How to Handle Disaster

Two weeks ago, Flatiron Books looked to be in deep trouble. The publisher had paid a seven-figure advance for Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, about a Mexican bookstore owner and her young son running for the border to escape a drug lord. Flatiron hoped it would be the defining novel of the migrant experience—a north-south John Steinbeck. Instead, it landed in the wood-chipper of identity politics.

American Dirt’s critics, led by several Latinx writers, deemed it inaccurate, racist, and an act of cultural appropriation. Clumsy publicity efforts by Flatiron fed the rage (centerpieces at a fancy promotional dinner featured barbed wire). Cummins (beside Oprah, above) was deemed insufficiently ethnic to write such a book (only one of her grandparents was Latina). She did herself no favors by passing off her husband as an illegal immigrant—he’s Irish, which in the American discourse on these matters, doesn’t count.

More than 100 writers signed a petition demanding that Oprah dump American Dirt from her book club. The writers who blurbed the novel, and the book press that hyped it, were assailed as “tone deaf.” Flatiron and the entire publishing industry were indicted for insensitivity to minority writers.

After several bookstores backed out of hosting Cummins due to threats of violence, Flatiron canceled the remainder of her national book tour. The book itself seemed on the verge of cancellation.

Yet as of yesterday, American Dirt was the number-one New York Times fiction bestseller, and number-three on Amazon.

What happened? For one thing, Flatiron managed to bend but not break. After canceling Cummins’s tour, it organized meetings between Cummins and some of the critics who objected to her book. Some smart bookstores, like Politics and Prose in D.C. (a wonderful place if you ever have the chance to visit), used the author’s appearance as an opportunity for a respectful discussion of the issues.

Also, Cummins defended herself:

I did five years of research. I went to the border. I went to Mexico. I travelled throughout the borderlands. I visited Casa del Migrante in Mexico. I visited orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador, which is like a soup kitchen for migrants. I met with the people who have devoted their lives on the front line to the work of protecting vulnerable people…. And despite the fact that it has grown into this crazy moment that I never anticipated and that feels as if I’m in the eye of the hurricane, I know for a fact that this book is moving people.

Acknowledging and engaging with the critics was smart. So was the choice by Flatiron and Cummins to stand their ground. This gave a chance for the market to speak, and readers obviously like the book. It’s more than 500 reviews on Amazon and almost 15,000 ratings on Goodreads are stellar.

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