The fracas over American Dirt has pitched women writers of color, yet again, against the Man. This time the Man’s representative is Jeanine Cummins, a perfectly nice white lady who’s come under fire for having apparently taken it upon herself to tell brown people’s stories for them.
Novelists, obviously, should be encouraged to inhabit, to imagine and portray, every kind of person who suits the purposes of their art. But it takes empathy and insight to stray very far outside oneself effectively, and it’s the staggering lack of those qualities that makes American Dirt, in particular, worth complaining about.
But it’s not the author who is the problem. It’s the publishers.
Myriam Gurba’s blazing review of American Dirt at Tropics of Meta (“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”) and Parul Sehgal’s in the New York Times were the best, I thought, among the clattering pans. Gurba’s main complaint is Cummins’s ignorance of, and tin ear for, Mexican language and culture; Sehgal faults the author’s grating prose and her “determinedly apolitical” point of view, which comes across as a deliberate avoidance of hard questions in order to produce a “safe” book that “the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach.”
The elevation of American Dirt to national notice is a failure of political sensitivity for sure, but nobody would know or care a thing about Jeanine Cummins’s race politics had it not been for the nine publishing houses competing for three days over the rights to her book, resulting in a seven-figure advance. She succeeded, and wildly, in creating a product that would appeal to their sensibilities exactly. She aced the test, if you like.
So it’s the test, not the test taker, that is the problem.
What we are really looking at is a failure of literary taste, which, like so much, has given way to corporate imperatives. But even works of mass-market and genre fiction need to meet standards of intelligence, awareness and discernment in order to earn their place in the literary culture of a free society. The failure of taste—the real problem—is getting lost in the familiar contours of the discussion around the author’s personal political failings. What we could be discussing instead is why this book should have been so attractive to New York publishers. Because it still is!
“No one I spoke to expected the controversy over American Dirt to harm the novel’s commercial prospects,” wrote book critic Laura Miller in a depressing report at Slate on the big publishers’ total indifference to this fiasco.
“The consumers don’t care. They. Don’t. Care. If it does register, they’ll just write it off as PC,” one editor told Miller, “with exasperation.”
You want to know what is really exasperating, is the contempt for the reading public implicit in this remark. Referring to readers as “consumers” is like a capitalist foghorn of cartoonish condescension. The speaker here, a representative of establishment media, clearly does not consider him or herself to be serving the public trust, or protecting the interests of literary culture or literary posterity. And yes, genre fiction has a long and influential history to which responsible, intelligent publishers who are cool, and not idiots, should be proud to contribute.
In a statement last week Bob Miller, publisher at Flatiron Books, acknowledged that American Dirt should never have been marketed by his firm as “a novel that defined the migrant experience.”
What is one to make of this admission? American Dirt is, at best, a tacky romantic thriller built along the lines of The Sheikh (a ridiculous genre that I ordinarily enjoy greatly.) How, why and by whom could it ever have been considered “a novel that defined the migrant experience”? Sehgal’s review begins to speak to that question, suggesting that “determinedly apolitical” views of Mexican migrants, written by and for a white audience, provide the kind of definition to which mass publishers might safely flock.
Miller then went on to complain that Cummins had been “the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor.” Honor. I’d love to hear Sehgal unpack that statement over the course of a few thousand words, as well.
Also, he said, “we wish to listen, learn and do better.”
American Dirt is real bad in that weepy Oprah way that Jonathan Franzen got in so much trouble for deriding, way back when. The prose and the plot are a sludge of impacted cliches (“Her name was like a fine glass bauble he was afraid of dropping”) and tormented syntax (“The result was a recent decrease in bloodshed as the emergent winner flung a shroud of uneasy calm across the shoulders of Acapulco.”) There’s a handsome narco boss with a “quivering” moustache, somewhat remininscent of Gomez Addams; he’d once thought he would be a poet, but became a gangster instead (“He shrugged. ‘I guess I do like shoes.’”) All this, against the most howlingly superficial depiction of Mexican (and U.S.) culture and politics, the Potemkin backdrop for a Harlequin romance.
So fine, publish a stick-figure novel but please, do not boast that you are humanizing a “faceless brown mass.”
In order to make back their gigantic advance, these publishers are already counting on the film’s success, counting on the author’s voice to ring far and wide throughout the land. It’s not the size of the advance that is objectionable, it’s the publishers’ money and they can squander it if they like; it’s the fact that a stone racist is going to be the person discussing narco trafficking and the clusterfuck at the border nonstop, on television and in magazines and newspapers; it is this dimwitted, tissue-thin story that is going to be made into a film that millions will see, thereby perpetuating every kind of absurd and even dangerous misapprehension, and that is really regrettable. It would be a very good thing for a megaphone of this size (not the money! the megaphone) to be handed to someone with better writing skills and a deeper, clearer awareness of the true state of affairs in Mexico and at the border.
This is what I mean by taste; publishers can do better and demand more when they acquire a popular romantic thriller. Because even a popular romantic thriller should be based in an intelligent and sensitive view of the world.
“You can’t be Twitter woke and Walmart ambitious,” one assistant editor told Miller, in a gobsmacking display of clueless hauteur. Of course, you can, and maybe even must be both those things, if you want to serve and protect literature. That is exactly what the job requires, I should think. But the big publishing houses, deeply interested as they are in wringing money out of Walmart’s customers, are perhaps less interested in finding them worthy books to read.