‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?

From The Los Angeles Times:

It was poised to be a blockbuster long before copies arrived in bookstores last week: a thrilling contemporary migration story following a mother and her son, desperate to cross Mexico and reach the United States.

Its publisher, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure advance after outbidding several competitors for the novel. It snagged a coveted selection in Oprah’s Book Club and had been shipped to key celebrity influencers, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Salma Hayek. A reported first run of 500,000 copies was printed. The film rights were sold.

But by week’s end, the novel “American Dirt” had garnered attention that its boosters likely didn’t expect: angry charges of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, insensitivity, and even racism against author Jeanine Cummins, who herself said in the book’s author’s note, “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants.”

Despite the backing of towering figures in American media, Cummins’ page-turning portrayal of a mother on the run is now at the center of the first bonafide literary controversy of the year, and is forcing a hard reflection on the state of Latinos in a cultural field that remains overwhelmingly white.

In the face of critiques, Cummins is pushing back in public. Her publisher released a statement encouraging discussion around the title, while some authors and booksellers have come to Cummins’ defense. In a culture that is used to debating black and Asian representation and stereotypes, the entrenchment around “American Dirt” is fueling even more complaints over the ease with which popular culture still employs Latino-related stereotypes in contemporary movies, television and fiction.

“American Dirt” is also highlighting factors that observers say have contributed a near shutout of contemporary Mexican and Mexican American voices from the top tier of the publishing publicity machine — the sorts of books that are guaranteed handsome sales by virtue of projection.

What went wrong?

As passages from the novel began emerging last month, Mexican and other Latino voicesbegan raising red flags. The author’s portrayal of Mexican culture was called outlandish, littered with stereotypes, stilted bilingualism and an awkward peppering of italicized Spanish phrases.

. . . .

“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews last week. It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?

. . . .

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events. The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

“They’re handling it like they handle a Marvel comics movie,” said Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer in San Francisco, who is finalizing an upcoming memoir. “But this industry will make you dance the minstrel salsa dance or the minstrel cumbia dance,” he added, in reference to the tenor of Latino-themed titles that are deemed palatable to wide audiences.

Indeed, the operation behind “American Dirt” made what many describe as cringe-worthy errors even before the book hit stores.

. . . .

More criticism followed among Latino writers, from the fringes to the center of the literary power establishment. Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, called the book the “worst possible” pick for Oprah’s nod. Francisco Goldman, the celebrated Guatemalan American novelist and journalist who divides his time between New York and Mexico City, said in an interview he was “shocked” by the “tone-deaf” publicity roll-out. “And these are supposedly sophisticated people.”

. . . .

Kate Horan, the director of the McAllen Public Library in Texas, posted portions of a letter she sent to the American Library Assn. and Oprah’s Book Club, declining to participate in a recorded “unboxing” event meant to push “American Dirt.” Horan said she felt compelled to turn down the offer from Oprah’s Book Club after seeing the reactions among Latinx writers she and her staff admire

. . . .

“When we took the book out, our hearts dropped,” Horan said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where the American Library Assn. is holding its mid-winter conference. “There followed many conversations with people in my community, and of course reading the book, I can only compare it to a telenovela. It’s so hyper stereotyped, that it’s harmful.” 

. . . .

By week’s end, as the U.S. commercial publishing industry was reeling from the expanding maelstrom over what its critics called a cartoonish melodrama about contemporary Mexico, Cummins still hit the road on a book tour. At an industry conference last week in Baltimore, she defended her right to write the novel from the perspective of the Mexican woman at the heart of her book.

Her character Lydia, 32, is middle-class, college-educated wife and mother who owns a bookshop in the resort city of Acapulco and survives a bloody massacre at a family quinceañera. With her journalist husband and other family members killed, the bookish protagonist and her 8-year-old son make a desperate run for the U.S. border, partly on the freight train La Bestia. Critics have mocked the narrative ploy as implausible for anyone of Lydia’s class stature, who can usually buy airline or bus tickets.

In Baltimore, Cummins said the migrants she met during her research for the novel “made me recognize my own cowardice” as she grappled with early failed drafts and doubts about authenticity. “When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice,” she said, according to a report for the trade site Publishers Lunch.

The author, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, identified as white as recently as 2016. On Wednesday, Cummins, whose grandmother was from Puerto Rico, said she was “a Latinx woman” while addressing the negative reactions to the book among Mexican, Central American and Chicano readers who have vigorously questioned her authorial integrity. “Not everyone needs to love my book,” she said.

On Friday, Cummins turned up her defense during an interview with NPR: “I am a white person. … I am a person who has a very privileged life. I am also Puerto Rican. … That fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.”

But her critics weren’t buying it.

Gurba and others accused Cummins of profiting off Latina identity and transforming her own ethnicity over time to suit professional interests. “She became a person of color for the sake of financial convenience,” Gurba told The Times. “I call that POC, a person of convenience.”

