American Greed: Who Enabled Cummins?

You may have read my negative review of Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt. I wanted to follow that piece up with a discussion of how such a book can come into being.

First of all, let me reiterate. There is nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans. What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions. And believe me, Jeanine Cummins gets SO MUCH wrong. Read Myriam Gurba and David Schmidt for the receipts.

In the case of American Dirt, I blame Cummins’ enablers:

  • Flatiron Books (the imprint publishing the book)
  • Macmillan (the parent company underwriting publicity)
  • The New York Times and other major outlets (that printed fawning pieces)
  • Kirkus and other journals (that gave it starred reviews)
  • Oprah Winfrey (who selected it for her influential book club)

Now, make no mistake: we Chicanx and Mexican people have been speaking out the last few days about the pre-ordained crowning of American Dirt by the trifecta of publisher, press, and popular personalities as the novel about the border crisis.

But are they listening? Do the voices of the “faceless brown mass” actually matter to them?

Oprah in particular ought to keenly understand the danger of someone NOT from a particular community of color making herself rich off a melodramatic caricature of their pain.

Of course, Bob Miller — the man behind Cummins’ million-dollar stereotype-ridden appropriation — also acquired Oprah’s What I Know for Sure, so I can only imagine what backroom deals prompted this continued fêting of American Dirt. If you don’t know him, Miller began his career at St. Martin’s Press, later working at Delacorte Press. He then founded Hyperion for Disney in 1990, serving as president and publisher until 2008, when he moved on to HarperStudio at HarperCollins. Jumping ship, he took over control of Workman from its founder Peter Workman before moving on to create the Flatiron imprint with Macmillan. Miller has acquired some big titles, among them Promise Me, Dad by former Vice President Joe Biden.

Jeanine Cummins, interestingly, also worked in publishing for a time. After moving back to the United States from Ireland in 1997, she got a job in sales at Penguin. She was soon able to parlay that sales position into a publishing contract: her first book, A Rip in Heaven, was released through Penguin’s New American Library imprint in 2004.

From what she says about her process, it seems clear that after several years of nearly abandoning her newest “migrant” project, Jeanine found the right hook (the mother-son angle). Her agent Doug Steward took the book out on submission (i.e., tried to sell it to various publishers).

This moment coincided with the national debate on refugees and other immigrants. ICE raids. Child separation. Cages.

American Dirt fit the zeitgeist. It was written by an established, bestselling author with good connections within the publishing world.

Much to the delight of the editorial staff (overwhelmingly upper-middle-class white liberal non-disabled cishet women), the author was nominally Latina! Yay! Publishers could check that diversity box off.

It went to auction (i.e., a bunch of publishers wanted it). Bob Miller saw the potential for major profit at this harrowing inflection point in US history, so he offered seven figures (i.e., a million dollars or more). Steward and Cummins accepted.

Now the way the publishing world works — still, even after all the hand-wringing about diversity, the promises that they’re going to change — is that each season, a book is chosen to become a bestseller. The limelight is thrown upon it. The bulk of the PR budget is focused on it. Every reporter, author, and star is marshaled to support it. The book is pushed hard with established chains and indie booksellers.

They MAKE IT a success.

And after throwing a million dollars at Cummins, they needed to move fast to recoup their investment. Editor Amy Einhorn— famous for working with Kathryn Stockett on the problematic novel The Help — began helping Cummins polish the novel into its breathless present shape. Foreign language rights were sold well in advance of publication. Movie rights, too. One of the most powerful publishers in the world decided to bend every resource, every influence, toward making the book massively profitable.

That is the juggernaut we’re up against, folks.

Weirdly, almost as if driven by guilt to sabotage the vast enterprise she’s caught up in, Cummins has admitted to Alexandra Alter: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” In her afterword, she worries that “privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths,” wishing that someone “slightly browner than [her] would write it.”

The frustrating thing is that … Mexican American writers have. However, none of us has been advanced as much money or had the trifecta of publishing, press, and personalities marshaled to promote us in quite this way.

Proof of our erasure by American Dirt comes from Cummins herself: “ I do know Luca and Lydia; I know their lives. Because I know grief. I know trauma. So that’s the thing. Yes, Luca and his mami happen to be Mexican, but they could be anyone.”

And I’m sure this heart-warming message of “color-blind” empathy resonates with especially White liberal readers, but it undercuts the author’s purported purpose: to “give a face” to the “faceless brown mass.”

Which is treacly White saviorism. I get the profiteering of Macmillan. But do Oprah Winfrey and her book club agree with this colonial mindset?

Most people involved behind the scenes seem either tone-deaf or outright cruel. Take a look at the centerpiece at Flatiron Books launch party for American Dirt:

Yes, those are barbed-wire centerpieces

Imagine how twisted and clueless you have to be sit and eat at such a table, reveling in brown pain in such a disgusting way.

Or to put barbed wire on your fingernails in celebration, like Cummins did:

But it isn’t true that non-Latinx folks are all on the wrong side of this literary disaster. Some DO see the truth. In USA TODAY, Barbara VanDenburgh gives American Dirt 1.5 stars, saying it’s “problematic” and “positions itself as the great sociopolitical novel of our era. Instead, it reeks of opportunism, substituting character arcs for mere trauma.”

And it’s that opportunism for which I indict YOU, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Miller, Amy Einhorn, Doug Stewart: You have failed us. You have failed the Mexican [American] community. You have failed the innocents locked in cages. For what? Money.

Imagine what $1,000,000 could have done to actually address the problem Cummins ostensibly set out to resolve.

Macmillan: you could have, for example, advanced forty Chicana / Mexicana writers $25,000 each for their #ownvoices stories about our “faceless” plight.

Instead, you crowned an author unfamiliar with our lives to tell a mangled, melodramatic version of it.

Shame on you. Sinvergüenzas.

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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