Controversy doesn’t make a book good; a white author doesn’t make it bad

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Most definitions of fiction use the word “imaginary” to underline that the essence of the concept is people, events or facts that are not real.

But Jeanine Cummins has recently discovered that there are rules about what you’re allowed to imagine depending on who you are, at least if you intend to publish those ideas.

The author, who is not Mexican, wrote a novel about a Mexican woman who tries to flee to the United States to escape the drug-related violence in her own country.

The book, American Dirt, was praised by Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King.

There are rules about what you’re allowed to imagine depending on who you are

It was also slammed by critics and activists who objected to its stereotypical portrayal of Mexicans and, in some cases, its author’s whiteness.

In a review that went viral in December, writer Myriam Gurba accused Cummins of “bumbl(ing) with Trumpian tackiness” and “identif(ying) the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and (finding) a way to exploit it.”

Everybody paying careful attention to the heated dispute about American Dirt — so heated that the book’s publisher cancelled Cummins’ publicity tour over safety concerns — understands that this is not black and white territory (no pun intended): opinions about fiction are subjective, and charges of cultural appropriation tend to drown out and get mixed up with charges of just not being very good.

Author Jeanine Cummins, second from left, and Oprah Winfrey, far left, talk with CBS This Morning co-hosts Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil. CBS via Getty Images

In a piece in the Chicago Tribune, author John Warren insisted that “Cummins is not being criticized because she is a non-Mexican person writing about the Mexican experience. She is being criticized because she is a non-Mexican person writing about the Mexican experience poorly.”

Cummins broke into the book world with a non-fiction true-crime memoir, writing about none other than herself. A Rip in Heaven details her family’s experience of the rape and murder of Cummins’ cousins Julie and Robin Kerry and the attempted murder of her brother, Tom.

It’s a gripping story about a horrifying crime, and you can’t accuse Cummins of stealing anyone else’s experience there, but even that book suffers from a touch of excessive moralizing and self-congratulation about Cummins and her cousins’ liberal and enlightened views.

“American Dirt” books are displayed at a bookstore in New York on Jan. 30, 2020. Laura Bonilla/CAL/AFP via Getty Images

The fact that three of the young white Kerry women’s murderers, two of whom received the death penalty, were black isn’t explored much, except to hint at a sort of simplistic disbelief that minorities could unleash such violence against a young woman who signed her poems with peace signs and believed in the goals of Amnesty International.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise then that Cummins turns out not to be the ideal person to pen the quintessential novel about the migrant experience.

Not because she’s white (though she’s recently started saying she self-identifies as part-Latina owing to a grandmother born in Puerto Rico, which is not helping matters). But because she lacks the ability to see and capture the layers of nuance that are crucial to successfully depicting such a story.

She’s recently started saying she self-identifies as part-Latina … which is not helping matters

The publisher of American Dirt, Flatiron Books (which is a division of Macmillan Publishers), has defended Cummins and the book, while admitting to making some mistakes in its marketing of the novel.

(Flatiron president Bob Miller was right when as part of his mea culpa he noted that the publisher “should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland.” And, also, that barbed-wire centrepieces at a launch party were a bad idea.)

But as time has passed and complaints have raged, Macmillan seems to be losing its nerve. After meeting with members of the #DignidadLiteraria movement (a coalition of American Dirt critics), the publisher has committed to hiring substantially more Latinx staff and publishing substantially more Latinx authors (Latinx is the gender-neutral term for Latino or Latina). Wouldn’t it have been fascinating to watch the reaction if it had pledged instead to publish substantially more well-crafted stories and nuanced characters?

A woman looks at a copy of American Dirt at a bookstore in New York on Jan. 27, 2020. Laura Bonilla/CAL/AFP via Getty Images

Let’s be fair to Cummins and remember that plenty of intelligent people have been charmed by American Dirt. Her publisher was pleased enough with the book to go all-out on the marketing. It is not her fault that they did so clumsily, and it is not to anyone’s benefit to suggest that she was wrong to write about Mexican characters because she isn’t Mexican.

She certainly does not deserve harassment or threats of violence; nor, for that matter, does Myriam Gurba.

But that doesn’t mean American Dirt is good. The conflation of cultural outrage and literary criticism leads to muddled conclusions and bad books. Sadly, there’s not much reason to expect better to come.

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