Whether or not she always enjoys her status, Oprah Winfrey has great power by virtue of her fame and familiarity. One area where what she says means dollars in the pockets of small bookstore owners is her periodic recommendation of a book to read.
When Oprah speaks out on other issues such as #metoo or #blacklivesmatter, her opinions are heard. For the most part, she has shown both restraint and sensitivity in not opining more often or in more detail than appropriate. Nonetheless, I have total confidence that she has strong views that appear to be in accord with mine.
All of that is background for why I’m highly disappointed in both Oprah, the editor, and the publisher of this new novel touted as an up-and-coming bestseller. It appears to a poorly written series of cliched situations none of which would ever happen in the Latino community where the book is set. Didn’t anyone read this and think NO!!!!?????
The clumsy high-profile rollout of the polarizing novel points to a larger issue concerning how new books are promoted.
By David Bowles, New York Times
Mr. Bowles is a writer and translator.
- Jan. 27, 2020, 7:29 a.m. ET
Corpus Christi, Tex. — You’ve most likely caught wind of the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s newly published novel “American Dirt.” In it, Lydia Quixano Pérez, a Mexican bookseller, finds herself fleeing to the United States with her son Luca, pursued by an obsessed drug cartel boss. The telenovela plot is a pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture, from a massacre at a quinceañera to the inexplicable choice of a relatively wealthy woman to leap onto La Bestia, a gang-controlled train — rather than just take a plane to Canada.
Despite the multiple cultural inaccuracies and Spanish dialogue of Google Translate quality sprinkled throughout, the manuscript was acquired by Flatiron Books for seven figures in a nine-way bidding war. Hailed as a modern-day “The Grapes of Wrath” by the writer Don Winslow, it was heavily promoted for a year, poised to be the book on the immigrant crisis.
But “American Dirt” has now been largely rejected by the very Mexicans and Mexican Americans it was meant to foreground, the “faceless brown mass” Ms. Cummins — who has a Puerto Rican grandmother and identifies as white — sought to humanize.
That “brown mass” includes the people in my Mexican-American community here in South Texas.
The white saviorism is tough for me to swallow, and not just because I’m a Chicano writer critical of “American Dirt.” My hometown library was chosen in late 2019 to be part of a pilot partnership between Oprah’s Book Club, the American Library Association and local library book groups. The libraries would receive several boxes of books to use with patrons in their book club, as well as other discussion and promotional materials.
Last week I was in touch with Kate Horan, the director of the McAllen Public Library here, via phone and email. She told me she felt “excited and honored” by the news, “proud that our library on the border with Mexico was recognized and selected to be part of a new initiative.”
No one at the library knew which book had been selected: Ms. Winfrey keeps titles a tightly guarded secret. But Ms. Horan was told that it would be “the most talked about book of the year.” Instructions were given: Upon arrival of the shipment, the library should film an “unboxing” video and submit it to Ms. Winfrey.
The boxes arrived on Jan. 17. Upon opening them, Ms. Horan said, her “heart sank,” and she immediately recoiled at this “deliberate assumption that libraries on the border, who were selected to receive the books, would be automatic endorsers, given the subject matter.”
She sent the unboxing video off, and after two agonizing days consulting with her predominantly Latinx staff and others, she decided to send the books back, and politely declined to participate in the pilot program.
What Ms. Horan did is a rare thing to see from a person in power within the literary world — a world where it’s much more likely that the gatekeepers and institutional systems in place will fashion books out of fraught manuscripts simply because they are practically guaranteed to stir up buzz.
Much of the problem lies with the publishing industry. For each of the biggest companies — including Macmillan and Simon & Schuster — a book is anointed each season or year as The One. The limelight is thrown upon it. The bulk of the promotional budget is funneled toward it. Reporters are marshaled to support it. The book is pushed hard with established chains and indie booksellers.
They make it a success. Ostensibly, this effort offsets the weaker sales of other titles. One or two big hits, such as Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” or Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” can subsidize a publishing house’s less trendy offerings. But look too hard at this model, and its flaws become clear. It costs a fortune to make a book a best seller. (Again, Ms. Cummins received a seven-figure deal for “American Dirt.”)
And there are other allied mechanisms applying pressure to the market, such as endorsements by celebrities, tastemakers and influencers. Early “American Dirt” blurbs from prominent writers, several of them Latinas (Sandra Cisneros, Erika Sánchez), have recently been underscored by book selfies from prominent Latina movie stars (Yalitza Aparicio, Salma Hayek, Gina Rodríguez).
Perhaps the most significant imprimatur a new release can get is selection by Oprah’s Book Club. Established in 1996, the initiative selects up to five books each year based on criteria known only to Ms. Winfrey. The list is mostly books by white and African-American authors, ranging from obscure literary fiction to pulpy popular thrillers. Uncomfortably, not oneof the 82 books selected so far was written by a Mexican or Mexican-American. Only four are by Latinx or Latin American authors.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah’s Book Club has proved to be the greatest outside influence on sales in the market. As you might imagine, there’s a downside to her ability to ensure a best seller: The economist Craig L. Garthwaite has found that for at least 12 weeks after the club’s announcement, sales of other adult books decline.
In turning down the offer with Oprah’s Book Club, Ms. Horan was willing to put her reputation and job on the line. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this act. Ms. Horan runs what is believed to be one of the largest single-story libraries in the country. She holds leadership positions in multiple organizations. She’s a powerful figure in literacy on the state and national level.
And she was a collaborator, standing with us. The underrepresented. The less powerful. The A.L.A. knew from the beginning what title had been selected. That’s why they suggested the McAllen Public Library as the best venue for promoting this atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.