American Dirt, the most controversial book of the year

American Dirt, the most controversial book of the year

 In the months leading up to American Dirt’s publication, Macmillan had positioned the page-turner—about a mother and son escaping cartel violence in Mexico—as a definitive chronicle of the migrant experience. Prominent readers had praised it in terms worthy of a Nobel Prize. 

The novelistDonWinslowcalled it “a Grapes ofWrath for our times.” Oprah,who picked it for her book club, wrote, “This storychanged theway I seewhat itmeansto beamigrant.”Gurba,whoisMexicanAmerican, sawit differently. In an essay for Tropics ofMeta,anacademic blog, she described it as shallow and full of harmful stereotypes and accused the author, Jeanine Cummins, a white woman, of writing “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.” Many agreed. 

The early praise gave way to a flood of criticism: Thousands of articles and tweets took issue with the author’s identity, the book itself, and, crucially, amassive marketing push that was viewed as tasteless and misleading. There was a plan to protest Cummins’s cross-country book tour. The week after the novel’s release, the tourwascanceled. “Basedonspecific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety,” wrote Bob Miller, the president of Flatiron, the Macmillan imprint that had published the book. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.” Gurba belonged to a network of Latinx writers, DignidadLiteraria, that had formed in the wake of American Dirt’s release to address what its members saw as systemic racism in the publishing industry. 

The group had requested the meeting at Flatiron because it hoped the company might listen to some of its proposals. In their detailed presentation, the activists urged Macmillan to hire more Latinx editors and to start an apprenticeship program to attract new talent. They pressed the company to open an imprint for Latinx writers and to provide those writers with the same level of support and publicity Cummins had received. Miller had agreed to meet with them because he wanted to understand their perspective and hoped to quiet the negative attention the book was getting. “He seemed to think, We will listen,” one employee said, “and then they will not be as heated in their rhetoric against the author. And we’ll all just work it out. But I don’t think that was ever really on the table.”On the publisher’s side, Miller and Don Weisberg, then the president of Macmillan, did most of the talking. The book’s editor, Amy Einhorn, was mostly silent. 

The executives expressed interest in the activists’ suggestions, but they also wanted to discuss the tone of the online discourse. Miller comes from a generation that prizes “civility,” one employee noted. “He could be accused of tone policing,” added another. Gurba, who had received a barrage of menacing emails since publishing her essay, was disturbed thatMiller seemed to be “equating the criticism Jeanine was receiving with the death threats I was receiving,” she said. AsMiller and Gurba began to argue over this, one Macmillan staff member blurted out that Cummins had never received any actual death threats. “Everybody just went dead silent,” Gurba recalled. Over the past few years, writers of color have pushed conversations around raceand representation to the forefront of the youngadult- fiction world,promptingpublishers to pull controversial books from the pipeline. But the proprietors of commercial literary fiction seemed curiously immune to scandal. 

Although editors and writers of color had been talking about racism in the industry for years, this corner of the book world had largely relegated its own discussion of the issue to diversity panelsatconventions— until a year ago, that is, when a novel about thehumanitariancrisis unfolding acrossour southern border precipitated a publicity crisis in the publishing houses ofManhattan. As it happened, the book would also turn out to be one of the best-selling novels of the year. I spoke to employees at various levels throughoutMacmillan, all of whom asked to keep their names and titles confidential out of fear of losing their jobs, about the rise andfall ofAmericanDirt. Inretrospect, they felt itwasinevitable that a stormof criticism would overtake one of their titles sooner or later. Still, there were unique circumstances behind the publication of this book, one employee pointed out, that “allowed for certain things to get out of hand.”

AMERICAN DIRT FIRST LANDED 

on the desks of editors in the spring of 2018. One editor who had advocated for her imprint to acquire the manuscript recalled reading the opening scene while getting a pedicure during her lunch break and thinking, “Holy shit, I’m not going to be able to put this down.” 

At the center of the story is Lydia, a middle-class bookstore owner from Acapulco; life is good until her husband, an investigative journalist, writes a profile of a cartel bosswhohappens to be a charismatic regular at her shop. When the cartel murders her entire extended family, Lydia and her son attempt to flee to safety in the U.S. In the first sentence, bullets fly through an open window; by page 18, Lydia and her son are on the move, heading for “la Bestia,” a gangcontrolled high-speed freight train that only the most desperate attempt to board. “There’s this lore in publishing that immigration books don’t work,” said the editor, who is white. “I remember telling my boss, ‘I feel like this is finally a book about immigration that people who have no interest in immigration will read.’ ” She didn’t consider the identity of its author— perhaps in part, she said, because there was some murkiness around it. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Cummins wrote that she had a Puerto Rican grandmother but identified as white. 

