A study in social artifice with potential unexpected benefits?
Does anyone still care about the American Dirt thing anymore? It’s been a good while since anybody talked about it. Well, in the lockdown lull and before the next publishing table flip, I’ll throw my late two pence in.
So American Dirt kicked a hornet’s nest around mid-January. Jeanine Cummins’ political thriller, published by Flatiron Books, a Macmillan Books imprint, received overwhelming industry and media praise on top of a seven-figure advance and optioning for a movie. Someone even compared the book to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Not bad. But this debacle has highlighted, as with so much in today’s world, a vast gulf between the publishers and the media, and the public.
It wasn’t too long before the Latinx community got involved and pointed out their problems with the novel. After that twitter jumped on board and things started heating up. Oprah drew attention for featuring the book, Flatiron’s marketers came up with some stunningly tone-deaf displays for Cummins’ tour, and then some moron decided that death threats were the answer (because when aren’t they?) Somewhere around this point the media switched tack and the reviews, having fallen over themselves to gush at the book’s feet prior to this, were suddenly scrutinised by new journalists and Internet denizens who had picked up on the response to the novel. Inevitably, the conversation switched from the book to the author and the criticism lurched towards ramping up on the tumblresque brand of hysterics.
All very exciting, I’m sure, but reading through the coverage and the reactions, I found myself rolling my eyes. Familiar patterns emerge again and again, rehashes of the same disinterested carnival barking we’re all used to at this point. Step right up, step right up, get your pitchforks, get your torches. Fake moral outrage slapped on like face paint. All worn for this week’s rendition of Punch and Judy. The only question worth concerning yourself with is how much of the noise is real?
I recent years we’ve seen social media provide some moments of useful fuel for social change. These positives are the exception rather than the rule. The likes of twitter and tumblr are renowned for their vocal political currents. This sounds ideal, a more politically engaged population should, in theory, be a smarter and more informed population. In actuality, it turns out that the engagement is generally shallow with the ideas and ideals providing a form of tribalist identification, rather than momentum. As a result, the soap-operaesque in-crowd wheel of fortune runs the show, everyone breaks into cliques and the cliques scream at anyone who isn’t them. That includes their own broadly associated political allies.
The end result is that we’ve seen countless people abandon social media altogether, both notable and unknown, unwilling to put up with the pathetic water-cooler politics of who’s in and who’s out because so-and-so said something that was more rational than whatever it was that the mob had agreed was ‘correct’ or ‘woke’ or whatever. It’s the general rule that people outside of twitter/facebook/tumblr, having looked in and then wisely retreated, to consider the whole lot to be completely toxic. Despite every self-professed marketing guru claiming that social media is only toxic ‘if you let it be’, because their jobs are reliant on social media, evidence seems to keep piling up in favour of the contrary. Increasingly, people have wised up to the ugly reality that the majority of it is not about doing good, it’s about looking good. Feeding the ego is what matters. The subject is irrelevant. Whether they care is irrelevant. Rather than being concerned with fixing social problems, the social media crusaders are more concerned with fixing their social status.
How is this relevant to American Dirt? It’s relevant because the social media ‘debate’ seemed to have dragged the issue away from the issue. The problem stopped being the book and became the author. Jeanine Cummins’, born in Spain, spent most of her life in North America. In 2015 she identified as ‘white’, and following the publication of American Dirt identified as ‘Latinx’ – “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.” Her Grandmother was Puerto Rican.
None of that matters.
Oprah has continued to catch flak for not bowing to pressure to just ignore the book. Naturally, when the drama first flared up, I expected that her reasoning for going ahead with the novel for her book club had more to do with publishing connections, the rave reviews, media connections and that the general interest was promoting the book more than examining it. I’m still not convinced that wasn’t the case. That said, I haven’t seen the episode, I won’t see the episode, I will probably never watch an episode of Oprah anyway; but as it turns out, that doesn’t matter either, because the shitstorm in the mirror that this novel threw up, makes it worth putting under the spotlight.
