“American Dirt”: The book that chilled American publishing

January 26, 2023 • 9:45 am

This three year old novel, which you can buy from Amazon in hardback for only $9.99, is the subject of Pamela Paul’s latest op-ed in the NYT (click on the second image below to read it).  According to Paul, and judging by the news I’ve followed since American Dirt‘s publication, this book had a huge chilling effect on American publishing. It was, Paul maintains, the harbinger of the timorous and self-censoring publishing industry of modern America. But click below to read, and I’ll give a few excerpts.

Paul, as you may know, used to be the editor of the New York Times Book Review, so she knows the ins and outs of publishing, and that informs her harsh critique of how this book—written by Jeanine Cumins and published by Flatiron Press, an imprint of MacMillan—was treated by a woke mob.

Here are two lines from Wikipedia’s bio of Cummins.  See if you can guess what the fracas was about from these:

Cummins’ 2020 novel, American Dirt, tells the story of a mother and bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who attempts to escape to the United States with her son after their family is killed by a drug cartel.


Jeanine Cummins identifies as both white and Latina. In a December 2015 New York Times opinion piece about her cousins’ murder, she mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother but also states “I am white…and in every practical way, my family is mostly white.”

Yes, this is a set-up for an accusation of Cultural Appropriation, and that’s what brought the book down, though it ultimately was translated into 33 languages, sold three million copies, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s “Book Club”, which guarantees huge sales. But the social-justice mob that went after this book, ignited by a single blog post, has, for the indefinite future, chilled all of publishing. For crying out loud, some people thought I’d have trouble publishing my children’s book set in India, Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats, because I’m not Indian. And indeed, that “conflict” has been mentioned to me by at least one editor. (No, I haven’t placed the book.)

On to Paul’s take:

The story in brief as she tells it:

Three years ago this month, the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins landed in bookstores on a tsunami of enthusiasm. “Extraordinary,” Stephen King wrote in a pre-publication blurb. “Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment,” raved Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Sandra Cisneros proclaimed. “This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

The book’s momentum was nonstop. Riding on starred prepublication reviews from the trades, the book, a fast-paced road novel about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Indie Next List Pick by independent bookstores. Then came the rapturous reviews. “A thrilling adrenaline rush — and insights into the Latin American migrant experience,” raved The Washington Post. Cummins “proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy,” said Time magazine. Finally, the golden ticket: Oprah selected “American Dirt” for her book club. “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said.

It all fell apart with stunning speed. Following a blistering online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who gets to write what, and in response to threats of violence against both author and booksellers, Cummins’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour. Cummins’s motives and reputation were smeared; the novel, eviscerated. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.

Looking back now, it’s clear that the “American Dirt” debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors. In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire. This fear now hangs over every step of a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurb  and who can edit permeating what feels like a minefield. Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over, sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis, self-censorship is rampant.

A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.

If you want to see an unfair and nasty hit job, I suggest that you read the review of American Dirt below by writer Myriam Gurba, published on the blog Tropics of Meta (click screenshot below).  In the title below, I see Gurba labels Cummins as “pendeja,” which apparently is “a mildly vulgar insult for ‘asshole’ or ‘idiot’ in Spanish” (female form). And “bronca” in Spanish means “row” or “beef”. So the very title begins with an insult:

It’s a short review, but accuses Cummins of cultural appropriation, not having the ethnic credibility to write about Mexico, and, by producing a highly touted book, taking undue credit and quashing the achievements from other Latino authors. Here’s a bit of Gurba’s invective (“gabacha” is a pejorative Spanish word for a non-Hispanic foreigner, a female):

A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.

Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:

  1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
  2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
  3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.

Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.

This vicious attack, laced with Spanish slang, is what launched a thousand sensitivity readers and the mentality that makes publishers wary of putting out any books not written by someone with the proper ethnic cred. Although Cummins has Hispanic genes, a 25% DNA titer was apparently not enough to make her qualified to write about Mexico (note that lots of writers with no Hispanic heritage have previously written about Mexico).

People who liked Cummins’s book suddenly retreated (there were some exceptions, including Latino writers) and Cummins was demonized by her fellow writers. She has not been asked to blurb books by other authors, as her name and endorsement are considered toxic.  As Paul says, “if the proposal for ‘American Dirt’ landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.”

