Robert Lipsyte Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)