By Darren Lyons
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Darren Lyons, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Kevin Young about his book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News (Graywolf), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
Bunk is author Kevin Young’s deeply-researched book on the history of the hoax in all its forms, from humbug to plagiarism, and on to “fake news.” The book relates these hoax phenomena to the major issues we face today, issues of stereotyping, race, and gender. It’s a deeply-affecting book that’s directly relevant to understanding our contemporary reality, and it offers a lens for moving forward.
Darren Lyons: Congratulations on your National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. I really enjoyed your book, Bunk. It was a game-changer for me, and we’ll get into that in the interview.
Kevin Young: Thanks.
DL: You’re welcome. First of all, immediately from the first chapter, it was my impression that you’d written this book with a poet’s eye, your close attention to the meanings and derivations of words, the often-humorous turns-of-phrases. Was this a conscious effort on your part, to style the book in this way?
KY: I think I’m a poet no matter what. I think it just happens that way, but the advantage is, besides the things you mentioned, I also hope that it means that I’m thinking about the connections, and I think poets make metaphors, which is a kind of connection, and that’s what I was trying to do with this book.
DL: Yeah, I definitely got that feeling immediately. A thread you follow throughout the book is the link between hoaxes and stereotypes, particularly related to race and gender. Can you talk a little about that?
KY: Yeah. I think the hoax tries to use shortcuts to get us to believe it, or at least, to fall for it for a little while, and I feel like stereotypes are a way it does it. I think a hoax is often making use of race and is always interested in the deep divisions that divide us, in society, and this is just one more example of using these stereotypes, but they’re just a form of cliché and shorthand that lets them not have to say much, but say it all.
DL: A common quote cited about/from your book is that “race is the most dangerous hoax of them all.” I got the impression that these hoaxes you document feed on racism, but then race feeds back into the hoaxes, almost like an endless loop. Do I have that right?
KY: Yeah. I think the hoax, like I said, makes use of race, but I also think race is a version of the hoax, in that it’s something that’s not real, but is something pretending to be true. That doesn’t mean that racism has effects, quite the contrary. I mean, that’s what’s even more pernicious about it, and even by the stereotypes you see used by it.
DL: Since your writing and the publishing of this book, have your views changed in any way?
KY: Ha! Not really, I mean, if anything, I see the ways, say, the Russian bots make use of this kind of very thing, they are often pretending to be worse than things are, and also, make use of the very selfsame divisions that I was talking about in my book.
DL: What was your original motivation for writing the book?
KY: I saw people talking about hoaxes, which were infinitely interesting, but I did feel like they didn’t seem to understand what hoaxes were really about. Instead, they spent a lot of time talking about, thought they were about, the blurry line between fact and fiction, or somehow were just joking when, in fact, they were quite serious in their use of these stereotypes, but also, in what else they were getting up to buy.
DL: I see. I see. You mention in the acknowledgments, this [book] started as something from a personal experience and expanded into this research-heavy result. Can you describe how that developed?
KY: Yeah, I had written my first book, The Grey Album (2012), which was very much about black culture and tracing it from slavery to the present, and from the negro-spirituals to hip-hop, and in that, I was thinking about improvisation and what I ended up calling “storying,” in many ways the good side of lying, and then, I really started thinking a lot about the bad side of lying, and partially that was because I realized it wasn’t all fun and games, especially in terms of the hoax, which seemed quite different than this idea of “storying” even.
KY: But also, I knew a hoaxer, and so, there was a kind of trying to write about that, as well.
DL: Yeah, are you referring to Ravi Desai?
DL: The style of the book is what I would call “interlaced” or “fluid.” It moves from one hoax to another, then another, and then you tie all of that to your larger themes. Again, was this a result of conscious planning or did it just come out that way?
KY: Well, I tried to weave in and tell a story that was a kind of history, but also, that reflected on the present. So, once I realized that [P.T.] Barnum was going to start the book, which took a while, I then realized, also, what was interesting about Barnum was the way he reflected on today, and then, things I’d been writing about for six years suddenly became super-relevant. I’d been writing about fake journalism and the ways such fakery could be dangerous, and then suddenly the term “fake news” was everywhere. But the book was already finished and was actually coming out, so it was just fortuitous, but also I hope, a little forward-looking in it’s approach.
DL: As I mentioned, this book really affected me. It changed the way I see so many things. I have trouble, now, experiencing anything without questioning my own assumptions and even the intent of the person or object of art with which I’m interacting. What kind of reaction were you expecting from readers?
KY: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been pleased by peoples’ reactions. They seem to respond to it and understand the history, but also, the present day of it and the way it’s pointing out both. I think that’s important and was really pleasing to see.
DL: Were there any surprises you got from the reactions, anything that has come up?
KY: No, not so much. People tend to find other hoaxes, and that’s kind of interesting.
DL: The poetry world has experienced a lot of hoaxes, you cite several in the book. Is that often a subject of discussion in your role as the Poetry Editor at The New Yorker?
KY: No, not really. I hope got all those hoaxes cleared out.
DL: Ha! Good! And so, looking forward, how do we as a country cope with this continuing tradition of the hoax in all its guises and the underlying assumptions about race, gender, and identity, in general?
KY: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting moment, because I think that on the one hand, people are quite cynical and believe everything’s kind of hoaxing, and I think that only leads to more hoaxes. I think that it’s better to be skeptical and questioning, a little bit, but also to trust as much as you can, while evaluating. It’s a hard balance to strike, because I feel like, you definitely see the ways that people reject this idea of there being truth, which leads to more and more hoaxes, or even worse, that “everything’s hoaxed, everyone’s faking.” My fear is that we’re in this half-hoax world, and that’s dangerous.
DL: You’re focused on non-fiction and memoir [in your book], but I’m wondering if you could talk about the hoax’s role vis-à-vis fiction. You mention that a lot of these hoaxes “render reality two-dimensional, like our screens,” and I’m wondering if that plays into the depiction of characters in fiction.
KY: Well, I think the danger of the hoax is that it doesn’t just threaten the truth, but also fiction and our ability to admit that we’re moved by things that aren’t real, which I think is very important. One of the things I think contemporary fiction is doing, quite interestingly, is playing with the idea of autobiography, and people sometimes talk about “autofiction.” In that way, it actually goes back to the beginnings of fiction, which often pretended to be autobiography, and here you have people writing autobiography almost pretending to be fiction. I think that’s really interesting, but I also think it’s a world away from hoaxing, and I tried to make that clear in the book.
DL: I think that was clear, but I’m curious how a fiction writer deals with a lot of these hoax-related assumptions we make about people in our society.
KY: The writers I like are thinking about these divisions and problems, anyway, someone like Jesmyn Ward, or my friend, Colson Whitehead. They’re writing beautifully about race in America, and sometimes they’re telling ghost stories, and sometimes they’re using fantasy. I think they’re engaging the full range of imagination in order for us to understand and imagine life in its fullness. And so, if anything, it means you have to be better at that, and you can’t just rely on notions that feel kind of true. Writers I know are much bolder than that, in creating worlds, but also helping us to understand this one.
DL: Is there anything else, last call, something on your mind you’d like to share?
KY: I’m struck over and over again by the way the hoax is political, and I’m trying to understand that, the way the hoax takes that up, and it can almost become a form of propaganda, and that’s what’s important to fight against.
Kevin Young is director of The New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and poetry editor of The New Yorker. His latest work of nonfiction, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award.
Darren Lyons is currently receiving his MFA in Poetry from The New School. His work is featured or forthcoming in Chronogram, Stonesthrow Review, on The Best American Poetry Blog and InquisitiveEater.com. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/darren.lyons.984.