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 prepublication 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 rapturously received.
“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, cancelled 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 rancour,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.
US 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
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.
[ Jeanine Cummins: ‘I didn’t know if I had the right to tell the story’ ]
“It was a witch hunt. Villagers lit their torches,” recalls 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?
It wasn’t Cummins’s first book. The author, who grew up just outside Washington, DC, in a family that was partly Irish and Puerto Rican, had written a memoir in 2004: A Rip in Heaven, about the attempted murder of her brother, Tom, and the murder of two of her cousins, when she was 16. Cummins, who was working in the US publishing industry at the time, followed it with two novels: The Outside Boy, from 2010, about an Irish Traveller boy set in 1959; and The Crooked Branch, from 2013, about the Famine. In part she was drawing on her Irish heritage when she wrote them; she also drew on her own experience of Ireland: after university she had moved to Belfast for several years, working as a bartender (and earlier, in 1993, she was a finalist in the Rose of Tralee competition, representing Washington).
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 also brought attention to one of the most vexing and heartbreaking issues of the modern United States: the crisis on its southern border. This, its champions believed, was one of those rare books that could both enthral 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 characterised 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.
In one of those online firestorms the world has come to recognise 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
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” roll-out 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 Winfrey 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 galvanised by the charges.
In one of those online firestorms the world has come to recognise 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 saviour 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 megabudget campaign” on behalf of a white, quarter-Puerto Rican author rather than for other, more marginalised 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 baulked at the advance, saying it was too much money, given some back? Would anyone have got 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 defence. 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, and 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 the United States has asked her to blurb a book.
The outcry among its detractors was so thunderous that 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.
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 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 tells 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 defence. “The author is getting a lot of crap for stuff she is not responsible for,” Cisneros said in a contentious public-radio segment largely devoted to other people calling Cummins out. “If you don’t like the story, okay. 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 the United States, 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 cancellers, 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.
Much remains broken in its wake. 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. – This article originally appeared, without some additional reporting, in The New York Times
Pamela Paul is a New York Times opinion columnist. She was the editor of the New York Times Book Review for nine years and is the author of eight books, including 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet