Heat of Life

My brief piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Lingua Franca on Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2017.

In an author’s note, Desmond has written that often the very people he was studying taught him how to see. Nevertheless, he missed much, at least at first, “not because I was an outsider but also because I was overanalyzing things.” When I read those words, my senses went on alert. I felt that here was a warning for academics. Desmond went on: “A buzzing inner monologue would draw me inward, hindering my ability to remain alert to the heat of life at play right in front of me.” There it was! For me, the definition of the trade book was present in that admission. I’m generalizing wildly, but academic books find safety in explanations that reduce the chaos of social life. To write what is not dead on the page, one has to be open to all kinds of disturbances and challenges and confusion. And skilled writers show us a way (Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Ralph Ellison, Jesmyn Ward—these are some of Desmond’s models) to draw a more difficult story out of all that pain and frustration.