The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, officially released on January 21, was anointed the biggest book of the season well before it came out.
It sold to Flatiron Books at auction for a reported seven-figure advance. Flatiron announced a first print run of 500,000 copies. (For most authors, a print run of 20,000 is pretty good.) It received glowing blurbs from luminaries like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Sandra Cisneros. Early trade reviews were rapturous. The New York Times had it reviewed twice — once in the daily paper, once in the weekly Book Review — in addition to interviewing the author and publishing an excerpt from the novel.
But as the publication date approached, the narrative around American Dirt has changed. One of those New York Times reviews was a pan, the other was mixed at best. Another critic revealed that she’d written a review panning the book, too, and the magazine that commissioned her review killed it.
All of these negative reviews centered on one major problem: American Dirt is a book about Mexican migrants, and author Jeanine Cummins has identified as white, calling her family mostly white “in every practical way” a few years ago. (She has since begun to discuss a Puerto Rican grandmother.) Cummins had written a story that was not hers — and, according to many readers of color, she didn’t do a very good job of it. In fact, she seemed to fetishize the pain of her characters at the expense of treating them as real human beings.
So last week, when Oprah announced that American Dirt would be the next book discussed in her book club, the news was treated not as the crown jewel in the coronation of the novel of the season, but as a slightly awkward development for Oprah. Oprah ended up qualifying her choice, maintaining that she would keep the book in her club, but change her planned coverage of it to a series of conversations with those on “both sides” of the issue.
Oprah, lounging in a silk robe, sipping her morning coffee, copies of Groff's and Seghal's reviews of AMERICAN DIRT on the coffee table. She picks up her phone and thinks: I'll show these literary girls what chaos is— joshua gutterman tranen (@jdgtranen) January 21, 2020
Meanwhile, in the wake of the controversy, Flatiron has canceled Cummins’s book tour, citing threats to both Cummins and to booksellers. And some of American Dirt’s critics say they have received threats, too.
The story of American Dirt has now become a story about cultural appropriation, and about why publishing as an industry chose this particular tale of Mexican migration to champion. And it revolves around a question that has become fundamental to the way we talk about storytelling today: Who is allowed to tell whose stories?
“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”
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. Lydia is a bookstore owner who never thought of herself as having anything in common with the migrants she sees on the news, but after she comes up with the plan of disguising herself by posing as a migrant, she realizes that it won’t really be a disguise: It’s who she is now.
In her author’s note, Cummins explains that she wrote American Dirt in an attempt to remind readers — presumably white readers — that Mexican migrants are human beings. “At worst, we perceive them [migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep,” she writes. “We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”
Cummins also says in the note that she recognizes that this story may not be hers to tell, while stressing that her husband is an immigrant and that he used to be undocumented. She does not include in the note the fact that her husband immigrated to the US from Ireland, an elision that some observers have taken to be strategic, as though Cummins wishes to give the impression that her husband is Latino and could have been in just as much danger of being held in a cage at the border as the people she is writing about.
“I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” Cummins says. (It is worth noting at this juncture that plenty of people who are slightly browner than Cummins have in fact written about Mexican migration.) “But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” Cummins continues. And so she spent years working on this book, traveling on both sides of the border and interviewing the people she met there.
American Dirt is explicitly addressed to non-Mexican readers by a non-Mexican author, and it is framed as a story that will remind those readers that Mexican migrants are human beings. And for some readers, including some Latinx readers, Cummins was successful in her aims. In her blurb for the book, the legendary Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros declared herself a fan, writing, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
But for other readers, American Dirt is a failure. And it fails specifically in achieving its ostensible goal: to appreciate its characters’ humanity.
“It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween”
The first true pan of American Dirt came out in December, on the academic blog Tropics of Meta. In it, the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba takes Cummins to task for “(1) appropriating genius works by people of color; (2) slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and (3) repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind’ consumption.”
Gurba describes American Dirt as “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf,” arguing, “American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween.” Most especially, she critiques the way Cummins positions the US as a safe haven for migrants, a utopia waiting for them outside of the bloody crime zone of Mexico. “Mexicanas get raped in the USA too,” she writes. “You know better, you know how dangerous the United States of America is, and you still chose to frame this place as a sanctuary. It’s not.”
Moreover, Gurba notes that American Dirt has received the kind of institutional support and attention that books about Mexico from Chicano authors rarely do. “While we’re forced to contend with impostor syndrome,” she writes, “dilettantes who grab material, style, and even voice are lauded and rewarded.”
Gurba originally wrote her review for Ms. magazine, but it never appeared there. “I had reviewed for them before,” Gurba told Vox over email. But this time, “when they received my review, they rejected it, telling me I’m not famous enough to be so mean. They offered to pay me a kill fee but I told them to keep the money and use it to hire women of color with strong dissenting voices.”
Gurba says she’s had a mostly positive response to her review, “except for the death threats.” She maintains that American Dirt is a very bad book.
“American Dirt is a metaphor for all that’s wrong in Big Lit,” she says: “big money pushing big turds into the hands of readers eager to gobble up pity porn.”