A letter from 150 writers urged Oprah to reconsider, citing an understandable aversion: “The book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishisation and sensationalisation of migration and of Mexican life and culture.”
Surely this represented an opportunity to air and pick apart the grievances with the novel and, by extension, the wider sociocultural problems with it – provided that Oprah’s book club doesn’t just function as a glorified PR event. Was it even in Oprah’s best interest to treat the occasion as such, given the legitimate opposition? My lack of familiarity with Oprah’s book club format is telling here, and perhaps I give it too much credit, but is it not the case that the very problems with this book are in danger of being repeated due to a failure to reach a broader audience? But, then again, how much of her audience is actually up for a literary vivisection? I don’t know.
The #Dignidad campaign were unenthused by Oprah’s response, writing “We are disheartened that Oprah is attempting to quash our campaign of dignity.” Is she, though? This seems to frame Oprah’s decision as a personal attack against the Latinx community – which they then deny in the aforementioned letter. But I can’t see a logical way in which Oprah would benefit from ‘quashing’ anything to do with this. It would surely harm her reputation and, by extension, revenue. Whether she needs said revenue is besides the point – nobody goes out of their way to lose money. That being said, if Oprah’s end game was just to promote the book on behalf of the publishers, ignoring the wider problems highlighted by the controversy, then the #Dignidad guys did have a valid point when they wrote “We will not allow the Oprah machine to be an accomplice in distorting and erasing the migrant, refugee, and Latinx experience, or co-opting ownership of our stories and our power. […] As we’ve stated before, it is imperative that we discuss the actual problem: the continued, severe underrepresentation of Latinx authors in publishing and in Ms. Winfrey’s highly influential book club.” It all depends on whether Oprah now has the integrity to care about the issue enough to at least address it in its broader sociocultural political implications, or whether she is revealed to be a, admittedly more eloquent, publicity merchant for what can easily be seen as a commercial arm of a poverty-industrial complex, serving the interests of rich Western individuals peddling half-truths to unwitting consumers, who subsequently take those half-truths as gospel, at the expense of entire cultures.
Oprah herself openly admitted she was “guilty of not looking for Latinx writers”, which seems to lend weight to their argument that the Latinx community are being sidelined. Their scepticism is more than reasonable, but to her credit Oprah claimed that she would change her outlook “because my eyes have been opened to see, to behave differently.” Dramatic language, but ultimately it remains to be seen whether she acts in accordance with her words.
But where the writers addressed the issue with the novel, the social media brigade persisted with attempting to redirect the issue onto an easier topic: Cummins herself. Oprah, to her credit addressed this – “Am I going to have to spend the next two months defending the writer … or can we actually talk about the story?” And she had the right of it.
However, naturally, twitter decided it has the first and last decision on what people can and cannot write. And they decided that Jeanine Cummins wasn’t actually allowed to write American Dirt. Based on what criteria, we don’t know. Whether there’s an official set of calculations that now dictates which stories are whose to write, we don’t know. Did any of them send her an email or an imperial writ to inform her, years ago, that she wasn’t allowed to write her book because she wasn’t a particular mix of backgrounds that made her mathematically eligible to publish American Dirt? Presumably no. Perhaps it got lost in the post or filtered into the junk. All the same, woe betide the heretic who strays from this imposition.
Let’s just stop for a second, take a deep breath, and step back from this colossal monument to insipidity.
You don’t have the power of veto. You certainly don’t get to veto things because you don’t like them. Whichever side of any issue you fall on, only authoritarians want censorship. Censorship is not how mature people do things. If we have a subsection of culture, across an entire hemisphere, deciding that things they don’t like are just ‘cancelled’ then we have big problems. This is intellectual dishonesty strutting down the road with its bollocks swinging in plain view. Cancel culture is an intellectual pestilence and the perpetrators do nothing but cheapen the very issues they squeak about.
