My curiosity regarding the new novel American Dirt, already piqued, got another boost, given discussion on NPR this morning. As the Chicago Tribune noted,
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.
What I suspect -- and can only suspect, not having received an ARC and so not having yet read the novel -- is that the author, Jeanine Cummins, wrote the best novel she could but wasn’t the original and brilliant writer that demanding, discriminating readers were hoping for. If this is the case, I have to feel a little sorry for the author, awarded a huge monetary advance, yes, but now publicly castigated for being a poor writer. I’m sure she would have equalled Shakespeare had it been within her power.
Often (how often I couldn’t say) it is the marketing division that drives a decisions to publish at all, as well as how big a budget a given book will get: the higher the expected profit figures, the more generous the advance. One speaker on the radio called American Dirt something like (I don’t recall exactly and have to paraphrase) an exciting and entertaining potboiler, which is my clue to expect something like The Help or Gone With the Wind -- that is, a novel expected to be a huge popular bestseller though probably unlikely to be a literary prize-winner or future classic. Again, if I’m right about this, it’s no surprise that a publisher would fork over a huge advance. And Oprah loved the book! (So did Stephen King.) Remember, Oprah also loved The Help and even chose to bring it to the screen. And I love Oprah — don’t get me wrong! I would say, though, that her reading instincts often line up with easily accessible stories, which is to say memoirs and fiction within the reach of the popular imagination -- though sometimes, it’s true, she convinces average Americans to stretch their imaginations.
At any rate, as controversy rages over American Dirt, there are the usual “two sides” arrayed against each other in the popular media, one group crying out against cultural appropriation, the other objecting (just as loudly) to censorship and political correctness. There are also those who critique the book on its literary merits. What I anticipate with greatest curiosity, however, is a widening public conversation, with as many different voices as they are in the American reading public, the kind of public conversation that grew out of discussion of The Help (see here and here) and was, to me, much more interesting than the novel that sparked the conversation. Because we do need to hear from many more previously silenced voices in the American public forum.