THE CUTESY AND THE CRUEL
Revisiting 'American Dirt'
It’s been a big week for New York Times columnist and former Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. She’s been profiled by Molly Fisher in the New Yorker, and today she has a column out in the Times revisiting the controversy over the 2020 novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. “Looking back now,” Paul writes, “it’s clear that the ‘American Dirt’ debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors.” This is nonsense. American Dirt is a lousy novel, a trashy piece of commercial fiction, full of clichés and clumsy metaphors, piles of them, and its critics, myself among them, were correct. The blurbers and reviewers who praised it were wrong, or, to be more precise, they have bad taste. They like heart-wrenching exploitation melodrama, and they were tricked into thinking that they were reading for a good cause: that of the imperiled migrant heroine. The novel was puffed up as a book with literary merit, compared ludicrously with Steinbeck, and marketed as a brave confrontation with a a vexing social problem. Beyond the issue of a white woman with a Puerto Rican grandmother writing about Mexican immigrants and their Mexican drug cartel pursuers, the book is simply a work of kitsch and it would be bad no matter who wrote it. I wrote about it at the time for the London Review of Books, and you can read my piece below. In an earlier version, I wrote that “American Dirt is a vampire novel by genre; the problem is that the vampires are Mexican henchmen of a drug cartel.” When you write a novel with inhuman characters, people will notice, and you might seem racist, even when your purported goal is “empathy” (or whatever).
Paul writes that “publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire.” Maybe publishers are actually afraid that they are stupid. But they are not stupid. They are actually pretty good at knowing what sells. They are afraid that their cynical marketing campaigns can’t thread the needle between exploitative, pornographic, commercial trash and virtue-endowing social justice literature. Obviously the ability to thread that needle could be tremendously lucrative. And in fact, American Dirt was a bestseller for months. The book made its publisher and its author a lot of money. The backlash from critics, foremost among them Myriam Gurba, could not stop that. Paul writes that Cummins has not since been asked to blurb another author’s book. Boo-hoo!
The blurb system is corrupt on its face. Blurbs may be earnest and true, but they are always the product of favors being called in: from authors’ friends, from agents’ other clients, from publishers’ other authors. Everyone knows this. Many reviewers get things wrong or simply have corny taste. American Dirt is indeed a page turner, but if you go slow enough to actually read the writing you will notice that the writing is terrible, sometimes verging on the nonsensical. Paul writes:
A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive [NB: strange for the former editor of the Times Book Review to call out a critic for being ‘discursive’—how else are you supposed to write criticism?] and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.
“It was a witch hunt. Villagers lit their torches,” recalled the novelist and bookseller Ann Patchett, whose Nashville home Cummins stayed in after her publisher told her the tour was over. The two were up all night crying. “The fall that she took, in my kitchen, from being at the top of the world to just being smashed and in danger — it was heartbreaking.”
How did the literary world let it happen?
The literary world, to the extent that such a thing exists, in fact made it happen. The trick for the publishers would have been to sneak a bad book with fancy blurbs onto the bestsellers without anyone with any taste, i.e. the actual literary world, noticing.
Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt (Tinder, £14.99) begins with a massacre. Fourteen people are killed at a birthday barbecue: the family – husband, mother, cousins etc – of Lydia Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, who are hiding in the bathroom. One of the three assailants uses the toilet, unaware that mother and son, the actual targets of the raid, are cowering in the shower: ‘Their eyes are closed, their bodies motionless, even their adrenaline is suspended within the calcified will of their stillness.’ This sentence is typical of Cummins’s tendency to increase the emotional pressure at the expense of meaning. Can adrenaline be suspended? Does someone’s stillness have a will of its own, one prone to sudden calcification? Of course, we know what she’s trying to say: they’re scared.
The opening scene establishes Cummins’s aesthetic: horror on the one hand, cuteness on the other. Our attention is drawn to a drop of blood on a green tile, the result of Luca biting his lip. Will this blatantly cinematic detail give them away? Lydia wipes it up just in time. The murderers eat some of the meat left on the grill: chicken shouldn’t go to waste, one of them says, ‘not when there are children starving in Africa’ – an odd crack for a hitman but a cliché of American TV. Luca likes his drumsticks ‘only a tiny bit blackened, the crispy tang of the skins’. After the attack, his dead cousin Adrian’s eyes are ‘open to the sky’, the birthday girl’s white dress is stained with ‘brilliant splatters of colour’ and their grandmother’s hair is ‘matted with stuff that should never exist outside the neat encasement of a skull’. Lydia wonders whether seeing the mutilated bodies is better or worse for her son than the scenes of slaughter he might ‘conjure up with the radiance of his imagination’. She has a tendency to think in pop-therapeutic formulas, as does Cummins.
Lydia is the college-educated, bilingual owner of a bookshop in Acapulco, who considers herself ‘a moderately attractive but not beautiful woman’. The man responsible for the carnage is her best customer, Javier, a frustrated poet (‘my life hasn’t turned out as I intended’). Lydia thinks his poetry is bad but finds his recitation of it endearing. They bond over the fact that both their fathers died of cancer, and over their experience of parenthood: Javier says his daughter, Marta, is ‘the only good thing I’ve ever done in my life’. There’s an obvious dramatic irony to the backstory because we already know Javier is a mass murderer. (What a strange way for a book lover to behave!) Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, who as he dies falls on the spatula he was using to barbecue the chicken, had exposed Javier as the head of the cocaine cartel that had recently taken over Acapulco.
After the slaughter, Lydia and Luca flee with her mother’s ATM card and thousands of pesos she kept under her mattress. They start off in style. Lydia checks into a luxury hotel by the beach under an assumed name, Fermina Daza, the heroine of Love in the Time of Cholera. Tipped off by the desk clerk (who, like the cops and anyone who works for a bank, an airline or the government, is on the take), Javier sends Lydia a copy of the novel – oddly, of the English translation. It’s ‘one of their many shared favourites’. Inside is a creepy note, and Javier has also highlighted a passage in which Fermina Daza is addressed by the man she rejected five decades earlier: ‘Fermina ... I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.’ What will this all-knowing middlebrow psycho stoop to next?