The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-facts, and Fake NewsBook - 2017
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction
"There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential."--Marlon James
Award-winning poet and critic Kevin Young tours us through a rogue's gallery of hoaxers, plagiarists, forgers, and fakers--from the humbug of P. T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe to the unrepentant bunk of JT LeRoy and Donald J. Trump. Bunk traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon, examining what motivates hucksters and makes the rest of us so gullible. Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, race being the most insidious American hoax of all. He chronicles how Barnum came to fame by displaying figures like Joice Heth, a black woman whom he pretended was the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington, and What Is It?, an African American man Barnum professed was a newly discovered missing link in evolution.
Bunk then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and journalistic fakers invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. In this brilliant and timely work, Young asks what it means to live in a post-factual world of "truthiness" where everything is up for interpretation and everyone is subject to a pervasive cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.
From the critics
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Only posted from more recently reported tall tales or worse (AND PLEASE DON'T READ THE QUOTES IF YOU FEAR SPOILERS:)
You could say that 2016 gave us an election without a winner (or a popular winner didn’t win).
With the hoax more broadly, this is all the more troubling because what the hoax says about us isn’t true – just as what plagiarism says about itself is untrue – or rather, is only true of out gullibility and misplaced trust.
Trump at his rallies issued decided falsehoods, then used the words “believe me” or “unbelievable” as if that made what he said true; the fact that he could say either “bigly” or “big league” in ways we could argue over means that, as he said in a debate of his opponent, These are just words. This is the utter underlying—and lying—statement of our Age of Euphemism.
Redlining, gerrymander, urban, inner city. Members only.
Alt-right. Alternative facts. White lies.
Funk, hokum, blue devils, the trap, the blues.
The hoax involving the Holocaust, especially once it’s revealed, often becomes kitsch at best, schlock at worst. Survivor Ruth Klüger calls Holocaust fakes, once revealed, kitsch: “A passage is shocking perhaps precisely because of its naive directness when read as the expression of endured suffering; but when it is revealed as a lie, as a presentation of invented suffering, it deteriorates to kitsch. It is indeed a hallmark of kitsch that it is plausible, all too plausible, and that one rejects it only if one recognizes its pseudoplausibility.”
We often think of memory as purely personal, but memory is cultural too.
The late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks has written brilliantly of the vagaries of memory, noting that “frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and ...”
It isn’t that the contemporary hoax provides “a different kind of truth” but that it offers far less. A whole lie would almost be welcome, but hoaxes won’t extend us the courtesy of respecting the truth enough to betray it. Instead, we have become surrounded by the halfway, mealymouthed, politicking habit of bullshit.
“One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference.”
“Hack Heaven.” “Ratted Out.” “A Fine Mess.” “Writing on the Wall.” “Probable Claus.” “Spring Breakdown.” “State of Nature.” “The Young and the Feckless.” “After the Fall.” The titles alone of pieces published by faux journalist Stephen Glass provide an unwitting, ironic indictment of their author.
Apart from money, and fame, the fabulist’s true motive is a strange combination of getting away with it and getting caught, hinting all along.
Like Clifford Irving before them, both Glass and notorious New York Times fabulist Jayson Blair would fabricate not just stories but sources, exploiting the fact-checking feedback loop in which facts and quotes that cannot be independently or easily verified are provided by reporters themselves.
“His stories were interesting only because they were purportedly true,” Jonathan Chait writes. “The characters in his stories”—that is, his journalism—“as in his novel, lack any depth or believability.”
Complete Uncollected Short Stories of the late J. D. Salinger, a book that doesn’t exist—at least not yet—except in the pirated versions that circulate now and then, gathering all that he published in the New Yorker but would never let be reprinted during his lifetime.
The New Republic may have had no racial difficulties simply because for decades it had been all-white.
Joe McGinniss, perhaps best known more recently for moving next door to Sarah Palin in order to write a book about her. In Malcolm’s narrative he moved in closer, into the defense team for otherwise upstanding military man Jeffrey MacDonald, who stood accused of murdering his pregnant wife and their two daughters. Gaining unparalleled access, McGinniss betrayed him, according to MacDonald (and Malcolm would seem to agree), the journalist not only coming to believe MacDonald was guilty and not saying so but writing that the accused was a psychopath and that the Manson-style murders were his doing alone.
The difference between speech and a quote—between an experiment and a hoax; between a journalist and a murderer; between a cop lying to get a real confession and coercing a fake one—may make all the difference in the world.
When friend is merely a verb, not a person; when apocalypses too are computer based and costly, like Y2K, then turn out to be mostly paranoia, or worse, marketing; when you can fall in love not with television or through television but on television through a series of dates you couldn’t really afford in a rented mansion that seems specifically designed for reality TV, is a set really, a soft-core porn palace, and then wonder why it doesn’t work when the cameras are off; when your first instinct at the sign of national tragedy is to tell your phone, not tell someone using that phone: then you have become as fictional as the world that you’ve created.
Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings...”
Eady’s “My Heart”: Susan Smith has invented me because
Nobody else in town will do what
She needs me to do.
I mean: Jump in an idling car
And drive off with two sad and
Frightened kids in the back.
Like a bad lover, she has given me a poisoned heart.
It pounds both our ribs, black, angry, nothing but business.
Since her fear is my blood
And her need part mythical,
Everything she says about me is true.
Online, we are all ghostwriters and spirit photographers. In that haunted place that is the Web, filled with dead ends, links “not found,” and what a friend fruitfully called “digital litter,” hoaxes are both overexposed and underexplored.
Truth is stranger than fiction! Sometimes, people lie …
Janet Cooke, a young reporter with a star résumé. Her front-page story “Jimmy’s World” about a young heroin addict got widespread attention; that Sunday’s issue shipped almost a million copies, with the news service syndicating the article to over three hundred papers around the world.7 Mayor Marion Barry and others called for a search for the boy; the police offered a $10,000 award; even incoming First Lady Nancy Reagan weighed in, “How terribly sad to read it and to know there are so many others like him out there. I hope with all my heart I can do something to help them. Surely there must be a way.’”8 Jimmy may have inspired Mrs. Reagan’s campaign to urge us to “Just Say No” to drugs—and to appear on the hit show Diff’rent Strokes to say so.
Blair’s unusual stance as a black reporter at a major paper was matched by the Beltway snipers. Typical serial killer profiles and public speculation had it as a single white male shooter when it turned out to be two people—...
The journalistic hoaxer, like the travel liar of the eighteenth century, finds “abroad” what he or she already thinks.
The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq…. In the final months the audacity of the deceptions grew by the week, suggesting the work of a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction.
“Judith Miller began a run of stories that repeatedly took Bush administration and Iraqi exile claims about [Saddam] Hussein’s WMD capabilities at face value. The problem was, those stories and others like them weren’t breaking news, they were just broken.”
Daily news changes, evolves; it is truth, on a deadline. Just as important as a hunch is our willingness to admit it was wrong, to change course and say what we found anew.
What we need is not more immediate news—which we seem to crave, faster and faster—but more reliable information. We need less local color, or ideological coloring, and more depth; fewer people covering the same story than discovering a new one. We should write like no one is looking over our shoulder—except the future.
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