Do I, as a white middle class bloke living London, have the ‘right’ to write any of this? Fuck you – I’ll tell you want I want to tell you and you’re going to read it.
Besides which, a world superpower is being run by a sentient slug who believes that anything that can’t be said in less than 280 characters isn’t worth discussing. Complex issues demand mature and considered responses. Not farcical crusaders and censorship. Twitter is not the place to have a discussion on issues that impact whole cultures and nations. Those people aren’t there so you can use them as a self-indulgent crutch for your crippling lack of self-worth.
At its core, this isn’t about who has what rights to tell which stories. It’s about not using events like this as a cynical cash grab so some detached suburbanites can lay claim to some imaginary moral high-ground and start lecturing everyone. For participants of outrage culture, drawing attention to events like this is not about solving the issue; it is about making sure that the greatest number of people see that you appear to care. Why else the focus on the author instead of the book? Because the actual problem is far larger than one author and her mischaracterisation of a culture. Far easier to shift the goal posts and create an easy-bake enemy. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly the tactic that oppressive dictators use to make people look the wrong way and feel cute about themselves while doing so.
The White Saviour/White Guilt tango continues. It’s clear to everybody that it’s helping… Everyone’s eager to make a lot of noise, but we are either incapable or unwilling to move towards a solution. Which makes hypocrites of us, because that’s the thing about repentance – once you’ve acknowledged the problem, you’ve got to stop the destructive behaviour. If you don’t, you’re just disingenuous. So rather than permanently viewing other people as ‘victims’ and going out of the way to loudly fawn an acknowledgement of the basic unfortunate realities that we’re all already tediously aware, so that everybody knows how ‘woke’ you are, perhaps try being the change you want to see in the world? Perhaps if the wider approach was simply to treat other cultures and peoples as equals, then we might start to shift the broader cultural perceptions and, by extension, treatment in the desired direction, and that might just create enough of a knock-on effect to start shifting the gears and actions of those in power so we can finally move in a tottering doddering fashion towards some kind of vague approximation of civility before the motherfucking heat death of the universe.
I realise it’s rich to start spewing ‘solutions’ about a vastly more complicated problem, that’s going to vary by culture and nation and history, amongst an endless litany of other factors, in one naïve paragraph, but I’m just sick of the endless Punch and Judy rendition of social awareness that exploits human misery for an endless looping hypocritical publicity campaign.
Soapbox aside, is it OK to write fiction that makes a mockery of a sidelined population? Realistically, someone is always going to create two-dimensional caricatures of the less fortunate, whether intentionally, unintentionally, benign or malign. Do we generally expect literary perfection from a thriller? It’s a genre that has always, whether deserved or not, been presented to the broader public as a sort of literary snack. Read it on a plane or a beach, it’ll go down quick and easy. That doesn’t remotely mean that the genre can’t have depth and nuance or that the quality is automatically bad, but I do wonder if the way that these books are sold, and to whom, is going to impact the kind of content a publisher is going to pick up.
Had Cummins wrote a less ‘accessible’ book, would Flatiron have been as interested? Had she done so and Flatiron had been interested, would they have seen enough of a market to consider the seven-figure advance for the book? Would it get movie options? If the more authentic works produced by the Latinx authors are not as well received by the publishing industry, is that because the publishing industry has some kind of racial prejudice or simply because their market, their consumers, wouldn’t be able to identify or be as receptive to the content as the watered down version portrayed in American Dirt?
There’s a whole debate behind this as to whether the information given to the public is the way it is because the public won’t consume it otherwise, or whether the public recognise the information that they do because the media industry won’t publish anything otherwise.
Another argument might suggest that the timing is what causes the problem. Given that there are prominent problems at the American–Mexican border happening now, the hype and release of American Dirt says a couple of things: Firstly, that the Latinx political efforts are just a cash cow. Secondly, neither the author, Jeanine Cummins, nor the publisher, Flatiron Books, thinks any of this is important enough or is just didn’t take any of it too seriously. On that note – barbed wire barricade floral arrangements? Tasteful, guys. Fuckin’ nailed it.
Perched off to the side and watching with studious intent, the media became a central element in the continuing story. This is not a bad thing in any way – it’s good to have ‘the media’ (treating it as a monolith for the sake of convenience) there to flag things up, report on them, investigate the details and generally let us know what’ up in the multiplicity of events occurring at any given point. While this might have been an otherwise throwaway point, as we’re all very aware that the media is involved at the point where seven figures are being thrown around and Oprah’s making public statements, it’s worth paying attention to the shift in tone that seems to have occurred over the development of this story.
What role does creating a narrative early on play? The audience will repeat what the reviewers say creating a feedback loop driving sales. What role does regurgitating the audience response play? We know that humans look for things that align with their views, so if the news journalists write columns that reflect the majority opinion, they know they are more likely to get more eyes on their article and thus creating a feedback loop driving ad revenue.
First, we’ve got to consider the different branches of the media organisations covering this at different stages and what they were focused on. Initially you’d have had a series of reviewers and hype men going over the book and giving their impressions. They’re time starved and they’ve probably got a whole lot of other stuff to review and write, and so they’re probably not there to unpack the book in its broader context. They’d have received the book, taken it as a political thriller and asked something along the lines of, ‘Do I want to keep turning pages? Does it do what I want from a thriller? Is it hitting the right notes? How is my editor going to respond if I trash a book that a major publisher has ploughed seven figures into?’ (not to get all conspiracy theory on you). That’s a stab at the basic default workflow and they’ll build in any other thoughts, feelings, responses around that. So you get your rave reviews – the New York Journal of Books claiming it is “modern realism at its finest” and Don Winslow, author of The Border, hailing is as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and the book marketing does what the book marketing is supposed to do, and everybody in the industry is very happy.
Then someone reviews it, doesn’t like it, and is then told they’re not doing what is expected of them. Then the broader public get their hands on it, and the Latinx community hears about that, reads the book, doesn’t care for it either for very good reasons, and this seems to be more or less where the controversy really kicks off. At which point the journalists step in. So the journalists then review the controversy, take the broader context into consideration, acknowledge the criticism, and draw more attention to Myriam Gurba’s critique. Their editors are happy, regardless – it’s a story and the more it gets attention the more eyeballs and followers, so their bosses are very happy. Thus it behoves them to pay attention to the backlash and the dissenting opinions, especially after it becomes a bit of a viral story.
So why isn’t this response ‘real’? Money, bitch! If anybody was in doubt as to the cynical way in which all industry operates, with the media industry going through rough times these days, and being no exception to the rule in the first place, then we got a nice full frontal with this story.
Myriam Gurba’s review seems to be the lynchpin here, because it illustrates exactly how this operates. The editors ask people to write reviews. Naturally they wouldn’t have given out strict ‘you write positive things or fuck off’ instructions – honestly, it wouldn’t have crossed their minds. But then amidst all of this hype storm, Gurba, a living, breathing, non-wax Mexican-American is asked to write a review of American Dirt. Rather than deepthroat the artificial hype-cock, she was critical of the book. At which point she was informed that she “lacked the fame to pen something so negative.” The editor then offered to reconsider if Gurba wrote “something redeemable“.
‘Redeemable’? Fuck that editor.
Wrap it up in as much velvet as you like, I take hardcore issue with the type of person who proposes that one needs to be sufficiently famous to avoid any prospect of being forced to toss salad on demand. Or maybe just fuck their audience if those people are judged to be incapable of digesting reasonable criticism that doesn’t mindlessly tow the line.
So Gurba writes a blog post, complete with her review, the review spreads to the Latinx writer community and from there the broader internet. After this, the story gets around and then we get awareness of the growing backlash as people ask more questions. I would encourage everyone to go and read that blog post, if you haven’t, by the way – it’s pretty cool. Then the journalists get involved and they have more to work with and the editors are more amenable to criticism because it’s already out there, their job isn’t to throw a parade, and given the political climate, certain events at the American border, and the book’s subject matter, it makes a lot of sense to encourage more objective criticism.
But had the initial criticism not become so well known and spread to enough of an audience, and had a subsection of that audience then not become so toxic, twisted the actual problems with the book into a problem with the author, and then sent death threats, and had Oprah not made it a talking point, would we even be getting those journalistic pieces about American Dirt? I can’t help but think – no. No, we would not. How much were the media just cynically exploiting trends and public mood here? Perhaps I’m equally cynical, but I presume the interest had less to do with the implications of the story, and more about opportunistic convenience. I also have to wonder about what role the media plays in influencing or reinforcing public sentiment in this regard. I don’t mean in a conspiracy theory Illuminati confirmed way, but just whether, had the majority of subsequent journalistic response argued in favour of American Dirt, how much that would have affected public reception of the book?
On one hand that’s sad, on the other hand maybe the temporary awareness it raised about everything involved in this unreasonably expansive debacle, was a good thing – provided that it doesn’t all just slide back under the carpet again like an embarrassing stain.
So who’s genuinely invested in this? Well, let’s start with the obvious – the author herself, Jeanine Cummins. She took enough time and effort to write a book and, regardless of what the response and criticism might be – going through that much work, long before anybody offered her a seven-figure advance and movie contract, is perhaps the first clue that she didn’t set out to piss off the Latinx community via literature. I mean, the cost-benefit:time ratio is so far out of whack there that if your idea of trolling a literary community with poor literary representation, is to write a hundred thousand words and sink enough time an effort into your trolling to get the thing a massive publishing success, critically acclaimed and a media whirlwind that most writers will sacrifice a baby for; then either you need help or you’re a genius beyond comprehension.
Regardless, the central issue raised has amounted to poor representation, from which we can only conclude stems from, as is so easily done, poor research. Esmeralda Bermudez, a writer for The Los Angeles Times, levelled some reasonable criticism not only at Cummins but at her audience and critics as well – pointing out that it isn’t only the author who is poorly educated here: It’s everyone.
While the book is hailed as an eye-opening view into the ‘migrant experience’, at its core it is anything but. The plot is laid out like a narco-thriller and, despite the media clamour, it bears little resemblance to the situation on the real-world ground: “She’s this middle-class, bookstore-owning woman who left Mexico with a small fortune in her pocket, like she was going to go to France or something. With inheritance money. With an ATM to her mom’s life savings. And why did she leave? Because she was flirting with a drug lord who’s now trying to kill her.“
Why, then, is this being so enthusiastically received? Probably because the target market for the book have sweet sod all idea of what that world is like. What they’ve got in American Dirt is an American middle class-conceived simulacrum of what they think it is. It’s not constructed to address the Latinx community, but to be as easily digestible as possible to a public who won’t accept their fiction getting too unrecognisable. The success of the book suggests that there is entirely a market for this, but worryingly that market might consist of people who would like to believe that their Saturday night narco-thrillers are an accurate representation of the reality of life as a Latin American. So the problem becomes simultaneously that the message to that audience seems to confuse the stylistic for the realistic, but also that the audience wouldn’t accept a different message. As Bermudez puts it, “This book has left a lot of white readers with this very fuzzy feeling like ‘Oh my God’ about immigrants. And my skin is crawling.“
But Cummins insists she has done the research:
“My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey is magnificent.“
She claims awareness of her own situation, cultural blind spots, and the imbalances in the publishing industry, “And that’s not a problem that I can fix, nor is it a problem that I’m responsible for,” she says. “All I can do is write the book that I believe in. And I did that.“
I’m willing to take her at her word that the book she wrote was genuine, and that she poured a lot of research, time, and effort into it. Surely, having done all this reading, portraying the people should have been relatively natural. Trying to portray an authentic experience shouldn’t have misfired so violently. So why are the Latin American community struck by a sort of bewildered horror when confronted by their depiction in this novel?
