The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’

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.

“It was a witch hunt. Villagers lit their torches,” recalled the novelist and bookseller Ann Patchett, whose Nashville home Cummins stayed in after her publisher told her the tour was over. The two were up all night crying. “The fall that she took, in my kitchen, from being at the top of the world to just being smashed and in danger — it was heartbreaking.”

How did the literary world let it happen?

From the moment Cummins’s agent sent “American Dirt” out to potential publishers, it looked like a winner. The manuscript led to a bidding war among nine publishing imprints, resulting in a game-changing, seven-figure deal for its author. In the run-up to publication, as the editor of The New York Times Book Review, I asked attendees at Book Expo, then the most significant annual publishing conference, which upcoming book they were most excited about. The answer was as unanimous as I’ve ever heard: “American Dirt.” Publishers, editors, booksellers, librarians were all wildly enthusiastic: “American Dirt” wasn’t only a gripping novel — it brought attention to one of the most vexing and heartbreaking issues of our time, the border crisis. This, its champions believed, was one of those rare books that could both enthrall readers and change minds.

But in December 2019, a month before the novel’s release, Myriam Gurba, a Latina writer whose memoir, “Mean” had been published a couple of years earlier by a small press, posted a piece that Ms. magazine had commissioned as a review of “American Dirt,” and then killed. In her blog post and accompanying review, Gurba characterized the novel as “fake-assed social justice literature,” “toxic heteroromanticism” and “sludge.” It wasn’t just that Gurba despised the book. She insisted that the author had no right to write it.

A central charge was that Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina but is not an immigrant or of Mexican heritage, wasn’t qualified to write an authentic novel about Latin American characters. Another writer soon asserted in an op-ed that the “clumsy, ill-conceived” rollout of Cummins’s novel was proof that American publishing was “broken.” The hype from the publisher, which marketed the book as “one of the most important books for our times,” was viewed as particularly damning. Echoing a number of writers and activists, the op-ed writer said it was incumbent upon Mexican Americans and their “collaborators” to resist the “ever-grinding wheels of the hit-making machine,” charging it was “unethical” to allow Oprah’s book club to wield such power. More than 100 writers put their names to a letter scolding Oprah for her choice.

Never mind that for years, Oprah had championed a diverse range of authors and been a huge booster of the book world. Or that a publisher will use whatever it can, whether wild hyperbole about a book’s merits or a marathon of reliable blurbers, to make a novel work given the unpredictable vicissitudes of public taste.

But an influential swath of the literary world clearly felt galvanized by the charges.

In one of those online firestorms the world has come to recognize and occasionally regret, activists, writers, self-appointed allies and Twitter gunslingers competed to show who was more affronted by the crime of the novel’s success. “American Dirt” was essentially held responsible for every instance in which another Latino writer’s book got passed over, poorly reviewed or remaindered.

As the story gained traction, the target kept moving. According to her critics, it was the author’s fault for not doing better research, for not writing a more literary novel, for writing a “white savior story,” for inaccurately reflecting aspects of Mexican culture, for resorting to negative stereotypes. It was the florist’s fault for repurposing the barbed wire motif on the book’s cover as part of the arrangements at a launch dinner. It was the publisher’s fault for mounting a “perfectly orchestrated mega-budget campaign” on behalf of a white, one-quarter Puerto Rican author rather than for other, more marginalized Latino voices. The blurbs for “American Dirt” were too laudatory. The advance was too big. There were accusations of cultural appropriation, a nebulous and expansive concept whose adherents will parse from homage, appreciation or cultural exchange according to rules known only to them.

What should have been done instead? Should the publisher have pushed back on the blurbers, asking them to tone down their praise? Should Cummins have balked at the advance, saying it was too much money, given some back? Would anyone have gotten this upset had Cummins received $50,000 and a few tepid notes of praise from writer friends?

Many of Cummins’s fans went silent, too scared to mount any kind of public defense. In conversations at the time, a number of novelists — from all backgrounds and ethnicities — told me privately they were afraid the rage would come for them, for earlier novels they’d written in which they’d imagined other people’s lives, other people’s voices. For future novels they wanted to write that dared traverse the newly reinforced DMZ lines of race, ethnicity, gender and genre. (Even now, three years later, many of Cummins’s early champions I contacted were wary of going on the record for fear of poking the bear; many people in the publishing world would speak to me only off the record. Macmillan, the imprint’s house, did not respond to a request for comment.)

