Last night I saw Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in conversation at the New York Public Library, and it was a great event. They’re both brilliant women who’ve worked on towering pieces of nonfiction, the sort that you’d recommend to aliens who wanted to know about the results of globalization in India and poverty in America and the Bronx. You must read Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Random Family.
But one thing that was interesting, throughout the event, was that LeBlanc, who I remember as a byline in Seventeen when I was reading it as a kid, which probably puts her in her early forties, is my guess, age-wise, had this ambivalence about, well, the bullshit of writing, and the way that the success of her book could have made her a TED talking head and go-to authority on poverty in America for years, talking and talking about it like it was sports but not actually doing anything concrete. Boo, on the other hand, seemed more at peace with her work and its legacy.
So let’s work this out: LeBlanc was probably in her thirties when Random Family hit in 2003. She was young. It took 11 years, and the book really made her a journalist to watch. Success can be difficult, particularly when it’s separate from the urgency of the work that you’re doing, and the message that you’re trying to spread: i.e., that poverty is a trap that is hard to get out of and America is doing a terrible job treating people with respect. The past ten years have had Bush, and wars, and America becoming even more economically stratified. We haven’t listened to the book, and the New York Times' Invisible Child piece on Dasani reminded me, mostly, of Random Family. The past is repeating itself, and for that to happen for ten years has to be difficult. Whereas Boo worked on her book in her forties, and it came out in 2012, and she was already an enviably successful, MacArthur Grant winning genius before it even happened.
It was interesting to see the difference between the two, and some of LeBlanc’s anxiety explained, a bit, why she writes slowly. I’m very interested in her next book, which is about stand-up comedy. I presume it will be called The Comedians, and I bet the theme will be about how to speak truth to power and to get people to listen to you. Humor helps, sometimes.