Fair enough, Cummins cannot fix the problems with the publishing industry. But nobody was suggesting she can, nor are they asking her to. The problem is that the book itself, the fact that this was the book that she believed in and the alarming portrayal of non-middle class suburban Americans therein, despite the five years of research, suggests that perhaps her blindspots are larger than anticipated. Because if five years of research culminates in a such an unrecognisable version of Latin America, but is nonetheless propagandized as a portrait of the real thing, then clearly something has gone wrong. Worse still, questions are raised of the publishing industry and broader society: We are clearly ignorant en masse if our perceptions of Mexico are so uncomfortably naïve, but we have to assume that this was fact checked and research and questions were asked by the publisher before accepting it and deciding to push it as this monumental examination of current US–Mexican socio-political realities. Are we wilfully blind? The indications seem to be affirmative. We should be worried.
And now a cliché: What is normal from one is not for another. Unroll your eyes. One might conclude that there is no ‘normal’ in that case. Over some sort of macro-mean they might be right – spread enough information out and draw it all into an average and the result will probably be at least slightly alien to everybody. However, in this instance that is not the case. Instead, we have a simpler problem. A multiplicity of normals exist and they change across demographics from the macro to the micro. The problem American Dirt has is that it doesn’t pay attention to normal outside of itself.
Mind elaborating, Confucius? No problem. We all share some averages – breathing oxygen, living on planet earth, evolved from apes, and being assembled from a basic set of physical components that we generally agree constitute the basis for a human, etc. After that we zone in, and we can divide up into countless subgroups based on any number of criteria, such as nationality, country, town or city, religions or philosophies, the amount of time spent in the shower, friend groups and shared acquaintances, and on and on. What American Dirt does is take the framework of one normal, that of a Latin American refugee, and inserts Jeanine Cummins’ own normal into it. And it doesn’t fit. Whether she did this intentionally or not is besides the point, the point is that it results in the problems that Gurba, Bermudez, and others have pointed out.
This isn’t literary blackface – that would imply a deliberate attempt to be offensive. Cummins doesn’t seem to be trying to do that at all, it’s too earnest. But to the Latinx community, the effect seems to represent a sort of cultural uncanny valley. Recognisable, but ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Ironically, in attempt to represent another culture, the novel just seems to give the impression that it’s not wearing its own skin.
People come to London for the first time, usually to work here, and when I talk to them a number of running themes consistently come up – amongst these are the number of people and the general cold, unapproachable character of your average Londoner out and about. When you point out that they’re right, London’s a crowded place with a population nearing 9 million people, they’ll respond with a slightly disquieted “that’s too many people…” As for our tendency towards apparent unfriendliness, I had a friend who described her initial attempts to navigate the Tube: “I didn’t know where I was going, so I just asked a guy if I was getting on the right train. He looked at me like I’d just taken a shit in my hand and offered it to him.”
The difference between me and them is that they’re shocked by this. I, having lived here all my life, am not. This is how I operate on the day to day. Millions of people who just want you to get the fuck out of the way, because they’ve got places to be and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people between you and their destination, is my normal. Theirs was considerably different.
If I to write someone from London going to a small village, acting the way they do in London, walk at double the speed of everyone else, refuse to say hello, won’t make eye contact, etc, and have the residents just act the same way or simply find it completely normal, then if someone from a small village were to read that, they wouldn’t recognise themselves. It would be completely out of character for them. As an example, a relative moved from London to a smaller town for a while. One of the things the people there had trouble getting used to was the fact that they walked faster than everybody else. Not a bad or a good thing, but it was a difference that had arisen from their respective normalities.
