“American Dirt” publisher steps in it, and admits mistakes

American Dirt is an Oprah-recommended novel about Mexicans fleeing violence to find asylum in America. It’s also hugely controversial. The publisher and author are dealing with the blowback. It’s instructive to see how they’ve written about that experience.

The unexpected challenge here is coming from Latino communities, some of whom feel that the author Jeanine Cummins, who identifies as white, is appropriating Mexican culture for dramatic purposes. In the New York Times, writer David Bowles described it as proof that the publishing industry is broken, a “pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture.”

After winning a nine-way, seven-figure bidding war for the novel, Macmillan’s division Flatiron Books had prepared a massive launch including a book tour. Now the author was receiving backlash and death threats. So Bob Miller, president and publisher at Flatiron, was forced to backpedal. Let’s take a look at his statement and the very human way that it threads the needle between the publisher’s promises to the author and the people who have issues with the book. I’ve interspersed my commentary.

STATEMENT FROM BOB MILLER, PRESIDENT & PUBLISHER, FLATIRON BOOKS

In recent days a backlash arose against American Dirt, a novel published by Flatiron Books. When we began the journey of supporting this book, it quickly spawned as much excitement and anticipation as any book I can remember in my forty years working in the publishing business. During the lead-up to publication, we heard praise from major authors; Barnes & Noble designated it their book club pick; independent bookstores made it their #1 choice for February; and Oprah Winfrey made it a book club selection. It is a book we continue being proud to have published.

We were therefore surprised by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities.

Millers starts off clearly. He is not apologizing for publishing the book, despite the widespread criticism. And he admits to being surprised by the backlash. Is this another case of white privilege and blindness to others’ experience?

The fact that we were surprised is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits. The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them. We are committed to finding new ways to address these issues and the specific publishing choices underlying this publication, and feel an obligation to our colleagues, readers, and authors alike. On a more specific scale we made serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.

Take a close look at how this is written. It doesn’t blame the author — the publisher takes full responsibility for insensitivity. And it admits very specific mistakes in marketing and positioning that, together, inflamed the problem. Having been a veteran of book launches, I can easily imagine the glib way a publicist would describe an Irish immigrant as undocumented to promote a book about Mexicans, or describe the book as a novel that defines the migrant experience. That’s normal hype, and a book this big gets plenty of hype from its publicists. Unfortunately, this hype is not a victimless set of exaggerations; those exaggerations cut to the heart of whether the novel is, or is not, an appropriately authentic representation of what migrants go through.

To be fair, novelists do this all the time. They write about epileptics, black people, scientists, or S&M without being epileptic, African-American, PhDs, or dominatrices. Fantasies about others’ experience are part of what novels are about. But there are respectful and clumsy ways to do this, and from what I can see of the criticism (and no, I haven’t read the book), it’s on the clumsy side. Nobody would care, except that it’s also a tentpole of the publishing industry with a huge marketing campaign, which thrusts those inept portrayals into an Oprah-illuminated spotlight.

Simply put, we wish to listen, learn and do better. But that also must include a two-way dialogue characterized by respect. Jeanine Cummins spent five years of her life writing this book with the intent to shine a spotlight on tragedies facing immigrants. For that reason, it’s unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor. We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. While there are valid criticisms around our promotion of this book that is no excuse for the fact that in some cases there have been threats of physical violence. We join with those in the Latinx community and others who have spoken out against such violence.

Miller is unwilling to strafe the author. He’s reaching out to those who were hurt (some specifics follow later on). And he’s characterizing threats of violence as unacceptable. Unless a novel is blatantly racist or misogynistic, I’d agree with this tone.

Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour. Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety.

Rather than run away from this conversation, we want to move towards a solution. For that reason, we will be organizing a series of townhall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book. We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.

Is a series of townhall meeting sufficient? That depends on what happens afterwards.

If you publish a book full of lies, you deserve to suffer for it. But what’s the penalty for publishing a novel that’s not an authentic look at an ethnic community’s experience?

The penalty is that the author and publisher need to listen to those who feel injured. Seven-figure advances, book tours, and marketing campaigns can inflame those feelings, but in the end, authors will write, publishers will publish, and dialogue will enlighten — and that’s as it should be.

2 responses to ““American Dirt” publisher steps in it, and admits mistakes

  1. This issue has bothered me for years. Traditional publishers bet the farm on potential bestsellers, putting major resources behind books by “established” authors, because they have that shot-in-the-dark to write a best seller. Unknown writers, unless they are white, male, and/or graduated from an Ivy League college, don’t have the chance to make their mark, to publish a book through these traditional publishers. If, by some incredible alignment of the stars they do capture the interest of an acquisitions editor, the publishing house won’t put the resources into promoting the book when it is published.

    I worked for a short time in book publishing at the beginning of my career. I am of Mexican descent and I feel deeply that trad pubs need to step away from stories about the Latin experience, written by people of any other ethnicity who haven’t a clue. In this case the cluelessness started at the top, when Flatiron got into a bidding war for the rights to the story, when it launched the book, and when Oprah chose it for her book club. I’m not sure “townhalls” will help with the dialog — I believe the faux pas is baked into how the industry operates. When all is said and done, nothing will change with how the publishing industry does business.

  2. And, one more thing. American Dirt? Given the current climate of blaming Latinos for everything from unemployment to crime, the name alone could be taken to mean something like the dirt under Americans’ shoes. Bad optics all around.

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