Another set of earlier photos of Cummins with barbed-wire decorated fingernails brought even more criticism. “Every day I see something new that pertains to this, that it seems like it can’t get worse, and it gets worse,” said YA author Rivera.

Cummins’ somewhat apologetic author’s note also fanned the flames. In it, she says she wished someone “slightly browner” than her had written her book. She also argued that her effort seeks to counter depictions of immigrants as a “faceless brown mass.” Goldman, reached in New York, called the phrase an admission to the book’s “pornographic feedback of violence.”

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said Thursday. “How mediocre, third-rate and sleazy it is for a fiction writer to appropriate violence and suffering that way.”

In her note, he added, Cummins also writes, “we seldom think of [migrants] as human beings.”

. . . .

The controversy doesn’t look to go away soon. On Saturday, a group of writers including Lovato, Gurba and others said they sent a letter to Macmillan promising more “action” if the publishing house doesn’t respond more directly to their critiques. Industry players are abuzz with the topic, book agents said, as a string of “American Dirt”-inspired Twitter parodies by brown writers took flight, mocking the publishing industry’s devotion to tired Latino tropes involving gangs and grandmothers.

Eddie Schneider, vice president of JABerwocky Literary Agency, and who represents author Rivera, said Flatiron Books made a string of mistakes in rolling out “American Dirt” and isn’t correcting them. On Thursday, the publishing house defended the title in a statement to The Times.

“I’m baffled I haven’t seen any apology yet,” Schneider said. “Maybe not for the book, but certainly it seems like an apology is in order for the insensitivity of the roll-out.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times and thanks to Karen and Elaine for the tip.

PG says that indie authors must admit that, for executing a really big book release, nobody can match the world-class talent and savvy that a major New York publisher brings to the task.

18 thoughts on “‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?”

  1. The most telling part of the article (for me) was how many “influencers” posted about the book – pretty much all at the same time – and then had to backpedal and say they hadn’t actually read it.

  2. nobody can match the world-class talent and savvy that a major New York publisher brings to the task.

    The book is #9 on Amazon.

    Let’s see if the NYT Best Seller List can deal with this blatant display of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free markets, and free consumer choice.

  3. So it reads like a ‘telenovela’ which is a spanish language soap opera-ish sort of tv series. This means the American writer stereotyped? What about those telenovelas, then?

    I’m actually glad to see the author and publisher not apologizing.

    • In this particular case I find myself on the side of the cancellers, as it were.


      Cummins received significantly more preliminary publicity than those two authors, not to mention an advance of more than $1 million, according to Publisher’s Weekly. And she received it for a book that broadly imitates the existing works of these Latino authors, often poorly so.

      … the central issue here is not that a non-Mexican author wrote a book about Mexico. It is that the publishing industry backed an uninformed Anglo writer rather than a well-informed Latino or Latina writer. That is outrageous, patently unfair, and should make any sensible person queasy.

      That says it in a nutshell. Instead of finding, publishing and promoting authentic works, this publisher paid over a million bucks for a shabbily done work just because the author was “one of them” – a white upper-middle-class woman with an education such as theirs, whose ‘research’ appears to mostly consist of reading and recycling some of that authentic work.

      It’s not “white woman shouldn’t write Hispanic characters” quite so much as it’s “publishers should be directing that money on real content, not crap churned out by someone who big publishing feels comfortable because she’s who they see in the mirror.”

      This desire to publish books by people who look like what the publisher sees in the mirror happens all too often. Consider PRH putting out “The Book Women of Troublesome Creek”, followed closely by “The Giver of Stars”, which has been accused of being a shameless – but not infringing – rip-off by a more famous writer who was already in the publisher’s stable.


      Guess who gets the movie option?

      • Instead of finding, publishing and promoting authentic works, this publisher paid over a million bucks for a shabbily done work just because the author was “one of them”

        What is an authentic work, and why should we care?

  4. Something like this was inevitable. And happens about every thirty months or so.

    It was inevitable because, in commercial publishing, those who are planning marketing and publicity campaigns have not read the book. Not in manuscript form; not as edited. That necessarily means they are relying upon summaries, often prepared by persons other than the author for joint meetings with editorial in which each book gets not more than 10–15 minutes, and half of that is eaten up by discussions of the bloody cover. (I’ve been in more than a few of these… at a relatively functional and enlightened specialty publisher.)

    It’s like seeing a washed-out bridge, sitting down, and waiting for the train wreck without knowing the local schedule. The fundamental model is broken… and continues because “sales and marketing” is the only meme directly related to something attached to a number, and therefore that has more credibility.

  5. Gosh, as a Hispanic who is not Mexican and is mightily tired of Mexicans being hauled out when someone wants to represent Hispanics, even I am like ‘who the heck cares that a possibly white person wrote a book about this and decided to call it Latino rep.’

