Ask someone who works in publishing what they think of American Dirt and they might tell you they’re not the best person to speak to the situation. Or that they haven’t read the novel. They might directly reference their privilege, then suggest you ask one of the handful of Latinx people who edit or sell books.
This was the reaction from myriad publishing professionals when questions were put to them about the latest controversy that has engulfed their business.
Two weeks ago Jeanine Cummins’s novel, about a bookseller from Mexico who flees to America with her son in tow to escape the local drug cartel, was a bestseller-in-waiting, riding a wave of critical support to its January 21 release date. Now it is a cultural lightning rod, and its author is at the center of a complex debate about power, privilege, and who should be given a platform to tell what stories. Though many insiders say they welcome the conversation that the book’s publication has inadvertently raised—about which books the industry chooses to elevate, and whether it’s properly equipped to champion the work of diverse voices—they’re stunned at the aggressive turn the debate has taken. And, even if they won’t say so publicly, they admit feeling sorry for Cummins who, as an author, should not have to answer for the shortcomings of the publishing industry as a whole.
Acquired for seven figures in a competitive auction in May 2018, American Dirt was a bookseller favorite at last year’s BookExpo. Backed by a hefty marketing budget and a reported first printing of 500,000 copies, the novel seemed destined for success when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.
Things were moving along as expected until a January 13 profile of Cummins appeared in the New York Times, in which reporter Alexandra Alter cited raves from bold-faced literary names like Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros (who were among the army of bestselling authors that blurbed the book) but asked Cummins about reviews by a few Latinx authors claiming that the novel was poorly written and an example of cultural appropriation. Alter quoted from a December 12 review by author and activist Myriam Gurba on Tropics of Meta, in which she described the book as a “Trumpian fantasy of what Mexico is” and a “noxious” work “masquerading as a piece of progressive literature.” Alter also pulled from an article that Mexican-American author and academic David Bowles posted, in which he called the novel “appropriating” and “inaccurate.” In a subsequently oft-quoted response, Cummins told Alter, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story,” and that privately she hoped someone “slightly browner than me would write it.”
That profile was soon followed by a negative daily review in the Times, by staff critic Parul Sehgal. In it, Sehgal wrote that “the motives of the book may be unimpeachable” but it, nonetheless, “flounders and fails.” Then, in a bizarre twist, a brief quote from a forthcoming review of American Dirt by novelist Lauren Groff was tweeted by the paper, and then the tweet was deleted. The tweet, Groff pointed out online, was not a selection from the final version of her review. (The Times confirmed as much publicly, explaining that the tweet mistakenly featured language from an earlier draft of Groff’s review.)
When Groff’s review was published, it was a window into the second guessing that some of the book’s early evangelists seem to be reckoning with. Championing the “swift” narrative, Groff wrote that, reading American Dirt, she feared for the heroine and her son while also harboring “another, different, fear”: “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant.” (Asked for comment about the review, Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, said, “It is not uncommon for reviewers to revise their reviews after they’ve been initially submitted.” Asked if Groff expressed any reservations about reviewing the novel when she took the assignment, Paul said she did not.)
After the Times coverage, the criticisms that Gurba and Bowles had been raising for weeks, without much traction, were amplified. On Twitter, prominent authors began chiming in. Flatiron started to come under fire for the way it had positioned the book, namely as a work of cultural significance. Many (including Sehgal, in her review) seized on the blurb that novelist Don Winslow had given American Dirt, which is splashed across the novel’s front cover, touting it as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.”
The uproar was so frenzied that, late last week, Flatiron canceled Cummins’s book tour citing “concerns about safety” and “specific threats to booksellers and the author.” Flatiron’s president and publisher Bob Miller, who issued the statement, apologized for the way the Macmillan imprint marketed American Dirt. He also said in the statement that the imprint was initially “surprised” by the backlash to the novel, given the widespread prepublication support it had from authors, indie booksellers, major accounts (including Barnes & Noble), and literary tastemakers (such as Oprah). The fact that Flatiron was surprised, he went on, “is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits.”