And so, the accusations went largely uncontested. Macmillan submitted to a round of self-flagellating town halls with staff. Cummins lay low, having become something of a pariah among her professional peers. Since publication, I have been told, not a single author in America has asked her to blurb a book.

Some calls for change that came out of the firestorm were well founded — in particular, the call to diversify a largely white and well-heeled industry. Publishing, an exciting but  demanding and notoriously low-paying job, isn’t for everyone. But it should certainly be open to and populated by people of all backgrounds and tastes. Black editors interested in foreign policy and science fiction, Latino editors interested in emerging conservative voices or horror, graduates from small colleges in the South interested in Nordic literature in translation. People from all walks of life who are open to all kinds of stories from all kinds of authors can bring a breadth of ideas to a creative industry.

Yet in their assertion that the publisher somehow “made” this book succeed in ways they wouldn’t for another Latino author, the novel’s critics misunderstood several fundamentals about how publishing works. First, it is a business, and one in which most novels fail. If publishing were as monolithic and all-knowing as many critics seemed to presume, publishers would make every novel succeed. If all it took was throwing  its marketing muscle behind a novel and soliciting every over-the-top blurb possible, then publishing wouldn’t be such a low-margin business. When a book proposal comes along that generates huge excitement and the prospect of success, naturally publishers will jump on it, spend the money they need to win the contract and do everything they can to recoup their investment. For most authors, a six- or seven-figure advance is a shocking windfall; most books typically do not earn back the advance in sales. Publishing is full of authors and editors who believe in their books, only to be disappointed.

Many critics of “American Dirt” also made cynical assumptions about the author. In their view, Jeanine Cummins set out to profit off the tragedy of the border crisis. Tellingly, most didn’t consider that Cummins might have had any motivation beyond money.

Think about what could have been.

The response from other Latino writers and the larger literary world could have been yes to this book and to this author, who made an effort to explore lives other than her own, as well as, yes to a memoir by a Honduran migrant, for example, and yes to a reported border narrative by a Texan journalist and yes to a collection by a Mexican American poet. A single book, whether perfect or flawed — and negative reviews are entirely fair game — cannot be expected to represent an entire people, regardless of how it is written or marketed. Instead of shutting down this particular author in the name of a larger cause — its own form of injustice — the response from fellow Latino writers could have been more generous.

The outcry among its detractors was so thunderous, it was hard to see at the time that the response to “American Dirt” wasn’t entirely grim. There was no significant outcry outside the American literary world’s cloistered purview. And significantly, the novel was translated into 37 languages, selling well over three million copies worldwide.

The novelist, filmmaker and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams”) says that in Mexico, the novel was read and appreciated. “As a Mexican born and raised, I didn’t feel the least uncomfortable with what Jeanine did,” Arriaga told me. “I think it’s completely valid to write whatever you want on whatever subject you want. Even if she exaggerated the narco aspect, that’s the privilege of an artist.” When Arriaga discusses the novel with book clubs in Mexico, he says, nobody raises the concept of cultural appropriation.

A few Latino writers stood up publicly in Cummins’s defense. “The author is getting a lot of crap for stuff she is not responsible for,” Sandra Cisneros said in a contentious public radio segment largely devoted to other people calling Cummins out. “If you don’t like the story, OK, that’s what she wrote and that’s her story,” Cisneros continued, urging people to “read this book with an open heart. If you don’t like it, put it down.”

Readers, the people for whom books are actually written, were otherwise largely ignored in the debate. But it turned out that many readers kept an open mind, with little patience for the mine-not-yours tussles that animated Twitter and its amplifiers. Here in America, the novel debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for 36 weeks. That’s the power of a book that resonates.

But if the proposal for “American Dirt” landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.

“In the past two or three years, there’s a lot of commentary about the publishing industry being increasingly eager to appease potential cancelers, to not get into trouble to begin with, to become fearful and conformist,” says Bernard Schweizer, a professor emeritus of English at Long Island University who is founding a small publishing company, Heresy Press, with his wife, Liang, to take on the kind of riskier work that now gets passed over. According to Schweizer, the publisher will look for work “that lies between the narrow ideological, nonaesthetic interests presently flourishing on both the left and the right” and “won’t blink at alleged acts of cultural appropriation.”  As he told me: “The point is not to offend but to publish stories that are unfettered and freewheeling, maybe nonconformist in one way or another. Somebody may be offended or not, but that’s the kind of risk we want to take.”

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. Elizabeth Ellen, Hobart’s editor and the person who conducted the interview, posted a letter from the editor advocating for an atmosphere “in which fear is not the basis of creation, nor the undercurrent of discussion.”

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.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button