opinion | The long shadow of "American filth" (2023)


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pamela paul

opinion | The long shadow of "American filth" (1)
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Three years ago this month, the novel "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins hit bookstores with a tidal wave of emotion. "Extraordinary," Stephen King wrote in a speech before publication. "Fascinating, contemporary, a dazzling performance," enthused Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it's America's great novel,” proclaimed Sandra Cisneros. “This is the international history of our time. Teacher."

The dynamic of the book was continuous. Based on celebrity reviews before publication, the book, a fast-paced street romance about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Independent Next List Pick by independent bookstores. . Then came the rave reviews. "A heady adrenaline rush and insight into the experience of Latin American migrants," praised the Washington Post. Cummins "proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy," according to Time Magazine. Finally the golden ticket: Oprah has chosen "American Dirt" for her book club. "It opened me up, it shook me, it woke me up," Winfrey said.

Everything collapsed in on itself with amazing speed. Cummins publisher Flatiron Books has canceled its book tour following a vigorous online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who is writing what, and in response to threats of violence against the author and bookseller. Cummins' motives and reputation were tarnished; the novel, gutted. "We are saddened that a well-intentioned work of fiction led to thissuch caustic malicethe President of Flatiron said in a statement.

Looking back now, it's clear that the January 2020 American Dirt debacle was a harbinger, the moment the publishing world lost its faith and ceded moral authority to its critics' worst impulses. In the years that followed, publishers grew suspicious of what is now considered yet another dirty American situation, namely a book that puts its author and editor in the line of fire. That fear now hangs over every step of a tense process of questions about who writes what, who publishes and who edits what looks like a minefield. Books that would previously have been given the green light are now obsolete; Sensitivity readers are used regularly;Self-censorship is widespread.

A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking is now moving away from them. And it all came from a single author who published adiscursive and angryRemoval of "American Dirt" and its author to a smaller blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly followed suit and a social media uproar ensued that spread to the broader media. In the face of the protest, the literary world collapsed.

"It was a witch hunt. The villagers lit their torches,” recalled writer and bookseller Ann Patchett, whose Nashville home remained Cummins after her publisher informed her the tour was over. The two stayed up crying all night. "The fall I had in my kitchen, from the top of the world to the despondency and danger was heartbreaking."

How did the literary world allow this?

From the moment Cummins' agent mailed "American Dirt" to potential publishers, it looked like a winner. The manuscript prompted a bidding war between nine publishers that resulted in a landmark seven-figure deal for its author. Ahead of publication, as editor of the New York Times Book Review, I asked attendees at Book Expo, then the largest annual publishing conference, which book they were most looking forward to. The answer was the most unanimous I've ever heard: "American Dirt". Publishers, editors, booksellers, librarians all raved: "American Dirt" was not only a compelling novel, but also drew attention to one of the most vexing and painful problems of our time, the border crisis. This, his defenders believed, was one of those rare books that could captivate readers and change their minds.

But in December 2019, a month before the novel's publication, Myriam Gurba, a Latina author whose memoir Mean had been published by a small publisher a few years earlier, saidpublished a playthat Ms. magazine commissioned it to review "American Dirt" and then murdered it. In his blog post and accompanying review, Gurba characterized the novel as "fake social justice literature," "toxic heteroromance," and "sludge." It wasn't just that Gurba despised the book. She insisted that the author had no right to write it.

A key claim was that Cummins, who identifies as White and Latino but is neither an immigrant nor of Mexican descent, was unqualified to write an authentic novel about Latino characters. Another author soon claimed in a comment that the "clunky and ill-conceived" publication of Cummins' novel was evidence that AmericanThe post was "broken".The hype surrounding the publisher, who marketed the book as "one of the most important books of our time", was felt to be particularly offensive. Echoing a number of writers and activists, the article's author said it's up to Mexican Americans and their "collaborators" to resist the "ever-spinning wheels of the hit machine," and accused Oprah's that it was "unethical." allow book club to exercise this power. More than100 authorsput their names on a letter insulting Oprahaccording to your choice.