“I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book”
Gurba’s review established the counternarrative on American Dirt, but that narrative didn’t become the dominant read until January 17. That’s when the New York Times published a negative review by Parul Sehgal, one of the paper’s staff book critics.
“Allow me to take this one for the team,” Sehgal wrote. “The motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails.”
Sehgal, who is of Indian descent, says she believes in the author’s right to write about “the other,” which she argues fiction “necessarily, even rather beautifully” requires. But American Dirt, she says, fails because of the ways it seems to fetishize its characters’ otherness: “The book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider,” she writes.
And, putting aside questions of identity and Cummins’s stated objective, Sehgal finds that American Dirt fails to make the argument that its characters are human beings. “What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations,” she says. “The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous.”
Two days after Sehgal’s review came out in the daily New York Times, the paper published another review from the novelist Lauren Groff in its weekly Book Review section. Groff, who is white, was less critical of American Dirt than Sehgal was, but her review was far from an unmitigated rave: It wrestles with a number of questions over whether Cummins had the right to write this book.
But you would not know as much from the Book Review’s Twitter account, which posted a link to Groff’s published review with a quote that appears nowhere within it. “‘American Dirt’ is one of the most wrenching books I have read in the past few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels,” said the now-deleted tweet.
“Please take this down and post my actual review,” Groff responded.
According to Book Review editor Pamela Paul, the tweet used language from an early draft of Groff’s review and was an unintentional error. But for some observers, that tweet, combined with the deluge of coverage the New York Times was offering Cummins, made it appear that the paper had an agenda: Was it actively trying to make American Dirt a success?
The Times’s intentions aside, in her review, Groff treats American Dirt as a mostly successful commercial thriller with a polemic political agenda, as opposed to Sehgal, who treated it as a failed literary novel. (Arguably, Groff is being truer to the aims of American Dirt’s genre than Sehgal was, but given that American Dirt is a book whose front cover contains a blurb calling it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times,” it’s hard to say that Sehgal’s expectations for literary prose were unmerited.) Groff praises the novel’s “very forceful and efficient drive” and its “propulsive” pacing, but she also finds herself “deeply ambivalent” about it.
“I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book” as a white person, she writes, and became even more sure as she learned that Cummins herself was white. Groff spends much of her review wrestling with her responsibility as a white critic of a novel addressed to white people by a white author about the stories of people of color, and ends without arriving at a satisfying answer. “Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism,” she concludes; “at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me.”
On Twitter, Groff has called her review “deeply inadequate,” and said she only took the job in the first place because she didn’t think the Times would ask anyone else who was willing to wrestle with the responsibility of criticism in the course of reviewing it. “Fucking nightmare,” she tweeted.
Fucking nightmare.— Lauren Groff (@legroff) January 19, 2020
In the wake of these reviews, the American Dirt controversy coalesced around two major questions. The first is an aesthetic question: Does this book fetishize and glory in the trauma of its characters in ways that objectify them, and is that objectification what always follows when people write about marginalized groups to which they do not belong?
The second is a structural question: Why did the publishing industry choose this particular book — about brown characters, written by a white woman for a white audience — to throw its institutional force behind?
“Writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people”
The aesthetic question is more complicated than it might initially appear. People sometimes flatten critiques like the one American Dirt is facing into a pat declaration that no one is allowed to write about groups of which they are not a member, which opponents can then declare to be nothing but rank censorship and an existential threat to fiction: “If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience,” Lionel Shriver declared in the New York Times in 2016, “there is no fiction, but only memoir.”
But the most prominent voices in this debate have tended to say that it is entirely possible to write about a particular group without belonging to it. You just have to do it well — and part of doing it well involves treating your characters as human beings, and not luxuriating in and fetishizing their trauma.
In another New York Times essay in 2016, Kaitlyn Greenidge described reading a scene written by an Asian American man that described the lynching of a black man. She strongly felt that this author had the right to write such a scene, she says, “because he wrote it well. Because he was a good writer, a thoughtful writer, and that scene had a reason to exist besides morbid curiosity or a petulant delight in shrugging on and off another’s pain.”
Brandon Taylor made a similar point at LitHub earlier in 2016, arguing that successful writers have to be able to write with empathy. “Writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people, to imagine circumstances as varied, as mundane, as painful, as beautiful, and as alive as your own,” Taylor said. “It means graciously and generously allowing for the existence of other minds as bright as quiet as loud as sullen as vivacious as your own might be, or more so. It means seeing the humanity of your characters. If you’re having a difficult time accessing the lives of people who are unlike you, then your work is not yet done.”
Critics of American Dirt are making the case that Cummins has failed to do the work of empathy. They are arguing that she has the right to write from the point of view of Mexican characters, but that they have the right to critique her in turn, and that what their critiques reveal is that she does not see the humanity of her characters. They are arguing that instead, American Dirt has done the opposite of what Greenidge applauded that lynching scene for accomplishing. That the book has failed to suggest “a reason to exist besides morbid curiosity or a petulant delight in shrugging on and off another’s pain.”
