Freestyle Friday: In which I have qualms about dirt that is American

In the last week or so, you can’t be a bookish person and not be aware of what’s happening with Jeanine Cummins’ debut novel American Dirt. So, where does everybody stand on this? I’ll share some thoughts, but if you’re out there, I’d like to hear yours.

Lately I’ve had misgivings about debut novels in general. The exceptional few, like Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, are stunning. But many, many of them are just okay, even though they were objects of bidding wars that ended in seven-figure book deals and spots on celebrity book clubs and are now in development with HBO/Netflix/Hulu/major film studio to become a series or movie.

It also seems lately like literary prize long and short lists are crowded with debut novels, and more often than not, when I’ve picked up one of these debuts, I’ve found myself slightly baffled as to how it was nominated. It doesn’t mean the books are bad, but…not really so good they should be nominated for a literary prize. (Whether or not literary prizes mean anything anymore is another debate.)

I first heard about American Dirt way back in June, and I popped it on to my Want-to-read list immediately. (Although I seem to remember the description being much different back then, making it sound like the book was about how the woman owned a bookstore and formed a relationship with the cartel kingpin based on their shared love of books, and I thought that was an interesting angle for a story.) But near the end of the year, when I was thinking about my reading plans for 2020, I decided that I would go deeper into backlists for known authors and re-read old favorites instead of following debuts. I decided to delete  debut novels I’d added over the last year, which included American Dirt, and that’s when I saw the first warning on Goodreads.

So all that rambling is to say, I was taking it off my list anyway, and then I saw the reviewers starting to say the book was racist. I followed this with great interest, mainly because I just find the whole BOOK MACHINE so very interesting. Let me stop right now and say, if I hadn’t taken it off my list because I was tired of debut novels, the racism thing would have made me think twice about reading it. At the very least, I would have done some deeper investigating….but since everything has blown up, that hasn’t been necessary.  [I’ll note that, since the controversy started, I’ve seen many people I follow on Goodreads add it to their shelves as Currently reading or Want to read. Hm.]

This book is bringing up everything that’s ugly about the world of book publishing and promotion. Early (and not so early) reviewers are doubling down on their positive reviews, while writers and professional critics are grappling with early or recent praise they gave the book. (In a truly bizarre turn, the New Republic went after novelist Lauren Groff for her review in the New York Times, which had promoted said review with a quote from an older draft that didn’t appear in the final version.) The author is said to have identified as white years ago and now in interviews is identifying as (one-quarter) Latina, because her grandmother is Puerto Rican…but Puerto Rican and Mexican aren’t the same! Not the same experiences at all! Was this her agent’s idea? Her publisher’s? HERS? And then, she has supposedly also said she wished someone “brown-skinned” could have written this story, but goshgollygeeshrug, they didn’t, so it just had to be her.  And I hear she did careful research she discussed in an Afterword…but then if she’s so sensitive to these issues, if it’s all so carefully researched, why was she okay with the barbed-wire table decorations at her book party? Why did she get an actual manicure with tiny barbed wires on it? This, at a time when half the country wants to BUILD A WALL. When children are in cages!

And then, enter Oprah. Man.

Now, chances are Oprah (or, more likely, her assistants) picked the book months and months ago. But still. I mean, she read it, right? And really, don’t they keep up with social media? Will she change her mind and pick another book? If she does, will that just make more people want to read it?

What worries me about this book is that it’ll end up courting the exact wrong kind of audience from here on out: conservatives who will buy the book just because they want to support a white author they see as a victim of political correctness. And even if they read the book, from what I’ve heard, they will only have their prejudices and limited understanding of Mexicans and the immigrant crisis confirmed. How does this help anyone?

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not going to read the book. Even if I heard it was the most beautifully written book of the 21st century, I would not touch it with a ten foot pole. I feel like there are so. many. things. wrong. I blame the author, who maybe should have found another way to frame the story. I blame the agent and the editor, for being blind (or callous) about issues of race. I blame the publisher–what happened to all those sensitivity readers they’re supposed to have? (I also blame the publisher for not courting Mexican and Mexican American authors, or at least the ones who don’t write magical realism and folksy tales.) But I blame us all, too, we bookish types, for falling hard for every new, hyped debut, for FOMO and the desire to get a bunch of likes  when we promote advanced reviews on Instagram and Twitter or our blogs. (That said, I have seen lots of bookish bloggers and Instagrammers getting out and promoting Own Voices authors and promising to work harder to drive diversity.)

And then, finally: Do you agree writers can write anything they want to write? I’m seeing this tossed out by a lot of reviewers who loved the book. And honestly. I think that’s because it’s easier than admitting you read something and it didn’t even occur to you at the time that IT WAS RACIST. You know, that’s okay. That’s a part of getting woke, yeah? I would much rather be seeing (white) reviewers saying, “I’m going to go back and reconsider in light of what I am hearing,” instead of “People can write what they want it was a thrilling ride the pacing just oh my god shut up I am not a racist.”

Because I feel a little bit like this whole thing brings up that saying, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I definitely think that white people can and should write about racism, but I also think we need to be very sensitive to how we frame issues and whether or not we’re appropriating or promoting (harmful) stereotypes. (I’m looking at you, The Help.) And I think we have to accept that we don’t get the final say, no matter our intentions.

If you’re still here, I appreciate you listening to me ramble! I’d love to know what you think.

Some other links:

Seattle Review of Books

Tropics of Meta

New York Times

The Guardian

4 thoughts on “Freestyle Friday: In which I have qualms about dirt that is American

  1. I marked this To-Read on Goodreads a while ago and haven’t yet taken it off that list. BUT… all of this that’s come out has made me have second thoughts. What it’s made me see a just how big the Publishing Machine really is! This book was EVERYWHERE and there’s a lot of money behind it. I agree, publishers need to do a better job of promoting own voices with some of that money! As I’ve read more about the book, and heard it called “torture porn,” I think I probably won’t read it anytime soon. I’ve definitely got enough to read without it, and this all makes me want to seek out some Mexican authors instead.

  2. Laila, exactly. I’d definitely rather be putting my money towards some Mexican/Mexican American authors. The funny thing is, when I look at my (huge) Want-to-read list on Goodreads, I know many of the books on there were “hot” debuts I thought I’d get to soon, and then they just….faded away. I guess this one won’t fade so quickly because of the controversy, but if I were going to decide to read it out of curiosity, I’d probably get it from the library rather than buying it. Overall, I’m also just tired of seeing books endlessly hyped. It’s really started to turn me off new stuff!

  3. Man, I agree with you so much when it comes to having misgivings about the entire hype machine around debut novels. It contributes to this awful culture of scarcity in publishing, which only throws the industry’s lack of diversity into sharper relief. It’s a disappointing mess. :/

  4. Jenny, exactly! I just don’t get it. Even stunning debut novels with diverse authors–for example, Homegoing–why a seven-figure deal? Why not spread it out and give more diverse authors a chance? Not at all saying they deserve less, but that ALL new authors need more of an opportunity. Take some of that $$ to help more debut authors market and tour. So many are left to do everything on their own, and with jobs and families, they just can’t.

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