After the massive blowback from its selection of American Dirt—a book about the migrant experience widely denounced for having very little connection to the migrant experience (or to Mexico, where the book is set)—it makes sense that Oprah’s Book Club would make future selections more thoughtfully.
Instead of considering the substance of the critiques of American Dirt and using that newfound understanding to inform its choices going forward, though, Oprah’s Book Club has decided to lump together all manner of “Twitter Book Controversy,” regardless of substance or context. To wit: cancelling its selection of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa, which had been tapped as the pick for March.
Briefly, the My Dark Vanessa “controversy” began when Wendy Ortiz—who admitted that she had not read the book—claimed that she had been told by people who had read it that there were elements of the novel that closely resembled Ortiz’s own memoir. Ortiz wrote an essay about My Dark Vanessa and her own experience with the publishing industry on Gay Magazine, and while the essay makes valid points about the publishing industry’s gatekeeping, the (vague) accusations against My Dark Vanessa, which appear to be the source of Oprah’s Book Club’s trepidation, appear unsubstantiated. (To be fair, it’s tough to substantiate a vague accusation when you “have no interest” in reading the book in question.)
Because the American Dirt blowback and the My Dark Vanessa scandal-that-wasn’t occurred around the same time, they were discussed in tandem in a handful of thinkpieces before Russell felt compelled to issue a statement about her own experience with sexual trauma. (Yes, really.) After that, whatever controversy around the book almost entirely dissipated—for everyone except Oprah’s Book Club, anyway.
Speaking to Vulture, Leigh Haber, the books editor at O, said that Oprah wanted to be “really mindful that the selection process doesn’t create noise around the book that will drown out the discussion of the book itself and prevent her from being able to focus on what’s in the book and the author.”
Whatever the lesson is in all this, it feels Peak 2020.