It was the publishing scandal of the twenty-first century—or at least of the first month of the first year of its second decade.
The novel American Dirt garnered its author Jeanine Cummings a “seven-figure advance” (such a phrase always leaves us wondering: what was the particular number attached to the zeroes?). But this—in an era when Lena Dunham, a never-before-published author, makes six million for a slim “memoir” that she wrote at the un-memoir-producing age of 28—was not the real scandal.
In mid-January 2020, American Dirt landed with great fanfare and advance praise from notable critics, including Stephen King, whose blurb was featured prominently on the back cover. Also featured were words from bestselling authors like John Grisham, Ann Patchett, Kristin Hannah, Julia Alvarez, Don Winslow, and Sandra Cisneros, the Matriarch of Books about Mexican-American Identity whose The House on Mango Street (1984), has become something of a lodestar in fiction about Mexican-American life. Winslow went so far as to call the American Dirt “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” words which were featured prominently on the front cover, a rather beautiful image of blue and white Mexican tiles divided by black barbed wire.
Rumaan Alam blurbed that the novel was “exhilarating and beautiful.” On the inside back cover was a blurb from Erika Sanchez, author of the best-selling I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Sanchez is part of a millennial group of Mexican-American writers and poets garnering attention for their writing (and, full disclosure, a former student of mine: I take no credit for her work), and her words, along with Alam’s, signaled to a young and hip audience that American Dirt was relevant to a time when the issues facing Mexican-Americans have taken center stage. To cap the book’s success, it was chosen by the Oprah Book Club. This is, for some, a dubious honor but, still, one that instantly catapults a book onto the best-seller list (Jonathan Franzen rejected it in 2001, and the resulting controversy made both him and Winfrey immeasurably richer). As of the time of this writing, the book still tops the bestseller list.
With so many accolades from such a range of authors, American Dirt bore testimonials both from established writers and those whose work was representative of the Mexican-American experience. It was all a perfect public relations package.
And yet almost at the moment of its publication, American Dirt was reviled, torn apart, stomped into the ground and practically thrown into bonfires as writers and critics like Myriam Gurba and Roxanne Gay insisted that no one should even buy the book. They claimed that American Dirt, a story about a Mexican woman and her young son escaping a cartel that wipes out their entire Acapulco family, trafficked, as it were, in stereotypes and perpetuated the idea that the United States is a safe haven for the persecuted.
The American Dirt controversy appeared to pose questions of identity and publishing. Gurba was a major critic of the book: it was her scathing (if somewhat skewed and, in my opinion, quite inaccurate) response to the book that went viral in large part because it was dripping with snark (starting with the title “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”), but also because it seemed to expose the racism at the heart of the publishing industry. She and other critics insisted that not only was the book a terrible set of caricatures, but that its very publication, and the high seven-figure advance given to its white author revealed the racial imbalance between white authors and those of color, especially women. In fact, Cummings has a Puerto Rican grandmother, which she had both publicly discussed and mentioned in the afterword to a book that few of her critics appear to have actually read, a fact that would negate her “whiteness” and which was blithely ignored by all.
Cummings’s own racial identification has been a sore point with her critics because, according to them, she claimed to be white in a 2016 New York Times op-ed and then became Latinx when it was convenient, in an interview with Shelf Awareness to publicize American Dirt. In the Times op-ed, Cummings was making a point about a horrific incident in 1991 in Ferguson, Mississippi, involving her brother and two cousins. Four men, three of them African-American and one white, came upon the family members, brutally attacked them, raped her cousins, and threw them all off a bridge into the Mississippi river. Her brother was the only survivor. The op-ed is a repudiation of the racist undercurrents that inevitably greeted the perpetrators but is also an attempt to think through complicated matters of race. It’s in this context that she writes:
For almost 25 years, I asserted that race had no place in the discussion of what happened to my family. I still don’t want to write about race. What I mean is, I really don’t want to write about race. I’m terrified of striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche. I’m afraid of being misinterpreted.
