Here’s what you need to know about the biggest literary controversy of the decade (so far).
As you may have noticed if you’re a person who follows Literary Twitter in any fashion, online controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ new novel American Dirt exploded over the weekend. If you aren’t, or if you were engaging in a digital detox this weekend, here’s what you need to know:
In 2018, Jeanine Cummins, who is white (but who recently revealed that she has a Puerto Rican grandparent), sold her novel American Dirt, described in Publishers Marketplace as “the story of a mother and her young son as they try to cross the border into the United States, fleeing their Mexican city, which has been taken over by a drug cartel,” for seven figures, after an auction between multiple publishing houses. Rights were promptly sold to a host of other countries, as is common in such cases.
As is also common for novels purchased for large sums of money, the publicity machine soon began churning, and by the time we made it to the beginning of this year, American Dirt had gotten a lot of early praise, and was on tons of Most Anticipated lists (including ours).
In December, Myriam Gurba wrote a scathing review of the novel; it resurfaced in the discourse around the book and the way it’s been received. In it, she writes:
A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.
Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:
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.
On Friday, The New York Times published Parul Sehgal’s very negative review of the novel—and Sehgal tweeted her review, writing “Taking one for the team this week. Was curious about the season’s supposed big, breakout novel. If only books could be reviewed for their intention not execution..”
In the review, Sehgal writes:
The motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails . . . everything follows as predictably as possible . . . I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives … Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin. . . .The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.
Ouch, said everyone.
But then, on Sunday morning, The New York Times Book Review published a review of the same book by Lauren Groff. Actually, they started by tweeting a quote from a previous, more positive version of the review—for the record, it was “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.”—which wound up being much more mixed in its final revision. Groff writes,
I have been trained by my education, reading and practice of literary fiction to believe that good novels have some titration of key elements: obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview. The world of American Dirt is too urgent for humor or for much character development beyond Lydia’s own. There is a single clear moral voice entirely on the side of the migrants, because the book’s purpose is fiercely polemical . . . All of this is to say that American Dirt contains few of the aspects that I have long believed are necessary for successful literary fiction; yet if it did have them, this novel wouldn’t be nearly as propulsive as it is.
Groff spent time in the review grappling with whether she was the right person to review the book, but was criticized on Twitter for the review, and for even accepting the assignment at all. Eventually, she tweeted: “I give up. Obviously I finished my review long before I knew of Parul’s—anyone who has gone through edits knows the editing timeline—but hers is better and smarter anyway. I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.”
Gurba’s review resurfaced online, and Gurba also pointed out that Flatiron’s publicity letter situated Cummins as “the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant”—misleading in this context, as Cummins’ husband is Irish. The whole controversy taps into ongoing questions in the literary community and beyond about appropriation and artistic permission.
Gurba and Sehgal weren’t the only ones. LA Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez tweeted:
What I do see: A book industry that’s so out of touch — that so rarely supports immigrants to tell our own stories — eager to make money off of our suffering with a cheap, stereotypical thrill. #ImNotAmericanDirt. Neither is any immigrant I’ve known in 17 years of journalism.
— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATBermudez) January 20, 2020
However, despite the snowballing online backlash, there have also been a lot of rave reviews for the book, outweighing the mixed or negative reviews by a wide margin. Yesterday, the Times published an excerpt from the book, so you can decide for yourself
Finally, this morning, Oprah Winfrey announced that she had chosen American Dirt for her book club. To which the literary internet, already on fire with the discourse, responded: ugh.
And also funnier versions of ugh:
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
American Dirt has, of course, already been optioned for film, and the adaptation is being written by the guy behind Blood Diamond.
But let’s leave things on a better note, with this tweet from Myriam Gurba:
Today, 2020’s most anticipated turd of a book drops, #americandirt. Please read a book that won’t lead to the death of more raza instead. Read something told in our own voices. 🖤 pic.twitter.com/oF2csQSvX5
— Myriam Chingona Gurba de Serrano (@lesbrains) January 21, 2020