Never mind that Oprah has championed a wide range of authors for years and has been a major supporter of the book world. Or that, faced with the unpredictable vicissitudes of public taste, a publisher will use whatever he can, be it wild exaggeration about a book's merits or a marathon of credible commentary, to make a novel.

But an influential fringe of the literary world has clearly been spurred on by the allegations.

In one of those online firestorms that the world recognized and sometimes regretted, activists, writers, self-proclaimed allies and Twitter gunmen vied to show who was most offended by the crime of the novel's success. "American Dirt" has accounted for virtually every instance in which another Latin writer's book has been overlooked, misreviewed, or omitted.

As the story picked up speed, the target kept moving. According to her critics, the author was to blame for not doing better research, writing a more literary novel, writing a "savior blanco story", inaccurately reflecting aspects of Mexican culture, resorting to negative stereotypes. It was the florist's fault for reusing the barbed wire motif from the book cover as part of the arrangements for a launch dinner. It was the publisher's fault, a "perfectly orchestratedMega-Budget Campaign” on behalf of a white Puerto Rican author, a quarter more likely than other more marginalized Latino voices. The commercials for "American Dirt" were overly flattering. The progress was enormous. There have been accusations of cultural appropriation, a nebulous and broad concept whose adherents assume honor, appreciation, or cultural exchange according to rules only they know.

What should you have done instead? Should the editor have shelved drafts and asked them to tone down their praise? Should Cummins have resisted the advance, saying it was a lot of money and refunded something? Would anyone be so upset if Cummins received $50,000 and a few lukewarm praises from fellow writers?

Many of the Cummins fans remained silent, too afraid to publicly defend themselves. In conversations at the time, several novelists of all backgrounds and ethnicities told me privately that they feared anger would attack them because they had written previous novels in which they imagined other people's lives, other people's voices. . They wanted to write future novels that dared to cross the newly reinforced DMZ boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender and gender. (Even now, three years later, many of the early Cummins champions I contacted were reluctant to do so officially for fear of upsetting the bear; many people in the publication only spoke to me offscreen. Macmillan , the house of printing, did not reply to a request for comment).

And so the allegations went largely unchallenged. Macmillan and his team went through a round of prefectural flagellation. Cummins went unnoticed as she had become something of an outsider among her professional peers. Since its publication, I am told, no author in the United States has asked him to review a book.

Some calls for change that emerged from the storm were well founded, particularly calls for diversification of a rich and largely white industry. Publishing is an exciting but demanding and notoriously low-paying job that isn't for everyone. But it should definitely be open and frequented by people of all backgrounds and tastes. Black editors interested in foreign affairs and science fiction, Latino editors interested in rising conservative voices or terror, graduates from small Southern universities interested in translating Nordic literature. People from all walks of life, open to all kinds of stories from all kinds of authors, can bring a variety of ideas to a creative industry.

However, in claiming that the publisher somehow "made this book successful," critics of the novel have misunderstood several fundamental aspects of how the publication worked. It's a business first and foremost, and one where most novels fail. If the publication were as monolithic and omniscient as many critics seem to assume, the editorsatsuccessful novel. If it were just a matter of putting marketing behind a novel and attracting as much publicity as possible, publishing wouldn't be such a low-margin business. When a book proposal comes along that creates a lot of excitement and a chance of success, publishers naturally jump on it, spend the money they need to close the deal, and do what they can to recoup the investment. For most authors, a six or seven figure advance comes as a shocking surprise; Most books do not normally recover the sales advance. The publications are full of authors and publishers who believe in their books only to be disappointed.

Many critics of "American Dirt" made cynical allegations about the author. In his opinion, Jeanine Cummins wanted to capitalize on the tragedy of the border crisis. Surprisingly, most didn't think Cummins could have any motivation other than money.

Think of what could have been.

