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By Pamela Paul
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 tothreats 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 authorsand 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 championsI 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 hasasked 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 excitingbutdemanding 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 Southinterested 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 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 ormarketed. 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 otherwiselargely ignored in the debate. But it turned out that manyreaders 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 best-seller 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.”
Muchremains 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.
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What is American Dirt summary? ›
American Dirt is a 2020 novel by American author Jeanine Cummins, about the ordeal of a Mexican woman who had to leave behind her life and escape as an undocumented immigrant to the United States with her son.What is the theme of American dirt? ›
Themes: Thoughtful themes include found family, a mother's determination to save/protect her child, trust, taking care of others, found family, survival, grit, grief, surviving life's threatening circumstances, on the run, current events, freedom of the press, and fighting for a brighter and safer future.Is American Dirt a good read? ›
“American Dirt just gutted me, and I didn't just read this book―I inhabited it.... Everything about this book was so extraordinary. It's suspenseful, the language is beautiful, and the story really opened my heart. I highly recommend it, and you will not want to put it down.What is the climax of American Dirt? ›
The book reaches its climax when Lydia confronts Javier over videocall and Beto dies of an asthma attack. The remaining migrants reach a campsite run by El Chacal's contacts who drive them to Tucson in hidden compartments in their RVs.What is the main conflict in American Dirt? ›
American Dirt is a social issues thriller. It tells the story of a mother and son, Lydia and Luca, fleeing their home in Acapulco, Mexico, for the US after the rest of their family is murdered by a drug cartel.What is the POV of American Dirt? ›
The point of view of American Dirt is third-person, yet the author often engages multiple perspectives of the events, most frequently those of Lydia and Luca. In order to capture Luca's eight-year-old perspective Cummins uses language and observations associated with children.Is American Dirt an easy read? ›
The tortured sentences aside, “American Dirt” is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach.Is American Dirt being made into a movie? ›
What format will it be? Will the American Dirt adaptation be a Movie or a Series? It's planned as a feature movie.Is Jeanine Cummins Latina? ›
Jeanine Cummins (born December 6, 1974) is an American author, of Irish and Puerto Rican heritage. She has written four books: a memoir titled A Rip in Heaven and three novels, The Outside Boy, The Crooked Branch, and American Dirt.Why are all American boys books so good? ›
This breathtakingly honest, artfully written, emotionally smart look at lives rocked by police brutality; it moves beyond headlines, hashtags, and stereotypes. It tells the story of two ALL AMERICAN BOYS whom readers will love and cry for as the teens are forced to grow up fast following the violent incident.
What is falling action in a story? ›
Falling action is everything that takes place immediately after the climax. The purpose of falling action is to bring the story from climax to a resolution. It is one of the key elements in any story which will usually include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement.What happens at end of American Dirt? ›
In the final leg of the trip, Beto dies from his asthma. In the epilogue on month later, Lydia and Luca move to Maryland to live with Soledad and Rebeca at their cousin Cesar's house. Lydia gets a job as a house cleaner and the girls are enrolled in school. For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.What happens to Lydia and Luca in American Dirt? ›
American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia's life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family's backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed.What is the main conflict that drives the plot? ›
Conflict in a story creates and drives the plot forward. External conflict refers to the obstacles a character faces in the external world. Internal conflict refers to a character's internal or emotional obstacles.What is conflict What is the main conflict that drives the plot? ›
Conflict is the engine that drives the plot of the story forward and gives a tale its shape and purpose. In short, it is the struggle between two opposing forces, whether as a character's internal battle with themselves or an epic clash between armies.What is the main conflict in out of the dust? ›
In Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, the Kelby family faces many conflicts, including the family's struggle with poverty. The family is struggling because they are living on a farm in Oklahoma during the 1930s. At this time, the Kelby family is faced with both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.What perspective is American Psycho written from? ›
American Psycho is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1991. The story is told in the first person by Patrick Bateman, a serial killer and Manhattan investment banker.Is American Dirt a good book club book? ›
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is an excellent story which will keep you gripped from beginning to end. If you are fortunate enough to read Jeanine Cummins' accompanying essay and to see the level of research she completed and her personal reasons for writing the story, it becomes even more powerful.How old is Lydia in American Dirt? ›
Lydia Quixano Pérez. Lydia is a novel's 32-year-old protagonist. She is a bookstore owner and the wife of Sebastián, with whom she shares a son, Luca.Why are birds on the cover of American Dirt? ›
RE: Why do you think there are birds on the cover of the novel? The birds represent flight, flying overhead (oversight), freedom, song, and distance.
What should I read if I liked American Dirt? ›
- A Woman Is No Man: A Novel.
- The Vanishing Half: A Novel.
- The Island of Sea Women.
- The Dutch House: A Novel.
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel.
He professes his love for her and claims she is his only true friend. He insists he would abandon his ways if he could, but that Acapulco would suffer a new cartel war. Lydia wonders what terrible crimes Javier committed to become a cartel jefe, but fear and sadness prevent her from asking. Her affection for him fades.Why are there birds on the cover of American Dirt? ›
RE: Why do you think there are birds on the cover of the novel? The birds represent flight, flying overhead (oversight), freedom, song, and distance.How old is Luka in American Dirt? ›
Her son, Luca, is a calm and serious presence despite being only eight years old. Lydia occasionally looks back on her life from two weeks ago, before she and Luca fled town leaving behind her book store, her clean house, her morning coffee routine. But Luca doesn't reminisce nearly as much.Is Soledad pregnant in American Dirt? ›
When Soledad reveals that she's pregnant, Lydia says, "Your baby will be a U.S. citizen." Soledad replies, "The baby isn't mine." There's no more conversation, no questioning from Lydia, and they move on leaving the reader hanging. Cummins' strength lies in her descriptions of their surroundings on the journey.Is American Dirt going to be a movie? ›
What format will it be? Will the American Dirt adaptation be a Movie or a Series? It's planned as a feature movie.What happens to Lorenzo in American Dirt? ›
The next day, Lorenzo attempts to assault Rebeca, and Soledad shoots him with El Chacal's gun. Lydia finds Lorenzo's cell phone and discovers Lorenzo has been reporting her location to Javier. She calls Javier to tell him that Lorenzo is dead and to leave her alone.What should I read if I liked American dirt? ›
- A Woman Is No Man: A Novel.
- The Vanishing Half: A Novel.
- The Island of Sea Women.
- The Dutch House: A Novel.
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel.
Blood Meridian initially received little recognition, but has since been recognized as a masterpiece and one of the greatest works of American literature. Some have called it the Great American Novel. American literary critic Harold Bloom praised Blood Meridian as one of the 20th century's finest novels.Is Reese Witherspoon book club good? ›
Reese's picks are always delightful, varied, accessible, and easy to read. I LOVE how her picks highlight and celebrate women authors. The language and writing in the choices thus far has been lyrical and beautiful.”