I am white. The grandmother I shared with Julie and Robin was Puerto Rican, and their father is half Lebanese. But in every practical way, my family is mostly white. I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled, or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name. But I care about race and equality. And it’s imperative for white people to join the conversation about racism. Discomfort is the least of our obligations.
Race in America is weird and complicated. Neil Ignatiev’s classic How the Irish Became White demonstrates that skin colour alone has not guaranteed acceptance into the hierarchy of whiteness. Even now, in the 2020 census, “White” includes “Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.” despite many years of people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent lobbying to be counted as such. Cummings’ critics insist that she identified as white, without pointing to the specifics of the op-ed, where she clearly highlights the fact that race is a cultural and economic construct as much as it is about skin color: it’s mostly African-Americans who cannot escape the classification of Black, and that is because, historically, they have been tied to a narrative of slavery, not migration. Her declaration of whiteness is less a claiming of privilege and more an acknowledgment that her ethnic history grants her the privilege of whiteness (“Puerto Rican” in the United States is more complicated in its ethnic configuration than, say, “Mexican” and that has everything to do with the history of Puerto Rico in relation to the United States).
Was Cummings conveniently claiming Latinx identity as the publicity for her new book rolled out four years later, when the category was also becoming, dare we say, a fashionable topic? It’s possible, but it should be noted that she also said, to Shelf Awareness,“ I was resistant, initially, to writing from the point of view of a Mexican migrant because, no matter how much research I did, regardless of the fact that I’m Latinx, I didn’t feel qualified to write in that voice.” She may also have, over the course of those four years, and in writing the book, felt more like identifying as Latinx and therefore not as white. The criticism of Cummings on grounds of race and ethnicity depends a lot on interpretations of her behavior which are subjective and don’t take into account that she made her original declaration of whiteness while relaying a fraught version of American racial history. Identity is, in short, complicated.
The critics of American Dirt were themselves invested in a very particular kind of “Mexican” identity: they were angry, for instance, that the protagonist Lydia Quixano Pérez was a middle-class woman and therefore unsuitable as an “authentic” character. What does it mean to insist that only poor and struggling Mexicans can be depicted in fiction for it to be deemed “authentic?” In fact, Lydia’s class identity is part of what moves the story forward: her husband was murdered because he was a journalist whose exposé prompted the cartel leader to respond. Some critics have also hinted that she plagiarized parts of the book, but as it turns out, some of the details echo those found in non-fiction by writers like Luis Urrea, which seems like Cummings likely used it for source material.
As the internet frenzy continued, the book continued to sell well despite the author cancelling all her book events (I really cannot emphasize this enough because I love recounting tales of the extreme futility of social media-led campaigns). Still, Latinx authors seemed galvanised to create what they saw as major changes in the highly unequal and screwed-up publishing industry.
How bad is publishing? The general public tends to assume that all writers receive massive advances, and then spend their lives simply writing in pleasant surroundings at leisure. But the truth is that great or even good advances are hard to come by and most writers have to scramble to get anything done while working at least one daytime job (in today’s economy, everyone’s a gig worker at two or three jobs). Even gigantic book advances don’t actually benefit anyone very much except the top executives at the top publishing houses which are mostly sustained by small cohorts of bestselling authors. In fact, advances often work to the detriment of writers themselves. In a 2016 piece in Marie Claire titled “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke,” Merritt Tierce recounted how a seemingly glorious career in waiting vanished in the face of the reality of publishing: that you might get all the attention you want (and the advances) but in the end, actually selling the number of books that warrant fat advances is enormously difficult, except for a relatively few proven hitmakers.