When her agent began sending around the manuscript, he exaggerated the author’s connection to her subject. “Jeanine is half Puerto-Rican and speaks fluent Spanish, which allowed her to do extensive research in Mexico, lending AMERICAN DIRT its hard-won and impressive authenticity,” he wrote in his pitch letter. In any case, the editor wasn’t concerned about whether the book was authentic. “That wasn’t a question anyone who was publishing commercial fiction was asking at the time—not if a book was this gripping,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Wow, this book is incredible. It’s going to be expensive.How much is it worth?’ ” A lot of editors had the same thought. Nine publishing houses entered an auction that lasted three days and resulted in a seven-figure advance, the kind of deal only a handful of writers a year can pull in. Einhorn, a white editor who was then the publisher of Flatiron, won the auction. She had built a reputation as a “hitmaker,” as one observer in the industry put it: “She has an eye for what’s going to sell.” Under Einhorn’s leadership, Flatiron had become known for accessible fiction aimed at the broadest possible audience. 

Her hits include Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, another divisive best seller written by a white woman from the perspective of characters of color. (Through a publicist, Einhorn declined to be interviewed for this story.) In a 2014 interview with Poets & Writers, Einhorn said she didn’t consider Stockett’s identity when evaluating The Help. “If the authorbioinfluencesyouonewayoranother, that’s a problem,” she said. “It should be the work itself that speaks to you.” At Flatiron, Einhorn’s acquisition of AmericanDirtwasgreeted with excitement and became an immediate subject of discussion at sales meetings, drawing the kind of attention most books don’t receive until closer to their publication date, if ever. A team of four people, all of whom were white, worked with Einhorn on the book, but “she was the person who made the call on every major decision in that publication process, with very little discussion or oversight from anyone else,” one Macmillan employeesaid.As both editorandpublisher, Einhorn occupied a uniquely powerful position. 

She was able to amass considerable resources to throw behind the work of fiction: a six-figure marketing budget; 10,000 early copies sent out to booksellers, many with handwritten notes; a lavish party at BookExpo more than six months before the novel’s publication. “I had never seen anything like it,” another Macmillan employee told me, “in terms of the sheer amount of attention and resources that were going into the book.” The early response was ecstatic. Booksellers loved it. Famous authors blurbed it in reverent terms, calling it “a moral compass” (Ann Patchett) and “rich in authenticity” (John Grisham).Not all the praise came from white writers. Sandra Cisneros, the Mexican American author of The House on Mango Street, declared, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas.” When Oprah chose it for her book club, she helped cement its fate as a best seller. The hype elevated Flatiron’s already high expectations. “There was certainly a feedback loop,” one employee said. Book clubs tend to pick books that are likely to be hits, and publishers depend on book clubs to raise the profiles of books they believe have hitmaking potential.Half a million copies were announced for American Dirt’s first print run; though not an unheard-of number for a book with a seven-figure advance, it turned heads in the industry. 

Einhorn and others had initially spoken of the book as a commercial page-turner, several Macmillan employees noted, but as the publication date drew closer, the editor seemed to lean into describing it as a literary masterpiece.Originally, advance copieshadbeen splashed with a quote from StephenKing—“One hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy”—but when Winslow’s Grapes of Wrath blurb arrived, it was swapped in. “There are certain ways of elevating a book so that it seems as though it is meant to define an experience,” one Macmillan employee explained. 

Einhorn had deemed American Dirt one of those rare, “profound” novels that “changes how we think about the world.” In an editor’s note affixed to advance copies, she stressed the author’s moral agenda, noting that Cummins had embarked on this project because migrants at the border were being portrayed as a “faceless brown mass.” The author, she explained, “wanted to give these people a face.” In a lengthy author’s note, Cummins elaborated further: She hoped that when readers saw migrants in the news, they might remember that “these people are people.” She confessed she had at times wished “someone slightly browner than me” would have written it, but her belief in the importance of her mission won out. “I thought, ‘If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?’ ” Stories about how Einhorn was talking up the book circulated around the office. Several employees recalled hearing about her performance at a sales conference where she had compared American Dirt to the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Roots, by the Black writer Alex Haley. (Through a publicist, Einhorn said she had no recollection of saying this.) “Roots was a book that explained and defined what slavery had been,” one employee said. “And Jeanine was going to be the person who defined what the migrant experience was.” All these choices made the book “something more than a thriller—something that was supposed to be important.” Some four months before the book’s release date, Einhorn moved on to a new position as the president and publisher of Holt, another Macmillan imprint. But she continued to oversee the publication of American Dirt—an unusual arrangement, employees told me. “She thought it was going to be a huge hit,” one said. “And she wanted to make sure she was the only one getting credit for it.”

