Lately I’ve been finding fiction to be somewhat hard going. Not sure why this is. Normally when I’m deep within the bowels of a novel project, I’ll purposefully try to avoid fiction–not because I’m worried about being influenced, but just because I’m worried that reading some really good novel will make me feel bad about my work. That is not really the case now. I mean, I’m in the process of rewriting the ending of my middle-grade novel, but that doesn’t feel intense enough to merit an aversion to fiction.
I have read a few novels lately. I read The Price of Salt. But before that, the last novel I read was a month ago.
It is strange. I dip into novels, but they don’t hold my attention the way they should.
I’ve heard some novelists say that they can’t read novels because they start to take them apart and think too hard about how they’re constructed. That was not and is not a problem for me. I just read the damn things. In fact, when I want to think about their structure, I have to go back and purposefully pull the book apart.
So I don’t know. The interest isn’t there. But I’m not fighting it. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of sociology books. I just finished Alice Goffman’s On The Run, which is a sociological study of a group of black men in Philadelphia, and the way they spend much of their time caught up in legal entanglements. There’s been significant controversy about the book, because Goffman witnessed considerable illegal activity, and, in some cases, was herself involved in it. Most notable, in the afterword to the book, which is a personal narrative in which she describes the history of her involvement with these men, she talks about driving them around town as they look for the guy who murdered a member of their group. Basically, she was part of a conspiracy to murder someone. Definitely a pretty major crime.
But I honestly don’t understand why this is such a big deal. If she committed a crime, then prosecute her. If she violated research protocols, then her institution should fine or fire her. But while her acts might’ve been poor decisions on a personal level, they certainly made for a much better book. The sheer amount of observation she records–she was involved with these men for something like a decade–is pretty astounding. For instance, she witnessed police raids on dozens of occasions. She saw the police chase down and strangle (to death) the boyfriend of the sister of one of her subjects. She was herself picked up and interrogated by the police on two occasions. She makes a very compelling case that everything she describes is normal, every-day life for a subset of the urban black male population. And she provides a haunting picture of the ways in which these legal entanglements make normal life impossible.
Throughout the book, I highlighted passages where egregious injustices were described in a matter-of-fact way. For instance, this is a schoolyard fight that landed someone in jail. :
That winter, he got into a fight in the school yard with a kid who had called his mom a crack whore. According to the police report, Chuck didn’t hurt the other guy much, only pushed his face into the snow, but the school cops charged him with aggravated assault. It didn’t matter, Chuck said, that he was on the basketball team, and making Cs and Bs. Since he’d just turned eighteen, the aggravated assault case landed him in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a large pink and gray county jail on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, known locally as CFCF or simply the F.
Later, Chuck spends more time in jail because he can’t afford to pay the fines from his court fees:
The following fall, Chuck tried to re-enroll as a senior, but the high school would not admit him; he had already turned nineteen. Then the judge on his old assault case issued a warrant for his arrest, because he hadn’t paid $ 225 in court fees that came due a few weeks after his assault case ended.
And all of this doesn’t seem at all unique to Chuck. It’s just how things are.
Goffman’s book has become the academic version of a bestseller! I think it was originally released by the University of Chicago Press, but then it got re-released by Picador, and now has something like 108 Amazon reviews. Very very worthwhile book. Decent alternative to reading novels.