Factors like the industry’s focus on churning out hits and the massive consolidation of publishing houses as a whole have resulted in a classed homogeneity in publishing which, especially in the United States, is also a racialized homogeneity. As this Vice report points out, “79 percent of the industry overall is white, and 78 percent is female.” So, in that sense, critics of American Dirt were right to point to the racial and ethnic inequality in the publishing world, and how it leads to bad books; it’s just that they chose the wrong target.
Seemingly in response to such disparities, and galvanized by their anger over American Dirt, Gurba and others formed what the LA Times called a group and which so far appears to be not much more than a Twitter hashtag: #DignidadLiteraria. They did meet with Macmillan, the publisher of American Dirt (through the Flatiron imprint), and afterwards the LA Times said that “Macmillan committed to increasing its number of Latinx staff, authors and titles and to changing the ‘overall ecosystem.’ It also vowed to develop an action plan to address those goals within 90 days and to regroup with the cohort in 30 days to evaluate progress.”
That was on February 7, and the pandemic is likely to have delayed the proposed plans. Incidentally, around the same time, in pre-plague February, protests arose over Barnes and Noble’s admittedly deeply troubling and, well, just plain weird project of issuing classics written by white authors with black and brown figures on the covers This meant, for instance, that Dorothy on the cover of the newly issued The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was now a young Black girl with a modern hairstyle and a pair or red sneakers draped over her shoulders, and that Alice on the cover of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was, for reasons unknown, a young woman dressed in seemingly traditional Native American garb. That project was quickly dispensed with after rightful protests that called them out for “literary blackface.” (One has to wonder: given that English departments everywhere are surely filled with extremely woke students who graduate and move into the publishing world, where Barnes and Noble acquires the members of its marketing team). The whole disastrous affair highlighted the publishing industry’s deep racism and diversity problem, as pointed out by its many critics: it only knows how to be troublingly superficial without getting at the bigger issues.
To really engage in a thorough overhaul of publishing, though, would also mean going beyond simply ensuring that there are more people of color in publishing firms and at magazines. After all, a diverse banking world filled with women and people of color would still be a horrible, exploitative, predatory world. Until publishing simultaneously fixes its class and diversity problem, until it stops becoming a place where only the wealthy or well-off are afforded the ability to write for living, its problems will continue.
As necessary as some of the points about representation might be, it’s unclear from the objections of the #DignidadLiteraria writers if they actually want a more diverse group of authors to be represented, or if they simply want more money to be given to Latinx authors on par with the advances given to white ones. As for the question of authenticity and authorship: many of the criticisms of American Dirt were directed at the middle-class protagonist’s class background. Which is to say: it seems that the objectors are less interested in the representation of identity than in identity, in this case of Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, being represented as a very particular sort. There’s no real, actual diversity asked for here, or else a story about a middle-class Mexican woman would be considered as valid as a story about a poor and suffering one.
In fact, as I demonstrate in a separate piece, “Where Have All the Abuelas Gone?: Critiquing the Critiques of American Dirt,” forthcoming on my own site, none of the critiques were valid in the sense of being based on the words that Cumming actually wrote in her novel. For instance, one critique is that Javier, the cartel leader, uses flowery, outdated Spanish. This is true, but he uses this type of Spanish in a letter he writes to her to show how educated he is, or so he thinks—and Lydia points this out as one of his most pompous qualities! There’s also much made about the authenticity of food here: David Schmidt in The Huffington Post complains that characters “put sour cream on their street tacos, dress their chicken with BBQ sauce rather than mole.” Is it likely that every single Mexican home has somewhere in its cucina a dear, sweet abuela religiously making homemade mole every night? Is it not more likely that Mexican home cooks, like many Indian home cooks who use store bought condiments and aren’t making achaar and tandoori from scratch, might take shortcuts or like the taste of BBQ sauce on their chicken? Does Huffington Post critic David Schmidt have access to every single Mexican household and its culinary tastes?
