It became a bestseller in 2016, a year when America was forced to reckon with its poor, white, rural underclass — in mostly superficial ways. Since then, J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has inspired many a takedown. His journey from humble beginnings and a troubled family in Ohio to the Marines, college and then Yale Law School was blasted as “Poor People for Dummies,” a book that confirmed nasty stereotypes about poverty in Appalachia to justify slashing the social safety net, written by a burgeoning shitty pundit who could not bring himself to condemn white supremacy. The work has been taken apart over and over, every which way.
It’s all fine criticism, though almost superfluous to the résumé: Vance is an avowed social conservative, pals with hateful right-wing ghoul Rod Dreher and anti-democratic Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, and himself a well-heeled venture capitalist, making a career out of a dysfunctional investment model that has killed an untold number of businesses. You could make the case against Hillbilly Elegy itself, or you could ask: “Who cares what this Ivy League asshole thinks?”
Nobody in his current position, with his credentials, is going to help us understand economic inequality, or find a solution. The work even begins with some throat-clearing on how graduating from Yale is his “coolest” achievement to date. So just… forget it. Move on. Live.
Except we can’t, can we.
Along came Ron Howard and Netflix to adapt this garbage into Oscar-bait poverty porn that will further cement a lot of shallow clichés, with Amy Adams and Glenn Close duking it out for the title of Most Believable Rust Belt Mom. It doesn’t matter that they’re playing Vance’s real family; the success of his book was destined to produce these caricatures, because it was written from the perspective that appealed to (sub)urbanites of either political party. Whether in publishing or Hollywood, the story is told from a perch of safety, security, education and culture that allows you to view the struggling folk of flyover country as their own worst enemies, stuck in a rut they’ve made for themselves. You’re meant to gawk. Vance generalized his experience to define a region, and the movie will have less nuance still.
Same as it ever was. You can be terrified by the backwoods sadists of 1972’s Deliverance, or you can feel morally superior to Trump-voting opioid addicts — that’s approximately the full range of emotional response that mainstream media and entertainment allow us when it comes to hillbilly country. What’s crucial in either case is to exoticize it as a land, and a people, apart from the “normal,” bourgeois world of the reader or viewer. It must be alien, then explained.
And if you can appropriate a foreign identity in the process, so much the better: Vance has been accused of misrepresenting his background (his hometown is a city near Cincinnati, hardly off the beaten path), much as novelist Jeanine Cummins drew heavy flak for the dubious choice of perspective in her novel American Dirt, which tells the sensationalized tale of a Mexican mother and son fleeing for the U.S. border after her husband is killed by a drug cartel. Latinx writers and critics condemned what they saw as an offensive “brownface” performance by a white-passing author (one of Cummins’ grandparents came from Puerto Rico). But arguably worse, as journalist Julio Ricardo Varela observed, was how the book catered to “the kind of mostly white liberal who says they care about immigration policy but still look at immigrants from the Global South, and the Global South itself, with a discomfort they don’t ever want to admit.”
It, too, became a bestseller despite the controversy — with some help from Oprah — and is destined for the movie treatment. The rubbernecking formula doesn’t fail.
All of us want to believe we have the facts to meet the moment. The trouble is, in our eagerness to understand and empathize, we decide that the easiest, most reductive material — often cynically crafted to that profitable end — makes us experts on a topic. As a result, we cheat ourselves out of the deeper knowledge that comes with reading contradictions and rebuttals. We follow the lead of the publicity machine, anointing books like Hillbilly Elegy as standalone manuals that require no further context. But for outsiders, it is only by encountering other writers and artists of Appalachia that you can learn why Vance’s authority on the place is far from complete, and his analysis of its problems misguided, unfounded or inadequate.
The quick-and-dirty tourism of a film based on personal bootstrapping mythology will allow for conclusions every bit as glib and destructive. Skip it for something mindless and fun instead. At least the average popcorn flick doesn’t pretend to reveal the tortured soul of the nation.