In the build-up to that extraordinary mea culpa from a major publisher, Cummins was largely left to publicly contend with the fallout over the book herself. On January 22, at Winter Institute in Baltimore, Cummins—in one of her earliest public appearances after the controversy started gaining momentum—was pressed on some of the slings aimed at her via Twitter. She was asked about her ethnic identity. (Detractors have claimed Cummins has long identified as white, pointing to a New York Times article she wrote in relation to one of her earlier books in which she says as much. However, in all prepublication materials for American Dirt, she said she identifies as both white and Puerto Rican and cited having a Puerto Rican grandparent.) She was also questioned about the size of her advance.
Publicly, Cummins’s agent and publisher have been standing by her. Flatiron issued a statement toward the end of Winter Institute saying it believes American Dirt is a work of “enormous power” but, nonetheless, is “carefully listening to the conversation around the novel, including the question of who gets to tell which stories.”
Cummins’s literary agent, Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord Literistic, told PW that American Dirt is a work he is “deeply proud of representing, and deeply proud of Jeanine for writing.” Noting that she spent years researching the novel, he said he believes it is “astoundingly moving, thought-provoking, profound, and original.” He added, “There are lots of interesting conversations that could be had about who gets to tell what stories and why, and many that could in fact be generated from this book,” but “instead of any real dialogue, what I’m seeing online is a deliberate spread of misinformation and unproductive, unwarranted vitriol.”
Privately, many in publishing have seized on the vitriol that has been directed at Cummins and, to a lesser extent, Flatiron as the disconcerting takeaway of the affair. They’ve witheringly referenced the “mob mentality” of the online attacks and said that, sadly, this is what stands for public discourse in our “cancel culture.”
Other insiders said they believe the controversy raises important issues about the problematic reality that, in publishing, the decision makers are overwhelmingly white.
One literary agent of color, who predominantly works with children’s authors, pointed to a piece by Patrice Caldwell, published by Refinery29; the agent said she agreed with “a lot of the sentiments” Caldwell expressed. In the article, titled “American Dirt Is a Problem. So What’s The Solution?,” Caldwell, a literary agent and the founder of the organization People of Color in Publishing, wrote that “the very senior publishing professionals who have power to truly change this industry for the better are the same people who are making things worse, again and again.”
Denise Chavez, a Mexican-American writer, activist, and owner of the New Mexico bookstore Casa Camino Real, said, “There’s a lot of frustration with the publishing industry. There’s a need for multicultural agents, multicultural editors, and multicultural publishers.” She added that she feels the adult side of the industry needs to start using sensitivity readers on a more regular basis.
Saritza Hernandez, a v-p and senior literary agent at the Corvisiero Literary Agency, said that though she is “certainly not the voice for the industry” nor does she profess to know “what the deep-pocketed publishing professionals who made the decision to champion this book’s thoughts are,” she’s not surprised by what’s happened. “As a Latina representing works by marginalized voices,” she explained, she has been “low balled” on many projects and feels this situation is simply more evidence that “the white gaze is still the prevalent decision maker of the industry.”
So what do the “deep-pocketed” editors who were early champions of this book think? Most didn’t want to comment.
There were nine bidders who went to the final rounds of the auction for American Dirt, including the winning editor, Amy Einhorn (who is now at Holt). The other eight bidders were Carole Baron at Knopf; Libby Burton at Henry Holt; Emily Griffin at HarperCollins; Karen Kosztolnyik and Asya Muchnick at Little, Brown; Megan Lynch at Flatiron (who was at HarperCollins’s Ecco imprint during the bidding war); Kathy Pories at Algonquin; and Marysue Rucci at Simon & Schuster. When these editors were asked what they saw in the book, and about the controversy that has sprung up around it, the only one who would comment was Baron.
Noting that she is “a great believer in fiction’s ability to introduce readers to subjects they might not ordinarily come to,” Baron said she thinks “American Dirt certainly works on that level.” She added that “the questions being raised about the book by Latino/Latina readers, and other communities, are important ones. May the conversation continue.”