Here’s Paul’s example about how a Latino who defended writers’ use of “cultural appropriation” was treated:

For some aspiring writers, the mood remains pessimistic. “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,” the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall. “This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of 15.” Shortly after publication of Perez’s interview, Hobart’s staff of editors quit and Perez was widely mocked on social media.

I guess Hobart’s editors saw themselves as HARMED by Perez’s interview.

This whole thing makes me ill. History is filled with great novels about men written by women (Middlemarch), about women written by men (I just finished the Beartown trilogy by Fredrik Backman, most of whose main characters are girls or women, and portrayed with great insight and sensitivity), and about people of one culture written about by those from another (just one example: Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan, now living in England, writes fantastic books about a variety of cultures, including robots). I know readers can think of other “exceptions” like these, for we’ve discussed them before.

It baffles me that you have to be from one gender or racial group to write well about it; it violates the very dictum that we’re all humans and share emotions and thoughts, even if our cultures differ. Nor do I buy the argument that Cummins’s writing about Mexico hurts other Latino authors and prevents them from getting attention. Especially these days, good writing is recognized by publishers. The problem is that they bridle if the good writing is about one ethnicity or gender yet produced by writers from another.

In truth, I don’t think you can make a rational argument for why the gender, race, religion, or ethnicity of an author should be ANY factor in judging their writing. Yes, their backgrounds can liven or add worthwhile nuances to a book, but it doesn’t give them a monopoly on describing their culture. In the end, it looks to me that people like Gurba are making a power grab on art, claiming that, because of their DNA, only they have the ability to write meaningfully about their own country or culture.

It’s nuts. But at least Paul, whose writing I like very much (subscribe to her column), ends on somewhat of a high note. For Cummins, despite being demonized and attacked, and despite having inadvertently turned publishing into an orgy of ethnic introspection, wrote a book that was an international bestseller:

History has shown that no matter how much critics, politicians and activists may try, you cannot prevent people from enjoying a novel. This is something the book world, faced with ongoing threats of book banning, should know better than anyone else.

“We can be appalled that people are saying, ‘You can’t teach those books. You can’t have Jacqueline Woodson in a school library.’ But you can’t stand up for Jeanine Cummins?” Ann Patchett said. “It just goes both ways. People who are not reading the book themselves are telling us what we can and cannot read? Maybe they’re not pulling a book from a classroom, but they’re still shaming people so heavily. The whole thing makes me angry, and it breaks my heart.”

Much remains broken in its wake. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at a great emotional, social and reputational cost. She wrote a book filled with empathy. The literary world showed her none.

Such is the work of the Authoritarian Left.

37 thoughts on ““American Dirt”: The book that chilled American publishing

  1. On the general principles here, and the ability to write about what may seem far from one’s own particular background, see Henry James’s great essay The Art of Fiction, easily available online. James himself has not only some extraordinary women characters, but also a child character, and indeed he also wrote about what is involved in writing a story with a central point of view that of a child.

  2. This article will sell lots of this book. I just bought a copy.
    At least the book still has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon.

    The review is so angry and ugly. It hardly sounds professional to me. It just rants with rage from someone who has decided they are in charge of who can say what.

    1. I see that ranting-rage style of reaction (I’m not going to dignify it with a term like “commentary” or “critique”) in so many SJW slams of works that don’t comply with the up-to-the-minute standards of acceptable discourse. I believe it’s intended to evoke a response of sympathetic outrage: Something has deeply wounded this righteous victim; it must have been a horrifically bigoted attack. I perceive it more as hollow and performative.

  3. When you think of Identity Politics, one of the big concepts is “lived experience.” People’s lived experience is something that is personal and unique, cannot be questioned and is above criticism. If someone says that they have had a terrible life because of racism, it is unacceptable to challenge that. It has to be accepted. You can’t say that they haven’t had it so bad compared to people in other times or countries, or that there might be other factors that might explain their problems. This is an extremely powerful tool to stifle your opponents. Allowing authors to write about the experiences of people of different Identities (race, sex, ethnicity) implies that they can actually know the lived experiences of others, which would undercut the idea of the value of that tactic.

  4. Myriam Gurba doth protest too much. Sounds like she is jealous of Cummins’s success and annoyed that the great novel wasn’t written by someone else—someone with the right ethnic profile. She’s more incensed with the novel’s provenance than with its substance. Her anger says it all.

    I had no idea how bad things have gotten. I thought that the kvetching over Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir was just a petty kerfuffle. Now I see that this micro-controversy is really just part of a larger poison that continues to spread.

