Writers and Company

With Bunk, Kevin Young reminds us there's nothing new about fake news

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the poet and essayist about his latest book, which explores the history of hoaxes in the United States.
Kevin Young is an American poet and author. (Melanie Dunea)

Kevin Young is a leading voice of his generation. His new book, Bunk: the Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News, traces the history of the hoax, from the exhibitions of P.T. Barnum in the mid-19th century, to high-profile scandals of more recent times. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bunk suggests that the hoax is both peculiarly American, and insidiously embedded in race.

Born in Nebraska in 1970, Young is the son of an ophthalmologist and a chemist, both from Louisiana. This connection to the American south — including a large extended family — has helped shape his work, which often explores the relationship between poetry and music, particularly gospel, soul, hip hop and the blues.

Kevin Young was recently named poetry editor of The New Yorker. In this conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, he reads new poems from his upcoming collection, Brown, which will be published in April 2018.

Truth and lies

"I started thinking about the hoax as a concept when the Bernie Madoff investment scandal happened, one that was on a scale of billions of dollars. I started thinking there was more to the hoax than just an isolated series of incidents. I got a little frustrated as people talked about them as if they were these kind of larks, or just happened — over here and over there — but weren't in any way connected. And I started trying to understand whether there were more hoaxes today compared to the past, which appears to be the case.

"This goes all the way back to P.T. Barnum, which is where I start my book, thinking about his many hoaxes and schemes. In many cases, the hoaxes he fabricated had a lot to do with race, starting with his first hoax in 1835 which was a display of a woman named Joice Heth, who he claimed was George Washington's nursemaid — which would have made her 161 years old, which he had trumpeted wildly and widely as truth."

Close encounters of the faked kind

"I was still in college and this person I worked with came in one day and he said he had cancer. And of course we were devastated. He was 20 and so we rallied around him; he went so far as to shave his head to fool everyone that he really had cancer. But later on he was found out — he had became known for pledging money to universities and defrauding people.

"It was all fake, you know, and it was really strange. I think a hoax is always sort of an intimate thing, where you not only question the hoax, but also what you can believe in general."

Heart of the hoax

"I wrote the book to understand not just why we deceive, but why we believe. I think that's really the crux of the matter: how we so easily believe something we fear to be true. And I think what hoaxers have managed to understand, and Barnum was early to this, is that by tapping into these fears and deep-seated questions, hoaxes almost work every time.

"I also think that hoaxes tend to play on, especially now, our deep divisions. Sometimes they claim to erase them, but more often than not, they actually say that things are as bad as we fear they are."

Kevin Young's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: Midnight Train to Georgia performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips