‘American Dirt’: Kicking up dust in the book industry

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

It took just four words to change Jeanine Cummins’ life. When the novelist answered her phone, the voice on the other end said, “Jeanine, it’s Oprah Winfrey.” 

The little-known writer’s fourth work, “American Dirt,” had been selected as an Oprah Book Club pick.

Whenever one of the world’s premier literary tastemakers anoints a book, it’s a guaranteed hit. Even Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – an impossibly bleak story that mostly eschews punctuation – sold well over a million copies thanks to Ms. Winfrey’s imprimatur. 

Why We Wrote This

The furor over “American Dirt” is part of a broader cultural trend: policing art to further social justice. From movies to art to books, works are being evaluated by whether they’re inclusive and diverse. Is that good?

Ms. Cummins’ book is a considerably easier sell than Mr. McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner. “American Dirt” is a fast-paced thriller about a Mexican mother and son trying to escape a drug lord by fleeing to the U.S. border. Its syntax won’t generate 911 calls to the grammar police. 

Ms. Cummins described Ms. Winfrey’s phone call as “the best moment of my life.” But the triumph surrounding the book release in January was short-lived. Within days, she was hiding in fear for her safety.

“American Dirt” is mired in a controversy that culminated in threats against the author. It started with several Mexican American authors accusing Ms. Cummins (who is white and of Puerto Rican descent) of cultural appropriation. They complained that her book stereotypes Mexicans, misportrays the country’s culture, and misrepresents the typical migrant experience. Furthermore, they were incensed that Flatiron Books, publisher of the novel, had launched a massive marketing campaign for a non-Mexican, nonimmigrant writer instead of promoting more authentic stories by underrepresented Latino authors. As their fury caught fire, Flatiron Books canceled the author’s book tour. Even Ms. Winfrey felt compelled to call for a “deeper conversation” about the novel on her Apple Plus TV show. 

The furor over “American Dirt” represents a microcosm of a broader cultural trend: the policing of art to further social justice. It’s what some call the “Great Awokening.” From music to movies to museum exhibits, artists and their works are being evaluated according to whether they are inclusive and diverse and promote social good. The creators themselves – both contemporary and historical – are also being scrutinized. If the artists are deemed “privileged,” not sufficiently representative of a marginalized group, or aligned with the wrong kind of views, then they risk being “canceled” – having their museum exhibitions or book tours or concerts scrubbed.

To some, these purity tests represent identity politics run amok. To others, they’re a long-overdue corrective step to redress historic discrimination and give disempowered people a voice in society. While the social justice movement is sweeping through many segments of society, when it comes to the arts, it raises a fundamental question: Who should get to tell someone’s story? 

“You’ve got two things working in tandem,” says Kat Rosenfield, a successful fiction author and freelance journalist who covers the culture wars within publishing. “One is that some people believe that the arts are sort of a zero-sum game and that in order for people from marginalized groups to get the attention and the opportunities they deserve, you are ... going to have to publish fewer white male authors, for instance. There’s only so much space on the shelves. The other thing is there’s certainly a moral facet to all of the conversation – condemning [books or authors] that are ‘bad’ or ‘problematic’ or ‘immoral.’”

Many believe the controversy rocking the staid publishing world could have a salutary effect. Already, Flatiron has met with a group of critics of “American Dirt” and promised to produce an action plan to increase Latino representation within the industry.

Yet underneath it all, the question persists: Is the Great Awokening enriching American culture or stifling it? 

It’s rare nowadays for a relatively obscure author to be the subject of a bidding war. Ms. Cummins’ manuscript was auctioned for seven figures. A Hollywood studio snapped up the movie rights. For some, the story of how “American Dirt” was positioned to become a major publishing event encapsulates everything that is narrow and hierarchical about the industry. 

Though there are tens of thousands of publishers across the United States, the industry is dominated by five publishing houses (including Macmillan, the parent company of Flatiron) in New York. The employees at the Big Five, particularly at the higher echelons, tend to be homogeneous. According to a survey released in January by Lee & Low Books, an independent publisher that focuses on diversity, 76% of employees in the industry are white and 74% women. They’re middle to upper class and highly educated. That, say critics, explains why so much adult fiction is by nonminority authors and geared toward a general audience of middle-class white women.  

