of the era in his prose; the issues, tastes and expressions of the day echo through the narrative….

[The] first-person narrative gives us an inner perspective of Bobby's thoughts and feelings. Refreshingly, he is neither precocious nor off-beat, in the manner of so many teen-age protagonists, but simply a normal boy in abnormal circumstances.

Bobby, however, is Lipsyte's only fully realized character; the supporting cast shifts in and out of the reader's focus, not only because of the plot, but also because our perception of them varies. For example, Bobby's father is alternately stiff, compassionate,...

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Zena Sutherland

[One Fat Summer] is far superior to most of the summer-of-change stories: any change that takes place is logical and the protagonist learns by action and reaction to be both self-reliant and compassionate, understanding Pete's weakness as well as the bullying persecutor's motivation. The plot elements are nicely balanced and paced, the characterization is developed with insight, and the writing style is deft and polished.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'One Fat Summer'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1977 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 30, No. 11,...

(The entire section is 103 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

[Free to Be Muhammad Ali, a] forthright, fair-minded biography, nicely chronicles the champ's highly publicized career, circling in on the man's genuine talents and pointing out much of the "fakelore" as well—three versions of the Olympic medal story, for example. The approach requires a mature reader (Ali's "vanity has always bordered on narcissism"), able to comprehend the political climate of the Sixties, when the champ asserted his rights as an individual—to convert, to change his name, to refuse induction—and suffered undeserved recriminations from sportswriters, boxing associations, and the U.S. Army. Lipsyte doesn't dance away from the contradictions in his personality, and although he clearly...

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Mel Watkins

Of those sports journalists who have covered Muhammad Ali throughout his turbulent career, Robert Lipsyte consistently has provided the most lucid and perceptive accounts. Neither siding with critics who castigated Ali during his exile from boxing, nor accepting without reservation the bombast of Ali's mythologizers, Mr. Lipsyte's portraits of the heavyweight champion have been both revealing and temperate. Its brevity notwithstanding, "Free to Be Muhammad Ali" adheres to those standards….

What one finally derives from this slim biography is a sense not only of Ali's mercurial personality, but also of the affection and respect the author feels for him as an athlete and as a man. Without suppressing...

(The entire section is 188 words.)


I recently watched a sports program on television in which a commentator was discussing a basketball coach who pounds on his players—kicks them, calls them dirty names. And the reporter said, "Well, I'm not sure I would want to be treated like that. I would want to be treated like a human being. But who can argue with this kind of treatment when the coach's won/lost record is so good."

Across America, kids are sitting in front of their T.V. sets taking that in. And too many of the sports books they read reinforce that same ethic: Winning is the only thing. When things are tough, try harder. Success is up to you.

Sports is, or should be, just one of the things people do—an...

(The entire section is 993 words.)