IN HER ESSAY titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” Gurba criticizes American Dirt for its reliance on “overly ripe” Mexican stereotypes, for its portrayal of characters who are either comically evil or angelically good, for the inaccurate Spanish sprinkled in italics throughout the text, and for the “white gaze” of the authorial perspective, which “positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary.” Published in a small online journal, the essay didn’t make much noise, but a month later, a review by the New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal set the internet ablaze. “I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives,” Sehgal wrote. She did not believe Cummins’s identity should have barred her from writing about the topic. “But it has to be done well,” she told me. She was “shocked at the lack of care.” As many came to see it, Flatiron had inadvertently brought on this derision. “As soon as they called it a work of literature, they opened themselves up to a new level of criticism,” one publishing insider said. “They invited in readers who are much more well versed in conversations about race and immigration, and, of course, those readers will start to pick it apart.” By the time Oprah announced her pick, more than 140 writers, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kiese Laymon, and Rebecca Solnit, had signed a letter urging her to reconsider her choice. Salma Hayek apologized for promoting the book on Instagram and said she hadn’t actually read it. It’s possible the backlash would have died down if critics hadn’t uncovered several bizarre details from the book’s promotional campaign. 

Gurba unearthed a tacky photo from Cummins’s Facebook feed taken at the party Flatiron had thrown for her at BookExpo. The floral centerpieces were decorated with faux barbed wire—a reference to the illustration on the book cover. And while all modern publicity campaigns in publishing ask authors to draw out their personal relationship to the material, it appeared that Cummins’s connection had been cynically played up. The author had previously identified as white, but in a Times profile that came out shortly before the publication date, she said she was “white and Latina.” In her editor’s note, Einhorn had written that Cummins was the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant, and in her own note, Cummins described her fear that he might be arrested and deported. Neither mentioned that her husband is Irish, a fact that came as a surprise to some Macmillan employees. “I had assumed, based on the way the book had been presented to us, that he was from South or Central America,” one staffer said. “I found out he was Irish after publication day, and I would say my jaw dropped.” Through a publicist, Cummins declined to be interviewed for this piece. 

Last March, she told the Evening Standard that the author’s note was her biggest regret and suggested Flatiron had pushed her into writing it: “The first question in those early editorial meetings was always ‘Why did you write this book?’ I’d give my answer, but it wasn’t enough.” (The note was removed in the second printing.) On the day the barbed-wire centerpieces went viral, employees of Macmillan gathered for the annual all-staff meeting. Most had nothing to do with the publication of American Dirt, and many of the younger staffers in particular were upset by what they were learning about the process. 

One employee asked John Sargent, then the CEO of Macmillan, for his thoughts. “Are people saying this author is not allowed to write this book?” he replied. “Because a woman can write a book from the point of view of a man.” Some understood his perspective. Sargent “comes from a certain publishing tradition,” a Macmillan employee explained. “He is a staunch defender of freedom of speech, and he publishes all different points of view. When people objected to the book being written by someone who wasn’t of the ethnicity of the characters, on principle that upset him.” Others described his response as “bungled.” If the author’s identity were irrelevant, why had Cummins and Einhorn overstated her tenuous connections to Latin America and reached for authenticity as a marketing tool? He “hadn’t yet understood what it was that was bothering people,” one Macmillan employee said. “The problem wasn’t necessarily that she wasn’t Mexican— the problem was that we published the book in a way that we said defined Mexicans.” A day later, Macmillan released a statement noting that “the concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories,” were “valid.” Yet “we ultimately go back to the novel’s intention,” it continued. The story “gives us empathy with our fellow human beings who are struggling to find safety in an unsafe world.” “It was poorly written and poorly conceived,” one employee said of the statement. “Everyone at Flatiron was deeply unhappy with it.” Internally, the senior leadership stressed that the company should double down on its support of its author. “Amy was telling people, ‘We don’t need to pay attention to this. It’s going to go away,’” another staffer recalled. 

