Books on Class: A Round-Up

Two write-ups of fascinating new books today, both of which touch on matters of class. The first is an excerpt on Jezebel from The Essential Ellen Willis, who wrote for the Nation, the New Yorker, and other publications about music and pop culture from a feminist perspective. The second is a review of Alice Goffman’s book On The Run, about her sociological fieldwork among America’s urban poor.

Here is Ellen Willis on the ’90s explosion of daytime TV talk shows and the way the middle class recoiled from them in disgust:

At the dramatic center of talk shows are mostly black, Latino and low-rent white guests who, by their very willingness to expose intimate, “shameful” matters and yell and scream at each other on the air, assert their lack of deference to middle-class norms. …

While great popular art tends to bring disparate groups together—the way the Beatles reached teenyboppers and intellectuals, or Duke Ellington whites and blacks—talk shows are more likely to reinforce class and racial fragmentation. Though viewers from the same social milieus as the guests may identify with them and their problems, my hunch is that for many middle-class talk-show fans, the kick is feeling superior (or as my daughter put it when I posed the question, ”lucky”).

There’s much more. The excerpt is worth reading in full, especially for how it seems like those spectacle shows evolved into today’s Reality TV. Has the middle class stopped clutching its pearls and now bought in? Did the change of format make the shift palatable?

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, sociologist Alice Goffman is praised for immersing herself not in the jungles of Borneo but in the heart of darkness here at home:

The Torture of Giving Critical Feedback at Work

Hands down, my worst work experience to date was trying to tell someone they have a bad attitude. This someone was my coworker, Ruth, and technically, I was her supervisor even though we were the same age. My boss directed me to give her this feedback during her annual review.