Books by sociologists don’t often become bestsellers or draw the attention of a broad range of presses, reviewers, and the public. But, here is some backstory on the soon-to-be published On the Run and why it is drawing attention:
As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house…
The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”…
While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”
If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.
It will be interesting see how much attention this gets after its release as well as the book-sale figures. Several things seem to make this stand out from other academic books: the backstory of the author from her young age at the beginning to a well-known father; a topic that lines up with a lot of recent conversations (inequality, race, the prison system, the plight of cities); and “novelistic qualities” that help it move beyond a dry academic texts with more elements of story. I wonder if a parallel to this work isn’t the work of Sudhir Venkatesh which shares some similar traits: interesting story of how he started the project (held by a gang while trying to do survey research in a housing project); describing the business-like qualities of gangs even as urban crime and economies were becoming prominent conversation topics; and Venkatesh has plenty of interesting stories (which lately seem to have drawn some criticism for being “thin”). So, based on On the Run and Gang Leader for a Day, sociology bestsellers need to be ethnographic works that focus on race, cities, and crime?
Another question: is this the sort of book that is the left’s answer to all of the right-wing best-sellers of recent years? I wonder who exactly will purchase this book.