A book about poverty,
A book about poverty, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City", by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as "an astonishing book". Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive "customer reviews" on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo's success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie. ARTICLE BY CLAUDE FORTHOMME, first published on THINGSER.


In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond's latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be publishedshortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: "Povertyin America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results".


Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016
The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001. It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog "Boing, Boing". 


Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to "supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle". EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers . Published in 2003, it was considered a "substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein's No Logo" (Publishers' Weekly).


In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum . It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it "a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity...beyond groundbreaking".


 

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual with respect to academic work from the past: they didn't just gather statistics and observed the poor on the outside. They actually went and lived among the subjects of their books, sharing their lives, their hopes, their griefs and grievances. In the world of sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers and specialists in evaluation (as I am), this method of study has become increasingly common, it is sometimes called "participatory evaluation".  

It requires both the agreement and participation from those being studied (or evaluated). The idea is simple: as a researcher, you become a participantobserver, you are dropped in the midst of the desperately poor, preferablywithout your academic attributes or any trappings that might betray your(middle class) origins. You have to try not to stand out, you have to mix in, to avoiddisrupting the way of life around you by your presence. Only that way can youhope to collect a set of "pure", uncontaminated observations. Not easy toachieve, and perhaps writers, with their imagination and sensitivity are betterplaced than most to make a go of it. 

What came next was in each case here - from Ehrenreich and Desmondto Katherine Boo - a remarkable report, comprehensive, detailed, vividlywritten.

The question is: why the unexpected commercial success? And in particular,why has Katherine Boo’s book (so far) achieved the biggest success, by farlarger than the others? It should be noted though that Mr. Desmond’s book ishaving a good start and may yet prove to do better. Still the question remains:Was Boo’s success attributable to the fact that for the first time people feltthey were getting an “insider’s look” at a lifestyle (a Mumbai slum) that is atotal black box for most people, educated Indians included?

So far, books that look at poverty have tended to follow the path set out by Tristes Tropiques, a memoir by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.


First edition cover

Published in 1955, Tristes Tropiques (literally: "sad tropics") met with a stunning success. In that book, Levi-Strauss took a close, personal look at poverty in Brazil and other places too, including India. His style was reflexive and at time the irony was aimed at himself. This approach built a bridge with his Western audience and created empathy. And ever since, books that look at poverty in developing countries tend to be assured of success.

The look at poverty in the Western developed world is a more recent phenomenon. With thepublication of Ehrenreich's book fifteen years ago, it began to look like a newtrend, tapping into a sudden Western appetite to have a closer look at what ishappening on the wrong side of the tracks. Will  Desmond's book confirm thisnew trend? It might.

However Katherine Boo's success suggests that the fascination with poverty in the Third World is not over yet.

The famous English playwright David Hare wrote a play based on her book, and gathering gushing reviews from the UK Guardian and others,  it had a successful six months run at theNational Theatre in London, ending in May 2015.

Poster for the play Behind the Beautiful Forevers that ran six months at the National Theatre London

In spite of this, are the times now ready for Desmond's book on poverty in America? Lookingat a surprise bestseller in another quarter, and a big surprise too because it was a serious treatise of economics, I am speaking of Thomas Piketty’s Capitalin the 21st Century , one is tempted to draw the conclusion that audiences in the West are indeedfascinated by the subject of inequality and poverty. So the answer to thatquestion is yes.

There is now very likely a huge audience for not just anon-fiction narrative about poverty in America, but a theater play and a movie as well.

Who could produce such a movie? Netflix of course. It has alreadyflexed its muscle in this area, producing a hit with its African drama Beasts of No Nation that was very well received. Netflix isnot likely to be put off by the political overtones of a film on poverty inAmerica…

For those who are curious, here is the trailer of Beasts of No Nation: