What lesson are book publishers taking away from the controversy raised by American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ novel about a Mexican woman and her son seeking to cross the border? Will the furor change the way editors think about acquiring novels, or does the book’s sales success—it’s currently No. 2 on Amazon’s bestseller list—obviate those concerns? I asked several editors at Big Five houses (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins)—all of whom only felt comfortable speaking candidly if they could remain anonymous—what went wrong in the publication of American Dirt, how it might have been avoided, and how the landscape has changed—if at all.
A reductive version of the complaints about American Dirt claims that the novel’s detractors believe that a white woman should not write about the experiences of Latino migrants. In truth, nearly all of the considered criticism of the novel points out either inaccuracies or stereotypes that, according to Myriam Gurba’s widely shared review on the site Tropics of Meta, betray Cummins’ lack of knowledge about her subject matter and attempt to render a complex situation and culture into “trauma porn” palatable to an American readership—a readership envisioned as primarily white.
Nevertheless, American Dirt arrived in reviewers’ hands embellished with endorsements from such revered Latina literary figures as Dominican American Julia Alvarez and Mexican American Sandra Cisneros, writers who either missed or weren’t bothered by the glaring flaws decried by Gurba. “Some of this is generational,” an assistant editor, who is white, told me. “I would have spoken up 100 percent about how problematic the book was.” This is exactly the hypothetical situation that journalist George Packer imagined in a recent speech given while accepting the Hitchens Prize, later reprinted in the Atlantic: “If an editorial assistant points out that a line in a draft article will probably detonate an explosion on social media, what is her supervisor going to do—risk the blowup, or kill the sentence?” For Packer, that’s a dystopian scenario, but it might have saved Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, a lot of grief.
Most publishers enlist the opinions of multiple in-house readers, particularly when launching a book that commands a large advance (reportedly seven figures in American Dirt’s case) and a correspondingly large marketing budget. As many of the industry’s critics have repeatedly pointed out, however, those employees are overwhelmingly white, although an editorial director of an imprint told me “over 50 it’s just white people who went to Harvard, but the pool of people under 35 is much more diverse.” Whether feedback from junior staff is heeded varies from house to house and editor to editor. Several of the outside observers I spoke with suspect that Flatiron, a relatively new imprint of Macmillan Publishers, anticipated that the mismatch between Cummins’ identity and that of the characters she depicts could attract negative attention; they just misjudged how much. “Most of the critical missteps” in the marketing of the book, said one editor, “were obviously done to head off that sort of criticism.”
These moves backfired spectacularly, among them an author’s note from Cummins expressing the wish that “someone slightly browner than me would write” a similar story and describing migrants as people who “we” tend to see as a “faceless brown mass.” These measures were “tin-eared at best,” in the words of one editor I spoke to, as was a bio noting that Cummins’ grandmother was Puerto Rican and referring to her Irish husband as an “undocumented immigrant.” A photo of a luncheon the publisher threw for Cummins last spring in which floral centerpieces mimicked the barbed wire in the book’s cover art further fanned the flames, as did a letter from Cummins’ editor, Amy Einhorn, included with advance reader copies, that characterized the issue of immigration as having only recently entered the “national zeitgeist.” Unlike the contents of a 400-page novel, these blunders could be easily circulated on social media. “It’s the perfect literary scandal,” one senior editor observed, “because you don’t even have to read the book.”
“Everyone saw this coming,” the editorial director told me, “but some people thought that the book’s politics were liberal enough that no one would attack it. They underestimated how the circular firing squad works.” He dismissed the notion that everyone at Flatiron was simply oblivious to the pitfalls of publishing American Dirt. “Look,” he said, “book publishers are 10 times more concerned with identity politics than Twitter suspects. This is a media company. The people who work here are the same people who are on Twitter.”
