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:
- Appropriating genius works by people of color
- Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
- 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.