It’s in the spirit of that reading — of American Dirt as a failure in empathy, as trauma porn — that Gurba noted on Twitter that an early book party that Flatiron Books created for Cummins featured barbed wire centerpieces.
Flatiron has issued an official apology for those centerpieces, saying, “We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.” But for critics of the novel, the central problem remains. Those barbed wire centerpieces are all about the aesthetic splendor of migrant trauma, about the idea of reveling in the thrill of the danger that actual human beings have to deal with every day, without ever worrying that you personally might be threatened. They’re a fairly good illustration of what the phrase “trauma porn” means.
“I only know one writer of color who got a six-figure advance and that was in the ’90s”
The institutional questions about American Dirt are more quantitative. They progress like this: There are plenty of authors of color writing smart, good stories about their experiences. And yet American Dirt, a novel written by a white woman for a white audience, is the book about people of color that landed the seven-figure advance and a publicity budget that could result in four articles in the New York Times. Why has publishing chosen to allocate its resources in this way?
Flatiron Books has defended its choice. “Whose stories get told and who can tell them are important questions,” said Amy Einhorn, Cummins’s acquiring editor and Flatiron’s founder, in a statement emailed to Vox. “We understand and respect that people are discussing this and that it can spark passionate conversations. In today’s turbulent times, it’s hopeful and important that books still have power. We are thrilled that some of the biggest names in Latinx literature are championing American Dirt.”
It is worth pointing out here that Einhorn, a well-respected industry vet, was also the acquiring editor of the 2009 novel The Help, a novel by a white woman about black women in the 1950s. The Help was a bestseller and a major success, but it was also the subject of a critique similar to the one American Dirt is experiencing now, with readers arguing that The Help gloried in fetishizing the pain of its subjects.
Meanwhile, authors of color say they rarely see publishers investing the kind of money and support in their books on the level that The Help and American Dirt received.
“I got sexually assaulted by a serial killer in 1996. I wrote a book about that. Most of the subjects in that book are Mexicans and Chicanx. I got paid $3,000 for my story,” Gurba says. “So yes, the publicity surrounding American Dirt is unfamiliar to say the least.”
“I’ve always had five-figure advances (my fourth book comes out this spring) and many of my friends have gotten four figures — and they are mostly writers of color,” said the novelist Porochista Khakpour in an email to Vox. “I only know one writer of color who got a six-figure advance and that was in the ’90s.”
Khakpour adds that the level of hyperbolic attention American Dirt has received, especially from the New York Times, is deeply unusual for publishing. “I only got a Sunday [New York Times Book Review] review for my first novel and that felt like a miracle,” she says. “Again, most writers of color I know are published by indies or academic presses, and it’s hard for them to get the attention of the Times. I write for the NYTBR and I can honestly say I’ve never seen this much attention given to a book — I find it embarrassing.”
Both Khakpour and Gurba argue that American Dirt was appealing to publishers because white people tend to be most comfortable reading about people of color as objects of suffering.
“Certain narratives that flirt with poverty porn make liberal white people feel good about their opinions,” Khakpour says. “They feel like they learn something, like by reading these accounts they are somehow participating in helping the world they usually feel so helpless about.”
Gurba says many white people expect to see her enact such narratives herself and become angry when she doesn’t. “Recently, a white woman got angry at me when she found out that I’m Mexican,” Gurba says. “She insisted that I didn’t look or act Mexican and that I had confused her. But she confused herself. She had a stereotype of what Mexicans are. I defied it. That made her uncomfortable. Now, apply that scenario to the literary equation [American Dirt has] presented.”
The narratives Gurba and Khakpour suggest both assume that the decision-makers on American Dirt were white. And there is very good reason for that assumption: Publishing is an extremely white industry.
According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, white people made up 84 percent of publishing’s workforce in 2019. Publishing is staffed almost entirely by white people — and in large part, that fact can be explained by publishing’s punishingly low entry-level salaries.
A job as an editorial assistant pays around $30,000, and it likely means living in New York City, where conservative estimates generally say you need an annual salary of about $40,000 before taxes to get by. But landing a position as an editorial assistant is generally a promotion: To get one, you usually have to spend a season or two working as an intern first, for low or no pay.
Such salaries mean that the kind of people who work in publishing tend to be the kind of people who can afford to work in publishing: those who are carrying little student debt and who can rely on their parents to supplement their salaries as necessary. And mostly, those people tend to be white.
As a result, publishing is predominantly staffed with well-meaning white people who, when looking for a book about the stories of people of color, can find themselves drawn toward one addressed specifically to white people — and who will lack the expertise to question that book’s treatment of its characters. Which means that as long as publishing continues to be overwhelmingly, monolithically white, it will continue to find itself mired in controversies like the one surrounding American Dirt.
Update: This story was originally published on January 22, 2020. It has been updated to include news of Cummins’s book tour cancellation, Oprah’s plan for discussing American Dirt as part of her book club, and Flatiron’s statement of apology for the barbed wire centerpieces.