The reaction of other Latin writers and the literary world in general may have beenethis book and this author who has endeavored to explore lives other than her own, as well asecommemorating a Honduran migrant, for example, andeto a borderline narrative narrated by a Texas journalist andeto a collection by a Mexican-American poet. No book, perfect or flawed, and negative reviews are perfectly fair game, can be expected to represent an entire people, regardless of how it is written or marketed. Rather than shutting down this author on behalf of a greater cause, his own brand of injustice, the response of other Latin writers could have been more generous.

So loud was the outcry from his critics that it was hard to see at the time that the response to "American Dirt" wasn't entirely grim. There were no protests worth mentioning outside the closed sphere of the American literary world. And, significantly, the novel has been translated into 37 languages ​​and has sold over three million copies worldwide.

Novelist, filmmaker and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores Perros", "21 Grammos") says the novel was read and appreciated in Mexico. "As a Mexican, born and raised, what Jeanine did didn't bother me," Arriaga told me. “I think it's absolutely right to write whatever you want on any topic. Even if he went overboard with the narco aspect, that's an artist's privilege." When Arriaga discusses the novel with book clubs in Mexico, he says, no one brings up the concept of cultural appropriation.

Some Latino writers rose up publicly in defense of Cummins. "The author gets a lot of shit for things she's not responsible for," Sandra Cisneros said controversiallysegment of public broadcastinglargely dedicated to others who are critical of Cummins. "If you don't like the story, that's okay, that's what she wrote and it's her story," Cisneros continued, urging people to "read this book with an open heart." If you don't like it, leave it."

Readers, the people for whom books are written, have been largely ignored in the debate. But it turns out that many readers stayed open-minded,with littlePatience for my struggles and not yours that have spurred on Twitter and its amps. Here in the United States, the novel debuted at #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list, where it stayed for 36 weeks. That's the power of a book that resonates.

But if the "American Dirt" proposal made it to desktops today, it wouldn't be released.

"There's been a lot of talk over the past two or three years that the publishing industry is increasingly concerned with placating potential layoffs, staying out of trouble in the first place, becoming anxious and conformist," says Bernard Schweizer, professor emeritus of English from Long Island University, who starts a small publishing companypress heresy, with his wife Liang to undertake the most risky kind of work now forgotten. According to Schweizer, the publisher will look for works "that fit more between the narrow-minded ideological than aesthetic interests that are currently thriving on both the left and the right" and "will not turn a blind eye to alleged acts of cultural appropriation". As he told me, “The aim is not to offend, but to publish stories that are unrestrained and free, perhaps independent in one way or another. Someone may or may not be offended, but that's the kind of risk we're willing to take."

Sentiment remains pessimistic for some up-and-coming writers. “My opinion is the only one that everyone knows to be true, but only privately admits: the literary world only accepts works that align with the progressive/awakened view of the rich on the coast. Liberals," said the Latin writer Alex Pérez in aInterview with Hobart Magazinelast fall. "It explains why everything looks and sounds the same, from big publishers to vanity magazines with an audience of 15." Shortly after the publication of the interview with PérezThe Hobart editorial board resignedand Pérez has been much ridiculed on social media. Elizabeth Ellen, the editor of Hobart and the person who conducted the interview, published an editor's letter in which she advocated an atmosphere "where fear is neither the basis of creation nor the background of discussion".

History shows that no matter how hard critics, politicians, and activists try, you can't stop people from enjoying romance. This is something the book world, faced with constant threats of book bans, should know better than anyone.

"We can be appalled when people say, 'You can't teach these books. You can't have Jacqueline Woodson in a school library. But can't you defend Jeanine Cummins? said Ann Patchett. "It just goes both ways. The people who don't read the book tell us what we can and can't read. They may not take a book out of the classroom, but they still cause a lot of embarrassment to people. It all pisses me off and breaks my heart."

Much has been broken along the way. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at great emotional, social, and reputational cost. She wrote a book full of empathy. The literary world showed him nothing.

The Times is committed to publicationa variety of lettersTo the editor. We'd love to know what you think of this or any of our items. Here are someaddendum. And here is our email:cartas@nytimes.com.

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