The point being that sometimes a writer must adopt another’s normal in order to convey their message or simply to hit the tone right. That is in no way easy, it requires significant awareness in multiple directions, but this furore is testament to the idea that being aware of your own normal is crucial in making a different normal feel normal. You can’t decide to depict a wholly different culture, position yourself (or your character) inside of it, and write from your own perspective.
As you might have guessed by now, the Latinx community’s concerns over this whole incident have their roots in the earth, so to speak. They’ve been writing books, poetry, memoirs and essays with first hand experience of the lives portrayed in American Dirt. By and large they’ve not been offered book tours and movie deals. None of them have been compared to Steinbeck. Naturally, it’s difficult to stomach the fact that Jeanine Cummins’ efforts were quite so successful given the questionable validity of her portrayal.
And who is surprised? A more accurate portrayal is a more difficult sell – it’ll have a smaller market because it falls outside of the social narrative. If it doesn’t merely reflect and regurgitate a societal expectation, it’s a harder thing to sell. Impoverishment and tragedy is only valid as long as the illusion of the American Dream is there to help them lift themselves up by the bootstraps or just stand in the background as some vaguely defined idealisation, even when it’s interpreted and moulded into a form of spectacle self-flagellation. This is selling a Mars bar compared to selling an onion. Please, nothing too challenging.
Myriam Gurba’s aforementioned blog post recalls, “There’s a scene where the main character encounters and ice rink and she’s utterly in shock.” If Cummins herself hadn’t come out with a list of all the research she has done, things like this make it easy to presume she’d done nowhere near that. The kind of problems Gurba points out give the impression that Cummins has come across a blank space in her cultural knowledge and just filled it in with whatever was convenient, from a set of cartoonish stereotypes.
From there, two conclusions seem to present themselves – either that Cummins didn’t care enough to check and find out what she didn’t know, or that she genuinely thought she had presented a reasonable picture of how people live ‘beyond the wall’. Which is worrying. But I’d actually assume that the reality simply didn’t work for the kind of narrative she was writing. Which is fine, but in that case everybody who came away from this book shrieking about how eye opening it is… they’re a problem.
As previously stated, the fact that a lot of people genuinely will believe the book is accurate, owing to their own cultural narratives and the information they have been given, the vast majority of which the Latinx community have no control over. So the publishers are obviously aware of this and they have obviously seen a market there. A significant one. It’s not a wild speculation to presume that they’ve done research and have data backing that up. So can the people in that market be relied upon, even in the face of the new information and the backlash, follow this ‘self-aware Western saviour’ idea that the publishers seemed to be happy to push? If they are, that doesn’t say anything good about Western perceptions of non-upper middle-class white folk. We can assume that the customer is probably ignorant on the actualities of about living in Mexico, myself included, but if the Latinx community’s voice on this matter is actively ignored, it might suggest something somewhat uglier – that neither the publishing industry nor the customer actually care. So in that light are we supposed to simply not buy this book, stop the presses, put it on a ban list? Certainly not. But it would be beneficial to be aware that the lens through which the narrative is filtered is more than a little flawed.
Finally, and unsurprisingly, Flatiron Books have a very real investment in American Dirt’s drama. Particularly, money. A lot of money. To state the obvious, they’re very much in support of seeing the book do well and maintain a positive reputation in the future. So they’re probably not too happy about the backlash to the novel gaining prominence. All publicity is good publicity, so they say, but when that publicity results in you being forced to terminate your authors’ book tour for safety reasons, it’s difficult to write it off. I imagine someone needed a stiff drink at the end of that day. On second thoughts, perhaps a stiff drink too many explains the road block floral displays…
At this point I should stress that American Dirt, or any ‘mainstream’ piece of fiction succeeding is a good thing. A successful consumer-oriented book is the means by which publishers can fund more niche, risky projects. Next time you consider sticking your nose up at Harry Potter, consider the amount of hardbacks about the economics of Tazmanian sausage rolls in the 1450s, that those profits have funded. Hell, you might want to send Stephenie Meyer and appreciative email or something, because the Romance/Erotica branch of the publishing industry is worth over US$ 1 billion. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades novels were the best-selling books of the decade. Basically, everybody else, including your favourite authors, benefits from these kinds of successful mass-market sales due to the smaller chance of profitability.