But the most common take on the American Dirt fiasco is that it resulted from Flatiron’s hubristic failure in what the industry refers to as “positioning”—that is, communicating the genre a house considers a new book to fit into. “From what I’ve heard,” said one senior editor, “it’s a really quick, pacey, dramatic read, and there’s a whole coterie of people who will say that to their friends, and word of mouth will move across the country like wildfire.” In other words, the novel is a work of commercial fiction, much like Where the Crawdads Sing and other titles that sell in large numbers while generally flying under the radar of cultural critics and political commentators. Where Cummins’ publisher went wrong, in this formulation, was to present American Dirt as if it was also, in the senior editor’s words, “a contribution to a vital understanding of this issue,” with the implied claim of representing the issue accurately rather than using it as a backdrop for an entertaining suspense story. “It’s a commercial book that was mispositioned as literary,” another senior publishing executive observed. Flatiron’s publisher, Bob Miller, essentially acknowledged this in a statement released Wednesday, noting, “We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience.” This set American Dirt up for a degree of scrutiny to which most popular bestsellers are not subjected, at least not right out of the gate. “You can’t be Twitter woke and Walmart ambitious,” the assistant editor quipped.
By comparison, The Help, a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett (also, as it happens, edited by Einhorn) was as heavily promoted to the mainstream market as American Dirt was, but without the same appeal to reviewers in major publications—or claims that it addressed a serious issue on serious terms. (Instead of barbed wire, the cover art features, inexplicably, a genteel painting of three perched birds against a golden backdrop.) Only after the book had sold millions of copies and attracted the attention of filmmakers did it draw high-profile criticisms for its depiction of race relations in the South during the 1960s. To cite a more recent example, Don Winslow, who also blurbed American Dirt, is a white author who writes bestselling thrillers about Latin American drug cartels in which the characters are arguably just as much stock figures as those in Cummins’ novel, yet his work is not presented as social commentary, with all the heightened attention such pretenses bring with them. While such distinctions may seem arcane, Gurba herself, in a recent interview with the radio program Latino USA, stated that she would have found American Dirt less offensive if its publisher had marketed it as “a romance thriller,” rather than “promoting it as if it was a novel of political protest.” She would have much more respect for Cummins, Gurba went on, “if she owned who she is and what she’s writing.”
No one I spoke to expected the controversy over American Dirt to harm the novel’s commercial prospects. “The consumers don’t care. They. Don’t. Care,” said one editor with exasperation. “If it does register, they’ll just write it off as PC.” While one source said he was sure the incident is “humiliating” to Cummins, her publisher, and other people associated with the book, “you can wipe your tears away with money.” A petition posted to the site LitHub and signed by more than 130 writers asking that Oprah Winfrey “reconsider” selecting American Dirt for her book club might have an effect if Winfrey complies, but the editorial director insists that even this could end up helping the title. “The challenge in publishing books is making sure people have heard of them,” another editor explained. “What people will know is that this is a book other people are talking about.”
Independent bookstores are likely to suffer the most as the result of the current uprising against American Dirt. On Wednesday, Flatiron announced the cancellation of Cummins’ book tour, citing threats. Some observers have questioned the reality of such threats, but a spokesperson for Flatiron showed me emails the publisher had received from booksellers, one of which reported that a potential speaker had received physical threats and others explaining that they could not guarantee Cummins’ safety. “Small booksellers don’t have the resources to hire security personnel,” one editor explained to me, “and many of them were counting on the income from a big bestseller this spring.” Now Amazon or a big box store could get those sales instead. Neither Cummins (who sold a second book to Einhorn, reportedly also for a seven-figure advance, shortly before Einhorn left Flatiron to become president of fellow Macmillan imprint Henry Holt) nor Flatiron itself is likely to take as much of a hit. “So her tour was cancelled,” an editor noted. “Do people know what a shitshow a book tour is? They’re so arduous!” (Flatiron has announced plans for a series of “town hall” meetings with Cummins to discuss the book publicly, but no specifics have been released.)
Could adult trade publishing adopt a practice common in the young adult sector and enlist sensitivity readers to screen books for their authenticity in depicting marginalized identities? No one seems to regard that as likely, although one editor did say that she hoped to see “in-house talent at publishers acknowledging their own limits and using their powers to consult with outside experts” when needed. And while some people bristle at the very suggestion of using such readers, another editor noted that consultations are far from unprecedented. “If you set a novel in ancient Rome and you decide that you want a professor of classics to read through it, no one would be shouting about free expression.”
The controversy over American Dirt may, however, make publishers more cautious. “I don’t see this leading to a decision not to acquire a book that we would have acquired in the past at all,” said one publisher. “But I do think that in cases where there’s a mismatch between the identity of the character and author, the value of those books over books where the author is a member of the community being written about will be more closely scrutinized. There’s a fine line between free expression—which can mean publishing books that not everyone on the staff likes—and publishing responsibly, ethically, and with proper due diligence.”