American writer Clarence Major "has been in the forefront of experimental poetry and prose," Eugene B. Redmond writes in Parnassus. "In prose he fits 'loosely' into a category with William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. But his influences and antecedents are not so easy to identify." Perhaps best known for his novels, Major draws on his experience as a Southern African-American to "[defy] the white-imposed 'traditions' of black literature [and] to develop a brilliant lyricism in new forms of fiction," states Jerome Klinkowitz in The Life of Fiction. But Major's art, continues Klinkowitz, "inevitably turns back to the basic social and personal concerns which must remain at the heart of any literary experience." Noting the high incidence of violent scenes in Major's work, Black Creation critic Jim Walker comments, "Major has filled [his work] with the violence we expect of Southern life; violence of whites against Blacks, and more unfortunately, violence of Blacks against Blacks. . . . But the point Major is obviously trying to make with these kinds of scenes is that violence is an integral part of life for Southern Blacks and moreover, that it helps shape their lives and attitudes."
Critics praise Major's unique use of language in My Amputations, for which he received the Western States Book Award in 1986. My Amputations follows well-read parolee Mason Ellis as he impersonates an African-American novelist named Clarence McKay, whom he has taken hostage. McKay's literary agent plays along, and almost no one who meets the imposter on his worldwide lecture tour can tell the difference between Mason and the author whose identity he has usurped. "Major has fashioned a parable of the black writer as the most invisible and misrepresented of us all," notes Greg Tate in a Washington Post Book World review. New York Times Book Review contributor Richard Perry finds My Amputations "a book in which the question of identity throbs like an infected tooth, . . . a picaresque novel that comes wailing out of the blues tradition: it is ironic, irreverent, sexy, on a first-name basis with the human condition, and defined in part by exaggeration and laughter." In a Nation review, Stuart Klawans writes: "Mere description cannot convey the wild humor and audacity to be found here, nor the anxiety and cunning. . . . When a writer loads a book with so many references, the reader is entitled to ask whether he knows what he's doing. Believe me, Clarence Major knows. He has fashioned a novel that is simultaneously a deception and one great, roaring self-revelation." Tate comments, "Major feels particular ardor for mixing the rhythms of American slang with those of historical, scientific, mythological and occult texts. . . . The integration of such alchemical language into the mundane human affairs of its subjects is part of what makes My Amputations such a provocative advance in contemporary American writing."
Such Was the Season is "more structured and accessible" than Major's earlier novels, writes David Nicholson in the Washington Post Book World. To Nicholson, it "seems rooted in Major's experience, and much of the book's success has to do with the warmth of the central character. . . . Annie Eliza . . . speaks to us for more than 200 pages of things past and present in a voice that is always uniquely hers." In this matriarch of a black middle-class Atlanta family who speaks authentic vernacular, "Major has created a delightfully lifelike, storytelling woman whose candor is matched only by her devotion to truth and her down-to-earth yea-saying to life," Al Young writes in the New York Times Book Review. "It is as if Clarence Major, the avid avant-gardiste, has himself come home to touch base with the blues and spirituals that continue to nourish and express the lives of those people he writes about so knowingly, and with contagious affection." Such Was the Season, Young summarizes, is a "straight-ahead narrative crammed with action, a dramatic storyline and meaty characterization." In the one week described by Annie Eliza, several scandals touching family members erupt in the wake of her daughter-in-law's candidacy for the state senate. Even so, "the book's pleasures have less to do with what happens and more with Annie Eliza and her tale," Nicholson maintains. "Though at first glance Major seems to have abandoned his postmodern explorations, Such Was the Season actually has much in common with those earlier works."
In Fun & Games, Major's 1990 collection of short "fictions," the author continues to bend and twist social realism around experimental narratives and prose. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Karen Brailsford takes note of Major's "eloquent" prose, but finds that his "plots are frequently pointless, and ultimately disappointing." But while commenting that some of the stories in Fun & Games lack "the thematic and technical complexities that are Major's trademark," Maurice Bennett asserts in the Washington Post Book World that Major "is still here doing what he has done for the past 25 years: producing some of the very best experimental fiction." He adds, "Major remains at heart the poet he was at the beginning of his career, importing into his fictions a poetic fascination with the 'word' and its power to create realities, whether they be realities of identity, relationship, or phenomena." Merle Rubin, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, suggests that Major uses the "realist mode" to comment on the way we construct reality. "In Major's hands, straightforward realism has a way of wandering off into the labyrinths of literary self-awareness. . . . Major's 'short fictions' remind us that reality is not simply something out there: Ours, as he puts it, is a 'man-made world,' influenced by our ability to reflect, re-imagine, re-interpret and reform it." Major's nonfiction has also garnered acclaim.
Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, edited and with an introduction by Major, is an anthology of short fiction by African-American writers which "charts both the evolution of the short-story form and the evolution of African American consciousness," comments Howard Junker in the San Francisco Review of Books. Calling the Wind includes short fiction from writers such as Charles Chesnutt, Ralph Ellison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Terry McMillan. Junker argues that Calling the Wind "should be required reading."
Major also edited and authored the introduction to Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, an updated and expanded version of Dictionary of Afro-American Slang published originally in 1970. Juba to Jive, in the words of Ipeling Kgositsile in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, is a "no-nonsense guide to African American verbal expression." Kira Hall in the Washington Post Book World finds Juba to Jive an "exciting [introduction] to African-American languaculture, drawing the reader into an active world of words and phrases which might never appear in the American Heritage Dictionary," despite being spoken daily by many Americans. Applauding Major's ample etymological information on each term, Kgositsile calls Juba to Jive a "must buy; read it and learn the roots of a mother tongue." Major's work has "provided a series of systematic searches into different sources of identity—sexual, literary, cultural, visual, socio-economic, familial, regional, national, and personal, as well as ethnic," argues Lisa C. Roney in the African American Review. "When he is at his best," Doug Bolling remarks in the Black American Literature Forum, "Major helps us to see that fiction created within an aesthetic of fluidity and denial of 'closure' and verbal freedom can generate an excitement and awareness of great value; that the rigidities of plot, characterization, and illusioned depth can be softened and, finally, dropped in favor of new and valid rhythms." Major's achievement, according to Klinkowitz in an African American Review overview of Major's career and works, "has been to show just how concretely we live within the imagination—how our lives are shaped by language and how by a simple act of self-awareness we can seize control of the world and reshape it to our liking and benefit."