“You create kind of a bubble of literary quality,” says David Bowles, a Mexican American author who writes fantasy books based on Aztec and Mayan mythology. “When, as an agent or an editor, a manuscript comes across your desk that does not ape those traditions, it is jarring. One of the things that, again and again, writers of color hear, especially from agents, is, ‘I just couldn’t connect with the voice.’ That right there, that barrier, is all about their lack of familiarity with voices that are not like theirs, that are not like the people they read.”

Marginalized authors have been pushing back. In 2014, a group on Twitter marshaled under the banner #WeNeedDiverseBooks to call for more stories, particularly in the young adult genre, featuring protagonists who were persons of color, LGBTQ, or disabled. Soon after, the related #ownvoices movement argued that stories about marginalized characters should be written by authors who are part of the marginalized group. The liberal-leaning publishing industry, which is intimately connected to the worlds of media and Twitter where social justice crusades foment, was quick to promise change.

“One of the things that the publishing industry, which is overwhelmingly progressive, really, really likes is to be able to both make a lot of money and also pat itself on the back in a self-congratulatory way for having done something social justicey,” says Mr. Bowles.

Publishers started to employ sensitivity readers to vet books – particularly those targeted at children and young adults – for offensive material related to portrayals of race, nationality, gender, religion, and sexuality. And publishing marketers quickly incorporated the language of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices in their campaigns. But critics say that didn’t necessarily translate into more book deals for minority authors. 

“I don’t think we’ve had any significant change yet that suggests the industry is taking diversity seriously,” says Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, a veteran marketing strategist at Free Verse Media, a consulting firm. “I think it’s a good P.R. hook. There’s a few token examples.” 

According to 2018 statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 29% of children’s literature books with black protagonists were written by black authors and 33% of books with Latino lead characters were penned by Latinos. In the romance sector, 7.7% of every 100 books published were written by nonwhite authors, according to a 2018 survey by The Ripped Bodice bookstore in Los Angeles. 

What has changed, however, is that some online voices have felt more empowered to call out authors who don’t qualify as #ownvoices. Since 2017, social media campaigns have targeted several young adult fantasy authors for how they depicted marginalized groups. Amélie Wen Zhao’s “Blood Heir,” Keira Drake’s “The Continent,” Laura Moriarty’s “American Heart,” and Laurie Frost’s “The Black Witch” were pilloried for alleged racist depictions of characters. Publishers pulled several of the books prior to release and revised them. 

“What’s probably interesting in that broader trend line about ‘American Dirt’ is that it is certainly one of the first times we’ve seen some of these kinds of conversations or controversies move to the world of adult fiction,” says a publishing industry analyst who asked that his name not be used. “It may be where all of the rest of this [is] heading.”

Many of the high-profile adult-title books that get reviewed in newspapers and funneled to tastemakers such as ­Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush Hager, and Ms. Winfrey tout social justice bona fides. For Flatiron Books, “American Dirt” seemed like an opportunity, too. It wasn’t just a brisk page turner – beware of paper cuts! – but also a chance to capitalize on the plight of migrants. There was just one problem: It wasn’t written by an #ownvoices author.

Critics were quick to pounce.

“Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it,” wrote Myriam Gurba, author of the memoir “Mean.” “The nicest thing I can say about ‘Dirt’ is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper.”

Other Latino authors such as Daniel Peña, Roberto Lovato, and Mr. Bowles said Ms. Cummins employed nonidiomatic Spanish phrases, homogenized Mexicans’ regional cultures, and lazily relied on stereotypical tropes such as setting the first scene at a quinceañera. They worried that “American Dirt” would leave readers with the impression of Mexico as a hovel and accused her of writing the story from the perspective of “the white gaze.”

Within days, Flatiron publisher Bob Miller issued a public apology. “We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience,” he wrote. “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”

In a speech that reverberated across the literary world, author Lionel Shriver took to the stage of the Brisbane book festival in Australia and made a bold declaration: “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats.”

As she left the podium, she donned a sombrero. That was one of many ways in which Ms. Shriver’s speech, in 2016, seemed to anticipate the row over “American Dirt.”

“Charges of cultural appropriation were not very common in the literary world [back then],” says Ms. Shriver, author of the upcoming novel “The Motion of the Body Through Space.” “That concept arose mostly in the fashion industry about white people wearing dreadlocks or white people wearing kimonos. And I was concerned that if it moved to literature, it would imperil my occupation.”

