100 Books That Defined the Decade
For good, for bad, for ugly.
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)
What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
Essential stats: Vance’s memoir of growing up in Ohio in a family with “Appalachian values” was a huge #1 New York Times Bestseller and was frequently cited during and after the 2016 election, as a kind of explanation for why certain Americans were willing to vote for Donald Trump. It was received quite positively by critics when it first came out, but a backlash slowly unfurled. A film adaptation starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close and directed by Ron Howard is slated for 2020.
I heard there was some controversy about this book. What was it? Well. The problem is that Hillbilly Elegy is a mostly personal memoir that Vance framed as the Answer (at last!) to the question What’s Wrong with Rural America???—but an answer that included no broader framework of inequality, capitalism, or intersectionality (“working class” frequently being used to mean “white working class”), and promoted a boostraps-heavy narrative that basically blamed poor people for being poor. Here’s what’s wrong with rural America, Vance tells us, and it’s their own fault.
Any good bits? A school of resistance has sprung up in his wake, with writers like Elizabeth Catte, who also writes about Appalachia, finding readers in rebuttal. As one Literary Hub editor said, “He inspired so much good writing that it’s almost okay for me.” A second Literary Hub editor added, “But fuck that guy.”
Or you can always watch his TED talk and decide for yourself:
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