Roger’s Rules

Literary hoaxes and the proletarianization of culture

Over at Armavirumque, James Piereson has a fascinating roundup of some recent literary hoaxes. One unifying trait of the contemporary literary hoax is that it is focussed downwards, towards the depths of society. It used to be that a poor chap, born on the wrong side of the tracks, would dream of better things and, if he was of a fabricating literary bent, would frame a story of some grandeur for himself. Today, we find middle- or upper-middle-class folk who think it is chic (because, it is chic from a commercial perspective) to invent lives of squalor for themselves. Hence what Piereson aptly describes as the “cavalcade” of fake memoirs about drug addicts, concentration camp survivors, etc., etc. Fragments, by one Binjamin Wilkomirski, recounts “how he survived as a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp”–only he did because he was never there; Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, “depicts her life as a Jewish child on the run from the Nazis during the war and in search of her parents,” but really she was born a Catholic in Belgium and just made up the story; Sarah, by J. T. Leroy, was supposedly about “the son of a West Virginia truck stop prostitute,” but it was really by Laura Albert, a 42-year-old white woman living in San Francisco. And on it goes. A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, was about the life of an addict. Oprah loved it–until it was shown that Frey had made it all up. This literary exercise in nostalgie de la boue tells us a lot about our culture. As Piereson notes,

It is more than a little interesting that contemporary novelists, when they stoop to such fabrications, invariably come up with harrowing stories about addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse, family dysfunction, prostitution, gang wars, and life on the run or among the down and out. One rarely hears of fabrications from the poor (or even by the rich) about life in the suburbs, boardrooms, or country clubs. Our novelists, even when they lie or especially when they lie, reveal what sells among publishers, reviewers, and contemporary readers.

It is sometimes said that what artists esteem is a sign of what is valued in a society. If that is so, then we may be more trouble than we think.

As Charles Murray noted in another context, what we are witnessing is “the proletarianization of the dominant minority.” Drawing on some pregnant observations about the distingration of cultures in Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Murray notes that “one of the consistent symptoms of disintegration is that the elites–Toynbee’s ‘dominant minority’–begin to imitate those at the bottom of society.” Murray minutes a host of examples, from the language we use to the way we dress, from public displays of sex to family relations, to show how that where Americans once looked up the social scale for their ideals, many now look to the gutter. “The collapse of old codes,” Murray observes,

leaves a vacuum that must be filled. Within the elites, the replacement has been tenets, broadly accepted by people across the political spectrum, that tell us to treat people equally regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference, to be against poverty and war, and to be for fairness and diversity. These are not bad things to be against and for, respectively, but the new code, which I will call ecumenical niceness, has a crucial flaw. The code of the elites is supposed to set the standard for the society, but ecumenical niceness has a hold only on those people whom the elites are willing to judge–namely, one another. One of the chief tenets of ecumenical niceness is not to be judgmental about the underclass.

Within the underclass, the vacuum has been filled by a distinctive, separate code. Call it thug code: Take what you want, respond violently to anyone who antagonizes you, gloat when you win, despise courtesy as weakness, treat women as receptacles, take pride in cheating, deceiving, or exploiting successfully. The world of hip-hop is where the code is openly embraced. But hip-hop is only an expression of the code, not its source. It amounts to the hitherto inarticulate values of underclass males from time immemorial, now made articulate with the collaboration of some of America’s best creative and merchandising talent.

It is, as Piereson laments, sobering to witness the values implicit in so much of what that “creative talent” celebrates today. It has always been that case, as he notes, that what we esteem tells a lot about who we are. What do we esteem today?