Her novels are loosely autobiographical, though Kincaid has warned against interpreting their autobiographical elements too literally: "Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence." Her work often prioritizes "impressions and feelings over plot development" and features conflict with both a strong maternal figure and colonial and neocolonial influences. Excerpts from her non-fiction book A Small Place were used as part of the narrative for Stephanie Black's 2001 documentary, Life and Debt.
One of Kincaid's contributions according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., African-American literary critic, scholar, writer, and public intellectual, is that:
She never feels the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a female sensibility. She assumes them both. I think it's a distinct departure that she's making, and I think that more and more black American writers will assume their world the way that she does. So that we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to the deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and die. Which, after all, is what art is all about.
Her writing explores colonialism and colonial legacy, postcolonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, she explores the theme of time for the first time.
Tone and style
Her writing has been criticized for its simplicity and anger. It has also been praised for its keen observation of character, curtness, wit, and lyrical quality. Derek Walcott, 1992 Nobel laureate, described Kincaid's writing: "As she writes a sentence, psychologically, its temperature is that it heads toward it own contradiction. It's as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels. And that is astonishing, because it's one thing to be able to write a good declarative sentence; it's another thing to catch the temperature of the narrator, the narrator's feeling. And that's universal, and not provincial in any way". Susan Sontag has also commended Kincaid's writing for its "emotional truthfulness," poignancy, and complexity.
Kincaid's writing is largely influenced by her life circumstances even though she discourages readers from taking her fiction too literally. To do so, according to the writer Michael Arlen, is to be "disrespectful of a fiction writer's ability to create fictional characters". Arlen, who would become a colleague at The New Yorker, is whom Kincaid worked for as an au pair and the figure whom the father in Lucy is based on. Despite her caution to readers, Kincaid has also said that: "I would never say I wouldn't write about an experience I've had."
Writing in Salon.com, Peter Kurth called Kincaid's work My Brother the most overrated book of 1997.
Reviewing her latest novel, See Now Then in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it “bipolar," “half séance, half ambush” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished. It picks up no moral weight as it rolls along. It asks little of us, and gives little in return.”