Writin’ Is Fightin’

Black writer Ishmael Reed is best known as a novelist, and his works in that genre are highly charged, often experimental ventures that demand much of the reader but, in return, offer new and startlingly fresh visions of a culture dominated by the virtues, vices, and values of the white race. WRITIN’ IS FIGHTIN’ is a collection of essays that continues that viewpoint but presents it in a fresh, breezily satirical fashion that must cause a painful smile in its targets even as the blows hit home.

The collection is subtitled THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS OF BOXING ON PAPER, and Reed’s list of opponents is long. The main event, however, is certainly the contest with the eastern literary establishment, which Reed takes on in a sharp, precise essay called “300 Years of 1984.” The points here are not only those of a thoughtful black author, but also are shared by many intelligent readers and writers who have puzzled over the rules and current champions of the modern American literary game.

Reed, however, does not confine himself to the purely literary arena. Politics, motion pictures, higher education (or the various sorts of it dispensed in unequal doses by the arbitrary keepers of American culture), and perceptions of race and economics are all dealt with in these pieces. Reed’s eye is sharp and his prose carries a swift, efficient punch that jolts the reader into awareness.

Ishmael Reed has a distinctive voice, and his judgments are usually given with skill and always with panache. He makes mistakes--he still undervalues Bob Dylan, for example, or seems to; perhaps Reed is only putting the reader on. That is a distinct possibility, because this is some of the slyest and sharpest writing to appear in many a mean season.