    Sickening, and dangerous to free expression everywhere.

    1. Much of what motivates woke people are impulses that used to be considered base. Envy, sloth, lust, wrath, pride, gluttony, and more.

      Mexico is a Spanish culture, and the woke seem to be unable to remember that Spain is in Europe.

  5. I just finished reading American Dirt a couple days ago and didn’t realize it was controversial. I didn’t really care for the book so learning that it was attacked by the offense mob has improved my opinion of it somewhat. Well, at least I feel like my time wasn’t completely wasted.

    It’s sad and infuriating that people think they have the right to tell others what they can or cannot write. The fact that those same people think they can tell me what I can or cannot read makes me determined to read as many “problematic” books as I can.

    1. It’s as if some of these self-annointed Censors (whether an individual or a large committee) haven’t even casually considered the Streisand Effect.

  6. Of course I’d heard of the brouhaha around this book, but had since forgotten about it. I’ll put this on my list of books to read.

  7. This is another example of the “tails I win, heads you lose” mentality of some woke activists.

    Are you a white author who has written about people of color? You are guilty of cultural appropriation, which is racist!

    Are you a white author who writes only about white characters? You are centering the white experience and excluding/marginalizing people of color; therefore, you’re racist!

    1. Imagine how barren the literary world would be if authors could only write about their “lived experience” [a term that I despise]. I am awaiting an uprising by the woke Hobbits.

  8. It’s not really my kind of book, but I am going to buy it, not because the author is hurting for customers, but because the more the better for unfairly vilified books and authors.

  9. Simple question: why is Myriam Gurba’s (who?) opinion thought to matter more than Stephen King’s and the many others who endorsed the book after actually reading it?

  10. That is so sad.
    It does remind me of attempts to take down The Whale, which is a well received come-back movie for Brendan Fraser. So there was this NPR episode where a group of commenters get together and rattle on about movies since the Academy Awards were not far away. One after one, they all tut-tutted and sighed with fake pain about why is was such a lost opportunity to cast an actual obese gay man for the role. So they just couldn’t really, you know, actually recommend the movie.
    The problem in a nut -shell.

  11. It is of course shocking, shocking! that “A Gentleman in Moscow” was a success, even though Amor Towles does not belong to the Russianx community. How fortunate that publishers will never make a mistake like that again. We will also be spared any fiction with children as characters, unless written by children. And as for children’s books about animals, written by adult humans—-well, that is out of the question on multiple grounds.

  12. This is just ridiculous. Never mind the race/colour/ethnicity of the main character, what about other characters? Should there be a separate author for every character, every bit of dialogue? The inevitable conclusions from this kind of nonsense don’t stand careful analysis and are, ultimately, likely to be counter productive for minorities. Suppose we started arguing that legislation and protections involving minorities could only ever be voted through by those minorities? The odds are that no pro-minority legislation would ever find its way onto the books.

  13. The insistence on a shared “lived experience” as prerequisite to understanding others pretty much negates the possibility of empathy, does it not?

    If we can’t understand those from whom we differ, then what would be the problem with not bothering to listen to them or even of saying “to hell with those other people”? It’s a short slide from there to not considering them to be “people” deserving of dignity or respect in any meaningful sense.

    This does seem to be the stance of the more militant woke. So much for any possibility of civil society in their new world.

  14. I just bought a copy. It does not look like my cup of tea but I will give it a chance. Also, I relish going against the woke cry bullies.

  15. From an earlier post of our host:

    “I’m convinced that a big part of the “offense” is ginned up as a way to gain power.”

    So some people compete to make nastier and nastier hit pieces, wandering further and further from a balanced response, chasing the dragon for that hit of virtue signalling.

  16. Here’s an Amazon review from a Woke reader who found the book “engrossing” and was ready to award it 4 stars (out of 5), but then revised their opinion and awarded it just 1 in light of the controversy:

    Curator of Nonsense
    1.0 out of 5 stars Don’t believe the hype!
    Reviewed in the United States on 23 January 2020
    Verified Purchase
    I’m not going to front, I found this enjoyable to read. Not that the topic matter was enjoyable, but in that Lifetime movie enjoyable kind of way. This book is problematic, it’s a Caucasian woman from the US writing from the perspective of a Mexican woman who is facing trauma and more trauma. The plot twists are predictable and you can see them coming a mile away. She plays up the stereotypes, and tries to lure ignorant American readers into this idea that she knows what she’s talking about because she read books on the topic. This passes on massive problems into the current political atmosphere in the US. There’s so much to say here, and unpack. Do yourself a solid and read an actual Chicano/Chicana author, don’t allow your mind to absorb a Caucasians take on what she thinks immigration is about. I had four stars on this simply because it was engrossing to read, but once I got some insight into what’s at play here I had to lower that significantly to one. Really, it probably needs to just go in the trash if I’m being honest. I’m ashamed I bought into the hype. Don’t get suckered!

