Maybe you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the new novel, American Dirt (Flatiron). In case you haven’t, here’s a quick rundown.
Written by Jeanine Cummins, the novel is about a bookseller in Mexico whose entire family is gunned down by members of a drug cartel. She and her young son are the only survivors. Afraid for their lives, she runs, hoping to get her boy safely across the U.S. border.
In a bidding war, nine publishers tried to get the book. Ultimately Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, won and shelled out a seven-figure advance — and they’ve hyped the hell out of it to make their money back. To build bookseller buzz, hundreds of advance copies were handed out at the Book Expo trade show last May, and more deluxe advance copies were handed out at regional trade shows throughout the fall. The message: American Dirt was the book of 2020.
And it had the blurbs to back the message up. Stephen King raved. So did Sandra Cisneros. So did Erika Sanchez. Don Winslow said it was “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” Oprah chose it for her book club. Flatiron did a 500,000-copy first printing, and it went on sale on January 21.
And the reviews poured in. Suddenly people just didn’t like the thing. What’s worse, their distaste was really serious. As in, they didn’t like the book, and they really didn’t like that it had been written at all. Ouch.
Several Latin writers ripped the book apart. Back in December, novelist Myriam Gurba wrote in her rather livid review, published at TropicsofMeta.com, “Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.”
Mexican-American author David Bowles called the book “appropriating” and “inaccurate.”
“Authors definitely have the right to write outside of their identity,” he wrote. “An absolute legal right. No one disputes that. But there’s homework to be done. Questions to be asked.”
“When you write about an underrepresented group,” he went on, “one whose own voices have been excluded from the world of publishing, not getting it right isn’t just disastrous: it’s harmful to people in that group.”
And finally, he said: “Authorial autonomy is NOT sacrosanct. The author isn’t a shaman or priestess, possessed of a holy duty. It’s a JOB. And there’s a need to balance the rights of the writer against the dignity of the people/cultures they write about. Again and again, reporters ask me: ‘Why all the vitriol? It’s just a work of fiction.’ Ah, privilege. What a drug.”
A young bookseller interviewed by Publishers Weekly asked, “Why can’t resources go toward authentic voices who could tell the same story?”
And Ilan Stavans, the general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, said, “It’s not so much who tells the story, but who gets to sell the story.”
Hell, even Cummins herself said: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” She said she hoped someone “slightly browner than me would write it.” That didn’t help matters. At all.
In the end, Flatiron canceled American Dirt’s 40-city book tour. That didn’t go over well, either.
In among all this lit crit, on top of outcries about how white the publishing industry is, the question quickly morphed from whether or not American Dirt is a good read to whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book at all since she is white and has had none of the experiences of her fictional bookseller. That, to me, is an extremely dangerous and slippery slope.
Who is allowed to write what novels? Who is qualified? Who has the right? Are we really asking those questions?
Where would we be, as a culture — a global culture — if storytellers were not allowed to create works that are separate from their own experience? If that were our reality, we would not have William Shakespeare’s Othello. Nor Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Nor J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Nor George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or, for that matter, Game of Thrones). Nor Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Nor J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.
We also wouldn’t have George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Nor Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story. Nor Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman. Nor Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. Nor Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Nor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Nor Steven Spielberg’s film, The Color Purple.
Mitch Albom, writing for The Detroit Free Press, offered other examples: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels.
Imagine how much less we would be without these works. Imagine the richness our lives would lack. Imagine the inspiration we would not have felt, if none of these stories had been told.
While what happened to Cummins and her novel was unfortunate, and while mistakes were made by the publisher and its hype machine, and while there may be some truth to the fact that publishing is perhaps a bit too white, the real issue here is the most troubling of all: the pronouncement by some very angry people that storytellers should be allowed to tell only certain stories.
In whatever medium they wish, storytellers are allowed — encouraged — to tell whatever stories they want. On that, David Bowles and I agree. Perhaps, if those stories are good enough, they will be published or produced on a stage or on film. In that spirit, Cummins was allowed to write American Dirt. She’s allowed to write any damn novel she pleases, and her only job is to tell a story that’s compelling and hopefully good. Though Bowles might disagree with me on that, that is the storyteller’s job.
Should American Dirt have been written, as Cummins said, by someone “slightly browner”? Well, someone browner than Cummins didn’t write it. And for those who say that today’s publishers wouldn’t have paid seven figures for it isn’t a legitimate statement because that book doesn’t exist. Maybe it should. Maybe someone browner than Cummins should write it, and maybe now they will. I hope they do.
If you ask me, Don Winslow nailed it in his blurb, when he called American Dirt a Grapes of Wrath for our times. Wrath, indeed. ◊
Tony Buchsbaum has been a writer his entire professional life, working as an advertising copywriter, novelist, and journalist. He has been writing for January Magazine for 20 years.