Amid controversy, Yale law grad’s memoir ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ hits Netflix

Written by Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” caused a sensation in 2017, as the media turned to it for insight into a region that went for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

But as some found it offensive in its depiction of Appalachia, criticism of the book accumulated. And the movie version, released Wednesday, has stumbled in critical circles as reviewers contend the film borders parody, is condescending and doesn’t say much.

On the other hand, the film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, has hit number one in the charts on Netflix.

And many fans, including conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, have taken to Twitter to defend it.

“The movie is a well-told family drama. The reason the critics are [bashing] it is simple: the book was treated as humanizing ‘Trump supporters,’ and is now a Bad Book™,” he tweeted.

Other users said the movie was the best they’d seen all year, and that Vance’s story — of overcoming a difficult upbringing — resonated with them.

But Richard Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University who specializes in media trends, said he’s seen social media users “trashing” the film, some echoing a widespread concern about the book: that it oversimplified the Appalachian region and perpetuated negative stereotypes.

“There’s a backlash to the film, in a way that somewhat mirrors … backlash to the book,” he said.

A request for comment from Vance was sent via email Friday to Narya, a venture capital firm he cofounded.

Backlash & stereotypes

“Hillbilly Elegy” tells the story of its author, who grew up in an economically-disadvantaged part of Ohio, had a tumultuous upbringing and was the first person in his immediate family to attend college.

Vance started at Yale Law School in 2010 — feeling “like a foreign species,” he told students in a 2017 lecture in New Haven.

But academics and other voices, many of them Appalachian, have pushed back against his book.

Meredith McCarroll, a native of western North Carolina and co-editor of “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy,” said the book treats Appalachia “as one block” and goes beyond memoir to offer a “sloppy analysis that people in Appalachia are lazy or ornery.”

In doing so, Vance’s book blames the region’s poverty on the people themselves and fails to examine contributing structural factors, according to McCarroll.

“It gave people an explanation that yeah, people are getting what they deserve,” she said. “If you don’t know a certain type of person, and you’re relying on one story … then it’s really easy to dismiss the complexity of that region.”

McCarroll also argued Vance’s authoring of the book could have been politically motivated. Vance is a conservative thinker and recently described himself as a nationalist on Twitter.

While she planned to view the film, McCarroll had not yet done so Friday afternoon, but she nevertheless worried it could perpetuate stereotypes about Appalachians.

That’s exactly the kind of concern Hanley was seeing on social media, alongside criticism that the movie strayed from the book.

“The last movie I saw getting this much grief was ‘Cats,’” said Hanley, acknowledging he also had not seen the film. “How bad can it be?”

The social media response, which Hanley noted did not amount to “a scientific survey,” was “about the backlash to the film which is about the backlash to a book which didn’t portray a region in the best of lights,” he said.

The book & the election

“Hillbilly Elegy,” published in June 2016, became “a must-read for a lot of people … to get insight” into the results of that year’s election, Hanley said.

The New York Times even named it one of six books to help understand Trump’s win.

“But it’s a much more complicated life than even that book would reveal, and I think it also became a caricature, a cartoon version, of life in Appalachia.”

And there was another problem, too: while many focused on poor rural whites as those who pushed Trump into office, McCarroll said, his base goes far beyond impoverished communities in rural Appalachia.

“I think that Appalachia has long been the scapegoat for lots of different reasons, and I think that that certainly happened here,” she said.

Trump’s base extends to white women in general, McCarroll pointed out, and to Long Island.

Trump won more than 52 percent of Suffolk County, N.Y., voters in 2016, Newsday reported. And he won more than 55 percent this year, according to the New York Times.

“It was a racial alliance, not a class alliance,” McCarroll said, pointing to a story by Ta-Nehisi Coates that argued that point and was published in The Atlantic.

Along those lines, Hanley said the narrative of “Hillbilly Elegy” — of city versus country, of a class divide among whites — distracts from America’s biggest problem: its racial divide.

But he also believes that because the book became “entangled into the politics of the period,” the response to it — both the hype following its release and the subsequent criticism, reamplified in the film’s negative reception — is “overbaked.”

Representing a region

The problem with “Hillbilly Elegy” is not the memoir itself, McCarroll said, but that “[Vance] goes far beyond telling his own story when he switches from first-person singular to first-person plural.”

“It was the generalization and the speaking from a ‘we’ perspective that, I think, irritated a lot of people,” she said.

Vance uses anecdotes — such as the case of a lazy worker he meets at a factory — “to exemplify this problematic behavior without giving it a context,” according to McCarroll, who said the book overlooks the structural problems that contribute to issues in the region.

After the book came out, McCarroll said, people would approach her and indicate they understood her experience as an Appalachian.

Though she grew up in western North Carolina, McCarroll now lives in Maine and directs the writing program at Bowdoin College. Her experience of Appalachia was entirely different from the one Vance described, she said.

“It’s frustrating that people are seeing this as representative,” she said, adding that when a writer successfully positions himself as an insider of a region, it can be hard to push back.

“My point is not to be anti-Vance, it is to be pro-Appalachia. And I think when we celebrate his story too much and keep him at the center, we are not paying enough attention to the actual problems in the region that could be eradicated.”

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