Disagreements on the quality of the work will continue (and readers are paying no heed, clearly), and it might be argued that literary criticism of any sort is often, to some degree, subjective. (As a book critic of several years, I would like to make a forceful argument for the idea that there’s always room for, dare we say in the age of influencers and when anyone can be a self-proclaimed critic, expert opinions on matters like style and plot).
The real issue that’s been left out of all the fervor around the politics of American Dirt is that we need to have a wider and more sustained conversation about the politics of publishing.
On top of the issues with advances and diversity, there is the nuts-and-bolts matter of who publishes books and where we buy our books from. The publishing industry has seen massive consolidations among its top entities (as when Random House merged with Penguin), which means several different things, but for authors it means more demands for sameness with an eye to big sales. As the dust settles and we enter The Age of the Pandemic (let us call it AP), we have to wonder what, if anything, will be left of the publishing world itself.
A great deal will depend on the survival of physical books. In a time when every surface is potentially a site for infection, we might wonder what will remain, if anything, of the very idea of reading an actual book. Of course, there are ebooks and ereaders galore, but books as physical entities have long been more than relics (as is evident in the fact that publishers still pay great attention to the look and feel and design of books, as does this magazine). To everyone’s shock, people still love holding (and, some of us will admit, smelling) books in their booky forms. Before AP, we saw much cheery news about the resurgence of independent booksellers; the American Booksellers Association proudly published this extensive list of articles about the phenomenon. There was reason for cheer given that the rise of Barnes and Noble and Amazon had once threatened the very existence of indie booksellers which are more likely to be community anchors, supporting local authors, than faceless and virtual corporations.
But all of that is now in question, although at the time of publication, things are not nearly as dire as we might expect mostly because indie bookstores also learned, in the wave of the last near-collapse, to be savvier about their online sales strategy. The importance of brick-and-mortar bookstores in the selling and distribution of books cannot be overrated. Although we run the risk of overly fetishizing the idea of local community, bookstores do generate interest in authors through book events, including ones where writers show up in the flesh and blood. To be honest (and I say this as a sometimes book publicist), organizing author events can be a thankless task if the writer in question is not already hugely successful or well known to their audience. A Stephen King or an Annie Leibovitz can attract crowds so large that the Chicago public library has to open up overflow rooms and people stand around listening to the writers through speakers. For the average writer, though, book tours can be especially excruciating, expensive, and often just deeply humiliating as one sits at a desk strategically placed at the front of a bookstore, with one’s books neatly piled on each side, awaiting signatures and buyers. Despite what we see on television and the movies, only the big authors get anything like hotel accommodations these days, and very few publishers will even fork out the money for cheap wine and cheese.
But bookstores are, when done well, portals to reading experiences and a customer who wanders into a sufficiently inviting one is likely to not only buy keychains and bookmarks but perhaps a volume or two of a favorite or undiscovered author. Books can’t survive on the abstract vectors of marketing alone: they are in a sense like viruses, jumping from one host body to the next, propelled by word of mouth, whether through real time or virtual book clubs, enthusiastic texts between friends, or the interest sparked by an author interview. No one has really mastered the art of selling books: the upper echelon of authors like Grisham, King, and Danielle Steele could generate massive interest and money if they simply went around talking about their grocery lists. For the rest, bookstores and people power are necessary to generate sales, which often means a grueling schedule of cross country travel, podcasts, book events, and any other slice of the attention economy. And while much is made of the effects of social media chatter, we might want to pause and consider the simple salient fact that American Dirt, whose protagonist happens to be an independent bookstore owner and lover of books, has been on the top of the bestseller list despite all the kerfuffle and the admonitions of big-name writers like Roxane Gay to not buy the book.