It did not go away. Activists began to organize protests, intending to hold them along the route of Cummins’s planned 40-stop book tour across the country. One of the stops was Blue Willow Bookshop, a store in a mostly Republican neighborhood on the west side of Houston. The owner, Valerie Koehler, a white woman, had loved American Dirt. So had her staff. They had all read it back in the summer and held a book club at Koehler’s house to discuss it. “We all thought it was a really good thriller, I’m not gonna lie,” she said. 

They related to the protagonist—a middle-class mother who happened to work in a bookstore. “She was a bookseller in a city, and we were booksellers in a city. And what would happen if we had to save our child? That was what we talked about.” Koehler and her staff were surprised when they learned about the backlash. “We all looked at each other and thought, What did we miss? Are we kind of tonedeaf?” Koehler said she was open to having a conversation about whether the book had flaws but grew upset when she received an email from a Latino radio host in Houston. The email, shared with New York, was polite and perfunctory, informing Koehler of the fact that he and other local activists planned to protest Cummins’s reading outside her store, but she had found it “threatening.” 

She worried the protesters would “make it very uncomfortable for the other people in the audience. And I want it to be a pleasant experience when you come to my bookstore,” she said. Koehler called Flatiron to say she could no longer participate in the tour. A few hours later, she learned the imprint had decided to cancel the tour entirely after having conversations with concerned booksellers like herself. The company released a lengthy statement, acknowledging it had made “serious mistakes” while accusing its critics of the same. It attributed the cancellation of the tour to “threats of physical violence” and “concerns about safety.” (A Macmillan employee told me the company had never received or reviewed any threats but had heard from a handful of booksellers who said that they had.) Many Macmillan employees found this statement more offensive than the first. “It made it seem like the people who were upset with her were dangerous, vicious savages,” a Latinx Macmillan employee said. 

One of the problems with the book itself “was a representation of Latinx people as vicious, dangerous savages,” the employee continued. That was “the worst message they could possibly send.” Recognizing the staff was unhappy, Macmillan held a series of town-hall meetings to listen to concerns. Over the course of these discussions, several Latinx employees stood up and said they had, in fact, expressed reservations about the book before it was published. “It’s unfortunate that those concerns were not heard,” one staffer said. 

Neither Cummins nor Einhorn had hired a sensitivity reader, but the author had shown the manuscript to several Latinx people and asked for feedback. An employee whose family was from Honduras wanted to know if any of these readers are from her homeland, where one of the main characters is supposed to be from. Einhorn said she didn’t know. “For you not to even differentiate between us is very upsetting,” the employee said. Someone else wanted to know how the barbedwire centerpieces “could have ever happened.” It happened because a Macmillan employee had sent an image of the book cover to the event coordinator at Gramercy Tavern to serve as inspiration. 

“The fact is we didn’t notice it was a problem,” Miller told the staff, “because we had a blind spot.” (The florist who designed the centerpieces had some regrets too. “I received the book last minute, and I was very literal about the cover art,” she told me. “I hadn’t read the book. If I knew more about it, I would have not done that.”) By this point, several people said, Miller seemed to be one of the few senior executives trying to understand the reaction. 

In late January, he began to call up the company’s harshest critics to talk. He reached out to someone who had tweeted that she hoped everyone at Flatiron would get diarrhea and to a young Latina bookstore employee in Seattle who had written a blog post about how upsetting she’d found Miller’s statement announcing the cancellation of Cummins’s tour. “He said, ‘I’m starting to see I made some missteps,’” the bookseller, Rosa Hernandez, told me. Several Macmillan employees pointedly noted that Einhorn didn’t seem to engage in a similar way. The editor attended an Oprah’s Book Club special dedicated to the conversation and answered a few questions, but for the most part, she seemed to her colleagues to avoid it entirely. “Amy just disappeared,” one employee said. Macmillan declined requests for interviews with all major players in the publication process. 

In response to questions regarding Einhorn, a publicist said she had encouraged the company to “lean in and address the criticism.” Several employees suggested that Macmillan has a “vested interest in preserving Amy’s reputation and future.” Some had heard that Holt had been struggling financially when Einhorn agreed to take over. “Holt couldn’t take another hit,” one employee said. They said that Einhorn, with her eye for commercial best sellers, had been tasked with reviving the brand. “Amy was doing a huge favor for the company by being willing to go in and try to fix it,” another employee said. “They needed her to be successful.”

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