    All to no avail, because Amazon currently gives it a rating of 4.6 out of 5 based on 114,983 global ratings.

    1. ” I had four stars on this simply because it was engrossing to read, but once I got some insight…”
      Shades of The Painted Word – “I don’t really know what I think about this until someone tells me.”

  17. Jesus Christ, that piece by Myriam Gurba is strident. She has every right, of course, to write a review disparaging Cummins’s book for whatever she believes to be its faults. But the tone of her piece suggests it’s motivated at least in part by professional jealousy. If Gurba thinks Cummins’s book is that bad, the better remedy would be to jump in a write a better border novel herself.

    1. Amen to that.
      I definitely will add it to the small, but eclectic library in my Airbnb in Beaufort West.

      1. Can you post a link to the property? I want to visit the Karoo this year or next. I can justify the advert here by promising to try and photograph wildlife on my South Africa trip!

  18. How dare Zerna Sharp and William S. Gray write about Spot, the racially confused dog in the Dick and Jane readers. First of all, they are humans and have no right to write about dogs. This is an example of species appropriation, which unfortunately has been extremely commonplace in literature, from Winnie the Poo (appropriating from many animal species) to Alice in Wonderland (appropriating not only from animals and mushrooms, but also Chess pieces, the HORROR!) to Watership Down (disparaging cute little bunnies with the portrayal of the dictator rabbit).

    Back to Spot, the racially confused dog – even if racial is a human construct. Spot is black and white, implying he is at war with himself, no matter how he runs. If that isn’t racist or colorist or breedist, I don’t know what is. This is the Twenty-First Century. Have we not made at least a little progress in taking other conscious entity’s and agent’s (people, animals, rocks, plasma) feelings when writing fiction, nonfiction, porn, or technical manuals?

  19. Did it fall apart, “It all fell apart with stunning speed.”? There were tepid reviews at the very beginning, including one of the two review in the New York Times, but it still sold a lot of copies. The reviewer in the New York Times’ daily Books of the Times section (Parul Sehgal) said that American Dirt flounders and fails.” Lauren Groff, in the weekly NYTimes Book Review gave a somewhat more positive review, but apparently there was some internal controversy in the Times (https://slate.com/culture/2020/01/american-dirt-book-controversy-explained.html). Generally, controversy seems to lead to greater sales, not fewer. Sometimes is seems as if book review venues and book awards promote controversies to better serve publishers, not readers.

  20. The most vehement proponents that only members of ethnic/gender group X can write about group X also often affirm that one can change sex by simple announcement. Oh, wait, I forgot that logical consistency doesn’t matter, because it is a colonialist tool of oppression.

  21. Before I began working and living in equatorial-ish countries – The South – I would have been shocked by: “Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.” No longer. People in The South are justifiably fed-up with The North ignoring any positive aspect of their culture and harping on the negative. All I can add is: Myriam, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

  22. Yet another book I will read through sheer bloody-mindedness! Anyone attempting to ‘cancel’ a book equals +1 sale to me.

    Also interested to hear that our Prof-Emeritus got the comment about not being Indian because he set his story in India. I wonder if they were also concerned that he isn’t a cat?

    A pretty crap joke just popped into my head:

    What’s the connection between publishers who think it’s ‘problematic’ to publish books set in one culture by authors from another, and my intellectually challenged cat, Leo?

    They’re both monumentally stupid and have no balls.

    As our gracious host sometimes says, “I’m here all week”.

  23. I read the entire book and wrote a review of it, appraising its merits as a novel. It was straight close reading, with no comment on Cummins’ ethnic background. It’s simply not a good book. The narrative structure is confusing, use of Spanish inconsistent, characters not fleshed out and — the greatest crime a novel can commit — it tells instead of shows the varied migrant experience of Mexicans coming to the U.S. Even if I picked the book up with no knowledge of who wrote it or what had been said about it, I wouldn’t have finished it (although I did) and wouldn’t recommend it.

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