Heat of Life


Matthew Desmond wrote that the people he was studying for his book Evicted taught him how to see. (Photo: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle)

If you are an academic, and your manuscript is accepted for publication by a university press, a questionnaire mailed to you will ask for a list of the courses in which your book can be taught. (A similar question is asked of those serving as reviewers of a manuscript for a university press: “Will the book have any crossover appeal?”) The idea is to assess a book’s appeal across disciplines. For my part, I value books that, despite employing academic rigor and solid research, engage a wide body of readers both inside and outside the academy. But the question that has long puzzled me is whether or not the above criterion is precisely what publishers have in mind when they market a particular title as a “trade book.”

I took this question to Ken Wissoker, editorial director at Duke University Press, who has also published my books in the past. Wissoker didn’t want me to confuse “crossover” with “trade.” “Crossover appeal” might mean a book with cross-disciplinary appeal or appeal to people who are nonacademics. Essentially, it referred to a book rooted in a particular area of study but with the potential to reach other readers. “Trade,” on the other hand, would refer to a title published by a serious or big-time publisher for a general audience. We shouldn’t also confuse such books, Wissoker added, with those published by commercial academic presses like Routledge, or given trade discounts or publicity by university presses.

If we adhere to Wissoker’s definition, a recent trade book from a major publisher, one also written by an academic, is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. This book was brought out by Crown Publishers, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House. Its author, Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard, has won numerous awards for the book, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. I read the book with interest because it focused on a pressing social problem, but I was also drawn by its style. Is there a particular kind of refusal of academic norms that makes it possible for a manuscript to be published as a trade book?

The first thing that can be said about Evicted is that it never allows learning to come in the way of life. Serious scholarship supports Desmond’s exploration of evictions in Milwaukee from May 2008 to December 2009, but the book’s real strength is the quality of its seeing. Its reportage is such that instead of dead statistics we are witness to the complicated lives of the people portrayed. Until I read Desmond, I had not understood why a woman who is suffering from domestic abuse would rather not call the police, because it could get her evicted. In another scene we watch movers at an eviction. Desmond throws out a useful statistic or two about the race-based reduction in wealth, but what is arresting, and heartbreaking, is the plain list of things being removed from the children’s rooms and the reactions on the faces of those whose lives are being so rudely undone.

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.

When I asked Desmond if he had conceived Evicted as a trade book, he said that he resists such categories. “I wanted to write a book that did justice to people’s stories, showing the human wreckage of the affordable-housing crisis through ethnographic reporting and original statistical studies. I wanted that effort to make a difference, which means I wanted to write it for readers inside and outside the academy.”

And that was another clue to understanding “trade.” If you want to make a difference, calling for affordable housing for all Americans, you will write fresh sentences. Not sentences that read like footnotes, stuffed with scholarly references.

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College. His most recent book, forthcoming from Knopf, is Immigrant: Montana.

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