It didn’t take long for such policing to move into the book world, however, as well as other realms. In 2017, for instance, New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, as part of its biennial exhibition, displayed the painting “Open Casket,” which depicts the corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old victim of a lynching by white men in 1955. Its creator, Dana Schutz, intended it as a statement against racism. But the artist was accused of cultural appropriation by several black painters and white critics who asserted that she, as a white woman, could never understand the black experience. 

More recently, actress Scarlett Johansson came under fire for signing on to play a transgender man in a movie. “I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” the actress said. Transgender activists said that trans actors in Hollywood are often passed over for parts and this was a rare leading role that could have gone to one of them. Ms. Johansson bowed out.

Yet critics of the #ownvoices movement argue that a person doesn’t have to be from one particular group to understand that group – and, in fact, in the literary world, it can be advantageous to be an outsider. One of the goals of writers, especially fiction writers, is to crawl inside the heads of other people.

“We all observe each other,” says Ms. Shriver. “And part of self-examination is not always availing, is it? So sometimes others can see things about you that you can’t. So I’m interested in the observations of people about groups to which they do not belong.”

A good writer is able to access a universal experience that transcends differences of gender, race, nationality, class, sexuality, and ability. As the Roman philosopher Terence put it: “Nothing human is alien to me.” “If you’re a good fiction writer and a good observer of the world, there are no limits to what you can take on with enough empathy and research,” says Ms. Shriver. “You own the whole world for as long as you are here. It is your backyard. It is your experience. ... So you have a right to have an opinion about it, to experience it, to think about it, to talk about it.”

Fiction, by definition, isn’t a precise representation of the real world. Many writers, to be sure, believe you should strive for verisimilitude. That’s where craft and groundwork come in. 

Part of the debate over “American Dirt” is whether Ms. Cummins’ research, which included extensive travel in Mexico and work with nonprofits there, is as “careful and diligent” as she has claimed. Journalist Jesse Singal, for one, believes that a fair reading of the book reveals that some of the criticism lodged against it is itself distorted and inaccurate. 

For all the arguments over the book’s sensitivities and veracity, some fellow authors – including Ann Patchett and Lauren Groff – testify to being deeply moved by the story.

“I think fiction has an important role in making us understand not only ourselves better and how human behavior in general works, including our own,” says Ian Buruma, former editor of The New York Review of Books and now a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College in New York. “But where empathy comes in is that it allows us to get under the skin of people who are not like us.” 

The earliest critic of “American Dirt” was ... the author herself. “I worried that my privilege would blind me to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have,” Ms. Cummins writes in the author’s note to the book. 

She persisted in writing a story intended to remind readers of the humanity of unauthorized migrants because, she said, “If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?”

One of Ms. Cummins’ defenders, Sandra Cisneros (“The House on Mango Street”), told Latino USA, “She’s going to reach a different kind of audience. ... That audience is going to be someone who is going to be a little suspicious of a Latino surname.”

Ms. Cisneros’ comment irked Mr. Gonzalez, the marketer who specializes in audience development. The publishing industry has been blind, he says, to the increased diversification of the country and developing new audiences. He wonders what might have happened if Flatiron had invested the same marketing dollars into a Latino writer instead of Ms. Cummins.

He may soon find out. In February, when a group of authors that included Ms. Gurba, Mr. Bowles, and Mr. Lovato met with Flatiron Books, the publisher vowed to boost Latino authors and promote more diversity on bookshelves. The publisher also said it would dispatch Ms. Cummins for a series of town hall meetings where she’ll be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book. 

In the end, some worry that the real impact of the “American Dirt” controversy will be to engender more tweet storms that accuse authors of cultural appropriation – turning writers and publishing houses ever more cautious. “Timidity is the great enemy of anything creative, in my view,” says Mr. Buruma.

Others are hopeful it will lead to greater enlightenment and sensitivity within the industry. “I feel optimistic that this will not devolve into some kind of civil war,” says Mr. Bowles, encouraged by his meeting with Flatiron.

For his part, Mr. Gonzalez believes that, in the long term, major publishing will undergo organic change no matter what the outside pressures. That’s because schools have been introducing young readers to a wide array of authors.

“The people who are coming up in the industry ... grew up reading more diverse literature. So immediately they’re going to come into the business with a much broader perspective of ‘who is this voice for?’” says Mr. Gonzalez. “All those calculations change with that generation. So that’s where my sense of optimism comes from.”

Editor’s Note: This story contains expanded reporting from the original, which ran Jan. 30.

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