    Indie publishing has given so many of us freedom. I’m grateful for it. I can casually make my space marine protag a Cuban mama and have her sing the cradle songs I know to aliens, and no one can stop me! And you all can read it–a Hispanic protag by a Hispanic author–and no one is stopping you! How amazing is that?

    *shakes head, tired*

    • Anyone *can* publish and read anything, and that’s awesome. But it seems to me that what people are up in arms about are the non-Hispanic white author getting a million-dollar advance and an audience of millions, and the Hispanic authors writing what they know not getting the same deals, and sometimes even having to self-publish and hope to get their books read by a few hundred or a few thousand people.

      I’m actually reading American Dirt right now, and liking it so far. I’m not seeing anything that strikes me as stereotyping or racism, but then again, I’m as white as they come, and wouldn’t. But I can see how it would have been nice if the publisher could have looked a little harder to find an author with more direct experience, or even given Cummins and Hispanic author each a *half*-million dollar advance.

      *But,* I’m also rolling my eyes at the people who read and liked the book, then retracted those opinions when they found out it was controversial. It’s like, come on…think for yourself, and own it…don’t let the crowd decide for you.

      • My experiences with tradpub have not led me to expect anything other than caprice, inconsistency, and viciousness from its participants, and particularly its gatekeepers. I’m sure it has its champions, but my reaction to an inherently unfair and subjective set-up is not to be shocked when it continues to be unfair and full of subjective judgment calls.

        (Not directing this at you, mind you. I am just reflecting on why my reaction to ‘but they could have given that money to an authentic voice’ is to shrug and think ‘the poor will be with you always.’)

        • I understand. I know writers who have had great experiences with trade publishing (I’m sure that, before the controversy broke out, Ms. Cummins would have considered herself to be one), and writers who’ve had crappy experiences (I know one disabled author who has a forthcoming book from Scholastic and is being treated terribly, though part of the blame falls on her agent). However, I also know several writers who’ve self-published, and none of their books have gone anywhere (which is only disappointing if they expected them to, which a couple of them did and a couple didn’t).

          I’m planning on trying to get an agent and trade publish my more “literary” work, because unlike some genres there is really no market for self-pubbed lit fic. But I am planning on self-publishing a very dirty sf epic this year, just for fun…if I make back what I’m spending on the cover art, I’ll be shocked and thrilled.

          • Ah, I see! You are coming from a very different place. I make a very comfortable living from my indie books, so I move through a different context. 🙂

            I’ll say this: making a living from your books is rare no matter how you publish. Tradpub does not ensure sales. Sales are so anemic in my genre that every time the professional organization argues for yearly requalification (in other words, every year you have to prove you’ve made the bare minimum that would qualify you to be a member), the membership rejects the proposal instantly. Most of them can’t re-qualify: they don’t make enough.

            You can sink in this world no matter how you put yourself out there. It makes the decision to embark on a career in it a very serious one.

  6. *Nodding slowly* Okay, list of beings incapable of writing their own stories in a form that humans can read, and thus requiring (white) humans to write them if anyone wants to read them: whales, wolves, St. Bernards…Hispanic humans?

    Sorry, but I see this argument a LOT (“Guess I can’t write about six-armed purple elves from Venus, ’cause I’m not one!”) and I’d *like* to think the people who make it aren’t considering this part. Sure, write about your six-armed purple Venusian elves, and I’ll vote not to censor you…but *if* real six-armed purple Venusian elves exist, and if they’re literate in human language, be prepared for them to tell you what you got wrong.

    • I’m sorry… how would Moby Dick be different if Melville were black? What does “white” have to do with it (the humans, anyway, not the whale)?

      My point was… we can tell stories from the point of view of other beings (White Fang, Call of the Wild, your favorite alien), so why are other humans off limits? No one knows the “lived experience” of ANYONE else regardless of shared species, race, culture, planetary origin.

      It’s just as “racist” to say a white person can write about another white person, as to say that they can’t.

      Nothing should be off limits and there should be no “identity quotas”. Stories are stories, free to anyone to tell.

  7. Darn it. Now I’m going to have to read the thing. Or at least the sample on Amazon, and compare it with my childhood in Mexico. Then I’ll have to see what my sisters say – they still live there, and I visit when I can.

    I was hoping to avoid it – just from the few comments in your post, PG.

    The only defense about being someone from outside writing about a community not their own is to do it well, by the judgment of the people in the community. Nothing else is good enough. Anything less is a failure of the writer’s imagination and creativity.

    Some writers are capable of it for some ‘others,’ and some writers are tone deaf.

    Having grown up with a telenovela or two (one of which turned out to be Jane Eyre, set on a ranch in Mexico, with horses – creative stealing), the audience who determines if this book is well written includes college-educated women in Mexico. Who may or may not watch telenovelas for the fun of it. Mexican society is as varied as ours, or more, as it has a lot of European influence, but the writer chose to make her heroine someone I might understand.

    I’ve added it to the TBR pile.

  8. Is it OK for Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, to write a book about white Americans?

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