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.