Re: Build Your Own Best-Seller [was work (markets)]

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Tue, 1 Oct 1996 13:35:13 -0400

I think John McCreery is right in saying that anthropologists need both
first-hand experience and fire in the belly to write a good book that also
sells well. Actually, we're pretty much noted for the former. It's called
field work. But the fire in the belly I'm not always so sure about. And
John's point is well taken. We ought at some point to put up or shut up.

Tim Mason's notion that "anthropologists are unwilling to apply their
training to the observation of their own culture, and are quite happy to
accept the pontifications of opinion mongers" is, I think, true only up to a
point. It's important to remember books like Lincoln Keiser's _Vice Lords:
Warriors of the Streets_, Carol Stack's _All Our Kin_, Elliott Liebow's
_Tally's Corner_, as well as newer works like Phillippe Bourgois's _Selling
Crack in El Barrio_, and Elijah Anderson's _Streetwise_. These are the ones
that come to mind as I sit here. But there's a long tradition of ethnography
in America -- by anthropologists and by non-anthropologists using our methods
-- covering not just urban but also "main street," small town, and rural
communities that stretches all the way back to the Chicago School of
sociology -- and to the influence on that school of anthropologists like
Robert Redford.

The difference in a new wave of American ethnography -- which is, I hope,
just around the corner -- lies in an expanded focus. Ethnographers will
begin to take more seriously the need to portray not only a social problem in
its neighborhood context (or a context which *happens to have* a social
problem in it), but also the structures, institutional and otherwise, that
have been put in place to manage those problems. The two levels must be
handled together. Why: because the shape of the problem, and of the context,
is deeply influenced by the structures. Moreover, American ways of dealing
with American social problems say a lot about about the attitudes and values
of our own elites and about American culture as a whole. The current status
quo was not ordained by the hand of God. What Oscar Lewis intimated about
poverty in Latin America -- that the "casework" model is only one way to
address the issue, and maybe not the best way -- is very possibly equally
true for the United States.

In my view, this "other half" of America -- we might call it Institutional
America -- is what has been largely missing in the anthropology of the US.
But supplying the missing pieces is more easily said than done. It requires
*getting inside these structures* -- welfare agencies at the federal, state,
and especially local levels; child protective services units, adult
protective agencies, the health care bureaucracy, prisons, the stock
exchanges, to name just a few. We're talking about labyrinthine, powerful,
and relatively closed social worlds, endlessly layered. Very difficult to
get fine-grained, what we would call *ethnographic,* data. Our colleagues in
the policy sciences know that. That's why so much of their work is
quantitative or at best survey-based. I guess the upshot of all this is
that, in my view, anthropologists in the US now have both an opportunity and
a problem. I hope they take advantage of the one and face up to the
challenge of the other.

My problem is that I'd rather not concentrate on these issues in this thread.
What I'd rather talk about is how to write a quality best-seller. I mean
from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint. This is not a sterile exercise. I'm
looking for, and I hope others are looking for, ideas that we can use.

One of the things I thought we might do is think about what it is that grabs
us in the opening pages of a good piece of anthropology, or a good piece of
fiction, for that matter. For me, it is in fact John McCreery's portraits.
I like looking at the world from inside a character when I start a book.
Characters are, for me, the hook. I can think of a couple of great
community studies in anthropology -- fascinating accounts with real market
potential -- that missed the boat because they used the old anthropological
formula of introducing the locale first. Even the best descriptions of
places tend to be rather dry. Openings, I think, need to strike a chord.

But that's just my preference. Maybe someone else feels differently. If so,
I'd like to hear about it. Could it be that there are as many best-selling
openings as there are kinds of situations? And are situations more a
function of one's particular ethnographic experience, so that in some sense
the nature of the field work will call forth the opening?

Here's another one: once into the book, how do you weave the threads of
person, place, and the sense of an *evolving knowledge* of a culture (this,
also, is a hook for me) in such a way as to sustain the momentum? How about
the relationship between narrative and descriptive elements, on the one hand,
and things like statistical, archival, and other analytic data on the other?
How do you organize the more technical elements in such a way as to make
them enticing, but not too intrusive to a general reader who may not want to
go that deeply into the scholarly foundations of the book?

These are just a couple of the questions that come to mind. Any suggestions?
Any examples of great anthropological writing (and why it's great)? I have
a couple, but I'd like to hear from others.

John, what do you think? Your two main points -- address the big questions
and show us the person we know, or might know, inside the stranger -- are
right on the money. My little characters were invented merely to point up
how hard it is for me to add substance to your keen observations.

Mike Cahill