That sentiment was echoed by Cristóbal Pera, publishing director of Vintage Español, which just published the Spanish-language edition of the novel. Pera called American Dirt “a thriller with a gripping mother-son story” and said the decision to buy it “was predicated on strong reads and anticipated interest from readers.” He added that “the conversations taking place around this novel are both welcome and essential.”
That many people in publishing like Cummins’s novel (even if they didn’t bid on it) is clear. That they won’t say as much publicly has been a frustration for those on the front line of the controversy. Stewart said he’s heard that some publishers have been instructing their authors not to publicly support Cummins for fear they could be attacked on Twitter, and that those attacks might hurt their careers.
Other publishing insiders said that Cummins is unfairly bearing the brunt of the criticisms of American Dirt and that some of the anger directed at her is tied to one of the oldest forms of literary in-fighting: jealousy over an advance. As one agent put it, “People begrudge her her money.”
Another agent mused that Flatiron might have done Cummins a disservice by flaunting her advance, and in the way it marketed the novel.
Some insiders said that the uproar over American Dirt marks the first time the #OwnVoices concept has drawn so much attention in relation to an adult novel. The hashtag, credited to the YA author Corinne Duyvis and used to identify a book whose protagonist shares the author’s identity, became widespread in children’s publishing around 2015 after marginalization-related controversies engulfed a handful children’s titles.
Some who work in adult publishing seem to view the #OwnVoices concept as suggesting that an author should have lived an experience in order to write about it. One agent, when asked what he thinks of the American Dirt controversy, called it “a bunch of bullshit,” adding, “Does Cormac McCarthy have to give back his National Book Awards?”
The agent quoted earlier about people begrudging Cummins her advance also called the uproar “bullshit.” He went on to say that “it used to be that the market spoke [for a book].” What’s happening with American Dirt, he added, has people in the industry worried that a book can get “banned before it’s had a chance to even seep into the culture.”
A number of insiders also said they are concerned that many of the book’s detractors on social media haven’t read the novel. Others questioned whether a small group of naysayers are getting an outsize amount of attention.
A generational divide also seems to be at work. After Cummins’s talk at Winter Institute, a group of four young booksellers interviewed by PW expressed discomfort with the novel. One noted that she thinks the book is an engrossing read but wondered, “Why can’t resources go toward authentic voices who could tell the same story?”
Before Cummins’s tour was canceled, a number of sources said that, despite the backlash, her book would still go on to be a success. “Call me old-fashioned,” said agent Harvey Klinger, who has an eponymous shingle, “I’m of the school that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I think the controversy that’s erupted over American Dirt will only fuel sales.” (The book sold about 49,000 print copies in its first week, according to NPD BookScan.)
Insiders said that regardless of whether American Dirt does indeed go on to become a hit, those who’ve been the public face of the controversy—namely Cummins and Flatiron—will not soon forget the sting. On Twitter, Miller’s announcement about the tour being canceled was met with swift criticism. Many commenters claimed that the publisher was calling the protesters violent in citing “safety concerns.”
When asked about whether the situation could bring about positive change, some insiders expressed optimism. But do they know what that change looks like?
For these insiders, the controversy seems to have stirred feelings of hope mingled with disappointment—feelings perhaps best encapsulated in the statement PEN America issued about the controversy, saying that, though it is “past time to equip, resource, and elevate a wider group of voices to speak for themselves and about their experiences,” the organization flatly rejects violence and “vitriol aimed to shut down discussion and enforce silence.”
One agent suggested that a quick fix is more likely to occur than a systemic one. She predicted that a major publisher (or a few) will make a splashy purchase of an adult #OwnVoices novel by a Latinx author. Chances are it will publicize the hefty advance—and put a big marketing budget behind it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the New York Times tweeted a review of American Dirt by Lauren Groff, then pulled back the review. The paper tweeted language from an earlier draft of Groff's review, and then deleted the tweet, explaining that said language was from an earlier draft of the review. The review was never tweeted.
A reporting credit was added to this story's byline.