Out Of Context: The ‘American Dirt’ Row


Jeanine Cummins’ novel ‘American Dirt’ was always going to be controversial in these sensitive times but she really hit pay-dirt when the world of online chin-strokers took an interest. Her novel is an adventure – do we call books that anymore? – involving Mexican migrants, and the author is white. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s like her past works it’ll be well-written and involving.

However, Ms Cummins did herself no favours by saying she hoped to educate readers about the experience of Mexican migrants. Amy Einhorn, the publisher at Flatiron, then proceeded to knot her own noose by telling readers that the novel ‘changes how we think of the world’ and ‘changes us in a profound way.’

These aggrandising remarks tried to shout the book’s importance over its intended entertainment value. The barbed wire table dressing for the launch party was copying the cover design, and can certainly be accused of being tacky, but was jumped on as being culturally insensitive. Would it have been used for a thriller set in a concentration camp?

The ensuing debates that have swept the upmarket e-press surely had less to do with the book than guilt about America’s border crisis, a boil waiting to be lanced.

The greatest offence was given by the heroine describing the Mexican sea of humanity at the border as ‘a mass of brown faces’. Critics counted the number of times she used the word ‘brown’. I would feel uncomfortable describing skin colour – not something I would naturally think of doing here in London – but by this time phrases were being decontextualised and picked apart. Somewhere along the line, racial criticism blurred with regular book criticism to include ‘and it’s not very well written’ – the argument used (and refused) in the Joan Collins/ Random House lawsuit.

Cummins is not insensitive, but did not expect the storm of accusations that followed. With grim inevitability the hipster writers weighed in, deeming’American Dirt’ a cultural offence and a gross misrepresentation of Mexicans at a time when they’re in Trump’s firing line. The book is a thriller, but too late – our hyena-like cultural guardians smelled blood and laid in with cries of ‘white gaze’ (Ms Cummins is of Spanish heritage).  I used to write for Slate and found them a charming mix of nativity and idiocy – they’ve got a little better since I used to write dispatches for them, and have covered the controversy with some balance.

It could have ended there, but those involved in the release and publicity for the book took a disastrous position – they began scrabbling for excuses, citing their own family heritage, bloodlines and representation. I know that race is infinitely more sensitive in the US, but this is not a treatise on the Mexican migratory experience, and to me the fault lies with the publisher’s inflated self-importance.

I have books I will not abandon because of their newly discovered cultural insensitivity – I’m not talking about the appalling racists pulps of the distant past but books in recent memory that have managed to upset someone, somewhere. I have an active brain capable of separating fiction from reality. I have read a dramatic novel written from the point of view of a sentient vase. I have read a social comedy about a man who rapes trees. I can tell the pernicious from the profound and do not rush to find a street map when an author dares to describe Cairo. I do not need shielding and protecting from the vicissitudes of life; they manifest themselves with surprising speed, as the sensitive soon find out along with the rest of us. An author who may not write about something is being censored.

To some extent it was bad timing, but US publicity is by its nature a PT Barnum show that uses the sturdy term ‘Americans’ to mean ‘the world’. (Semantically, there is no equivalent usage for British people.)  And here it told readers to prepare to be educated. if you’re going to shout about your thriller’s importance over its ability to entertain, you’d better be sure it’s important.


11 comments on “Out Of Context: The ‘American Dirt’ Row”

  1. John Griffin says:

    I’m always amazed by the sensibilities of those in a country I visited at the end of the 80s, when it was staggeringly racist and vicious with it. Morally exercised over a book when black kids are routinely shot dead by cops and mass shootings occur regularly. Couldn’t make it up.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    I’m sorry, but isn’t ‘American Dirt’ the current incumbent of The White House? I never realised that that title I’ve heard bandied about recently, referred to a book, but the malignant narcissist who is tricking people into thinking that he’s a good president who cares.
    Reality check: the only thing Trump cares about is Trump. I thought George W. Bush was bad. Compared to Trump, he’s a saint.a

  3. kevin says:

    Lots to disagree and agree with here in this post. But literary controversies of this one-sided sort are a form of literary gentrification. Some financially powerful white entity uses its resources for the comfort and financial benefit of itself at the expense of some less powerful, and usually black/brown/yellow/red other.

    Funny how Ms. Cummins only recently started identifying as Latinx. Before the publication of THIS book, she identified as white.

  4. kevin says:

    And let’s not omit the Barnes and Noble decision to “darken” the characters on the covers of literary classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden for Black History Month. (Black History Month is a carry over from segregation where the US capitalist/commercial/social/culture sector highlights the “negro” presence in American life .)

  5. brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, your response to my question is well thought out, with astute observations about editor’s and publisher’s blunders.
    I wanted to argue two points (e.g. this is not about the wall, which is a boil only in the sense that a boil is a symptom of plague). After spending 8 hours framing my answer, I was too depressed to post it.

    I did try to read Ms. Cummins book before the controversy became so heated, but her flat-footed language and stereotypical characters left me cold and angry.

    It is because young men of color are being killed and because the publishing industry is gentrifying the harsh realities of bigotry that these issues are important to call out. If the “upmarket” e-press takes the lead (btw, they didn’t), good for them.

  6. admin says:

    I was being kind to Ms Cummins partly because I’m reading something much worse at the moment.
    One of the problems we have in the UK industry is the sheer lack of black male writers. I know of only two black crime writers, but I’ll be looking at a black ‘forgotten’ author later this week.

  7. brooke says:

    forgotten author… I hope it’s Chester Himes. If we think black male writers have a hard time today, consider that Himes had to make his characters white in order to get Yesterday Will Make You Cry published (originally titled Cast the First Stone by his publisher).

  8. eggsy says:

    Who were the three wise men at “Slate”, then?
    Sorry, couldn’t resist a joke at the expense of autocorrect.
    The names of the journals in which the critical (negative) essays gave me a good laugh – I was put in mind of Michael Wenton-Weekes….
    Haven’t we been here before? Publishing industry bigs-up a potboiler (with questionable taste) for a sales gimmick, provokes (commissions?) negative critical response for additional publicity and watches the hardbacks fly out of the shops….?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Have not heard of either the author or the book and somehow I think I’m glad. The whole matter of race and culture has become so much of a minefield that I wouldn’t even dare to use any element of race if I were writing. Mind you, I wouldn’t use any character or location if I weren’t fairly well acquainted with them/it.
    Won’t mention the US president either, until there is a different one.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Not that things are so much better here in Canada.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    I was thinking Chester Himes too. He went to France for a better life and then the Franco’s Spain which is very telling.


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