The focus on money and prestige publishing does nothing to destabilize the immense inequalities perpetuated by a massive mainstream publishing industry. As it exists, the industry only traffics in identity and inequalities when these issues can be deployed by it to make…money. The state of publishing remains precarious as writers reconcile themselves to not making money as writers alone, and the industry throws massive amounts of money at books like those by Kristen Roupenian, whose collection of short stories featuring “Cat Person” (a story about pain, identity, and helplessness that went viral in 2017) failed in sales, despite her massive two-book “seven-figure deal.” How do we on the left, many of whose lives and careers are inextricably interwoven with the publishing world, think honestly and with integrity and with an attention to severe inequalities, about the American Dirt controversy? What can change in publishing that’s more meaningful than “Give writers of color massive amounts of money as well”?
What if we shifted the paradigms entirely and gave neither millions nor a pittance but enough for a writer to live for a year and write? This will no doubt upset several writers, who dream of those “seven figure advances” (and I will admit nothing would please me more than getting one). But much of publishing is distorted in terms of payscales, whether for books or articles, primarily because everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh thinks that writing is not a profession but a calling. So much of (what passes for) left publishing is underpaid and/or sustained by the unpaid labor of mostly academics or writers who are either independently wealthy or have families or spouses who will support them. At a panel on publishing Guernica’s then-editor Lisa Lucas was reported “saying many of her contributors don’t mind working for free, that many of them are well-paid elsewhere and consider it ‘a donation’ to gift their work to Guernica.” Lucas, who is Black, is the daughter of music producer Reggie Lucas (Madonna produced her first album at his studio), graduated from the University of Chicago, and has worked at prestigious non-profits like Steppenwolf Theatre and Guernica. All of these jobs and the cultural cachet she accumulated over the years resulted in her landing a prestigious job as executive editor at the National Book Foundation. She went on from there to become a senior vice president at Penguin Random House and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books. While at the NBF, she talked earnestly and frequently about the need for inclusivity and diversity and that she couldn’t avoid the fact that she was both the first woman and the first African-American to head the organization. But left out of all this celebration of diversity was the fact that Lucas’s position had a lot to do with the upward mobility conferred upon the small cadre of people who can afford to continually swan around a wealthy elite, who can afford to work for very little or nothing for years as they gain more and more social capital.
It doesn’t help that it’s not just editors and Very Important Book People who hold the idea of writing as paid labor in such contempt. Even enormously successful writers, like Elizabeth Gilbert, about whom I wrote for this magazine, insist that all their success simply happened because of some form of magical thinking. But that isn’t really how the process works.
The writer Nick Mamatas has pointed to the elitism that governs who gets published, over and over, and who only gets to “fail” (not make enough money) once:
Are you special? Depends. Where did you go to school? Who did you meet there? Where do you live now? How close is it to the L? Who are your best friends; who do you date? Do they all have the same “publishing haircut” (asymmetrical bobs for women, Princetons for men)? Is exposed brick good or bad? Are you suspicious of anyone who can write a book in a year? Are you from a “good” family (which is different than a “good family”)? Do these questions make perfect sense to you? No? You’re not special.
All of this still leaves the question of identity and the inequality of representation in publishing. These questions matter: who are the protagonists in contemporary fiction, and how are their stories being told, beyond caricature and virtual color-face? Who gets to write the lives of Others, and who is constantly being monitored to ensure that theirs are “accurate” representations? If I attempted now to enter the constantly exploding minefield that is Young Adult literature to talk about its controversies, it would be another whole full-length article, because in that world ferocious accusations of inauthenticity happen every other week.
The politics governing publishing are complex, and infrequently written about, in large part because it’s dominated by various cabal-like entities with the aura of progressive politics and because, let’s face it, no one takes writers seriously as workers in a drama of class struggle for the simple reason that even writers (such as Elizabeth Gilbert) don’t want to see themselves as workers. Identity matters, but as long as we are cathected to the idea that it’s somehow isolated from the bigger, structural and economic questions that govern publishing—a world that is, outwardly unlike, say, the world of Goldman Sachs but which operates with the same cutthroat instincts—publishing will continue to become both much bigger through consolidation and much, much smaller in terms of how it allows us to imagine ourselves and the multifarious lives we lead.