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Progressive critics gave American Dirt bad reviews without reading it

Roxane Gay and other progressive critics have been slamming American Dirt. But did they read it?
Barrett Wilson Montreal, QC

Roxane Gay thinks Jeannine Cummins should go cry into her publishing contract. After Cummins’ publisher Flatiron Books cancelled her American Dirt book tour due to death threats, Gay said that was basically no big deal because lots of authors receive death threats. Gay dismissed the concerns of Flatiron and Cummins, saying that it’s “important to acknowledge the death threats people receive for daring to have opinions, for daring to be black or brown or queer or disabled or women or trans or any marginalized identity.”

Gay made the remarks at Antioch University in Culver City, CA, when she spoke on a panel with author Myriam Gurba as part of #DignidadLiteraria (#LiteraryDignity), a movement that emerged after the publication of American Dirt. The purpose of #DignidadLiteraria is to hold the publishing world accountable for not publishing enough stories by and about the Spanish speaking people of the Americas. This panel was part of a national week of action organized by the hashtag’s founders Myriam Gurba, David Bowles, and Roberto Lovato.

Cummins’ book was the subject of much initial fanfare. It was on The New York Times’ highly anticipated book list. It was a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Movie rights were sold before the book hit digital shelves and Cummins received a seven-figure advance. All this indicates that the book was going to be a literary circle darling. Instead, it has created a crisis in American publishing.

While there were some positive initial reviews, most of the notices for American Dirt were incredibly damning. Once word got out why the book was no good, critics could not stop dishing on the white author who had the audacity to write a story about a Mexican mother and son running for their lives to escape drug cartels.

The complaints were that Cummins shouldn’t have written the story, that the story wasn’t hers to write. The authors who trashed her book know that the story sprang from Cummins’ imagination and that she spent years researching the subject. And primarily, the harsh critics of American Dirt were other authors, like Gurba and Bowles, who take issue not only with the work itself, but the fact that it was published at all. They’re using it as a bludgeon with which to beat the publishing industry into submission to identity politics.

It’s possible, however, that some of the reviews were written by people who hadn’t read the book. For example, this Jezebel review from Shannon Melero notes that “There is no sense throughout the book that Cummins is familiar at all with the landscape of Mexico, outside the names of towns. At times it reads as if she was purposely vague on the description of a neighbourhood so that the reader could imagine they were anywhere else. But the lack of specificity is precisely why such a book appeals so massively to a mainstream white gaze: they can put themselves in the story and imagine they are practicing a type of empathy, when in fact they’re just perpetuating erasure.”

Journalist Jesse Signal points out many passages that show the specificity of the location Cummins writes about.

This is not the first time a book has been trashed by people who probably didn’t read it. A year ago, Amélie Wen Zhao’s unpublished novel Blood Heir was brought up on charges of being racist. It was mostly a play to get people to buy the books of the complaining critics, instead of the one that received the big advance and heavy push from publishers.

In Gurba’s review at Tropics of Meta, she writes that she was predisposed not to like the book based on a publisher’s letter, and she hates it thoroughly. “Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title,” Gurba writes eviscerating both Cummins and the work. “Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.”

For this review and for speaking out, Gurba says that she received threatening messages as well. To Gay, the threats Gurba received are more worrisome than the threats Cummins received.

“People need to realize what real censorship looks like,” Gay said. “They need to understand how unsafe it can be to challenge authority and the status quo. These are not things that should be taken lightly, nor should this level of harassment be dismissed as mere trolling. You never know when one of those so-called trolls is going to take his rage from the internet into the physical world.”

Ideally, well-known authors would decry all threats made against authors for their work. Gay was asked about the intimidation that caused Flatiron to cancel Cummins tour. “This woman is going to be set for life,” Gay said to the panel. “This book is going to earn royalties in perpetuity, and so it just reinforces what publishing already knows, which is as long as white people are translating the experiences of people of colour, it will sell very well.” Perhaps she thinks that the threats don’t matter if the author is successful.

To publicize the threats made against those authors who wrote against American Dirt, an online “death quilt” was organized so everyone could see. While Gay is saying that this is what “real censorship looks like,” neither bad reviews nor cruel missives from internet trolls are what censorship actually looks like. Censorship looks like a political and cultural ideology that demands adherence to rules about who is entitled to write what due to the fact of the genetic background. Locking people into prisons of ancestral experience is what censorship looks like, whether it comes from government or organized advocacy to correct publishers for transgressing these rules.

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