So, it’s fair to say Fatiron want to see this book do well. They don’t control the media, they can’t control the response, but they can influence the reception it gets. Nothing seedy, they’re just using the same thing everyone else does – marketing. They want people to buy this book, they want people to talk about and review this book, hence the book tour and the buzz and so on. They buy the usual front-of-store table, but they have to have been somewhat put out when some book stores refused to display the book, while others would only display it alongside Latinx authored books. It’s fairly unusual for publishing drama to get this big, and so they’ll have been even less impressed about the backlash becoming that public and that large.
So how did this go so wrong? I mean, that bit about the main character being shocked at the existence of an ice rink – you’d expect an editor to pick up on this sort of thing. I can’t imagine they thought this was a particularly accurate depiction of Mexico and migrants. But given the type of book, the audience, and the fact that the ice rink was an, albeit clumsy, attempt to depict poverty, they probably did frown and made a decision to keep it in. Or flagged it up and then agreed to keep it post discussion. Simultaneously, we have the contemporary world. The US is still dealing with a crisis at the Mexican border. That is potentially going to get particularly bad in the wake the current pandemic. And these stories were big news across more or less all layers of Western media. If the editor was paying attention – and they were – they saw dollar signs. Sounds cynical? It is. Publishing is a biz. Welcome to capitalism.
Sounds reasonable so far. What’s the problem? What went wrong? A lack of respect. The problem is that while the readers aren’t expecting a political treatise on contemporary Mexican migrations, they don’t expect to be talked down to. There seems to be an unfortunate miscalculation, perhaps a lack of social awareness. Honestly, I doubt anybody could have anticipated the scale of the backlash.
On a broader level within the publishing industry, the story has reinforced the perception that the industry is one by white people for white people. This hasn’t been helped by subsequent revelation that the publishing industry is pastier than a corpse paint convention in the Artic. Worse, the general wider publishing industry seems to be disregarding things – as the objections from the Latinx community have been shut down. Gurba writes: “The machine that is supporting this book is dystopian in nature. Meanwhile, I have published three books through indie presses and have not made more than $5,000 on them. That gives you a sense of what value is being ascribed to authentic voices.” This does seem to highlight a significant disconnect between the industry and the public – how it went from industry darling to social pariah.
So, in the end, how much of this drama is real? Not much. It’s real to the people who have any tangible investment in it and, by extension, neither real or authentic if you’re not actually involved. Most of the drama was social point scoring and headline generation – just another cynical way to inflate and spin the drama for personal benefit:
The media saw cash – greater viewership, larger audiences, better stats and more eyeballs on their content means more advertising dollars and the outside potential of a couple extra subscriptions. For the public it just devolved into a secondary school popularity contest wearing mum and dad’s clothes. It became a way to create simplistic group identification and foster a collective ego stroking that, inevitably, turned into a pathetic moralising superiority complex.
The real issue that should have been raising tempers seems to be less American Dirt and more the attitude of the media and publishing. Although the fact that the drama kicked up by rioting twitter users drew enough attention to point out the double standards of publishing, what the audience will respond to, and cultural representation or perceptions, is sort of ironic. You have to wonder if anything will actually come of the controversy. Whether there is an outside chance of some unintentional good coming from it in some roundabout way. I’m tempted to say no, but I will forgo it for the moment, until the next time a novel unexpectedly starts flipping everybody’s tables. At the very least, this controversy might have provided us with some extra considerations.