In January, controversy surrounded Oprah’s Book Club’s selection of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexicans fleeing to the U.S. border that was widely criticized for cultural appropriation and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Apparently, the drama scared Oprah Winfrey off—just not off American Dirt. Industry newsletter Publishers Lunch reported that the influential book club has decided to drop a different selection, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa, following a similar online stir.
The book, which describes the relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her high school English teacher, was the subject of a different controversy in January after writer Wendy C. Ortiz said that Russell’s upcoming novel bore “eerie story similarities” to her memoir, Excavation. “[C]an’t wait until February when a white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like Excavation is lauded,” she tweeted. Ortiz’s memoir, which came out in 2014, also revolves around a teenage girl’s relationship with her teacher, and the Twitterverse was quick to suggest that Russell may have co-opted parts of her story. Russell denied the allegations, responding that the story in the novel was based largely on events from her own life.
Winfrey held a forum with Cummins and three critics of the book to address American Dirt criticism that aired on Apple TV+ on Friday, but Winfrey said she did not want to “wade” again into literary controversies that distracted from the books themselves. Russell’s publisher, William Morrow, said in a statement to AP that it was “disappointed by their decision but thrilled to see the incredible response from early readers.” My Dark Vanessa, like American Dirt, was one of the most anticipated books of 2020 and involved a seven-figure book deal. Early reviews for the novel, which comes out March 10, have been largely positive.