Publishing's Reckoning

Controversy over the Oprah-endorsed American Dirt has rocked an entire industry. We go inside the fight to transform the book world.
By David Canfield
March 09, 2020

The meeting happened on Feb. 3. There had been reported threats of violence on one end, death on the other. Outside its walls, Oprah Winfrey was enduring withering criticism; Stephen King too. Town halls were sprouting across the country. A nationwide tour had been canceled. For many, this wasn’t enough. And all over the publication of a well-intentioned novel by an unknown author.

This was not what Flatiron Books had in mind for Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, its 2020 crown jewel acquired in the seven figures by Amy Einhorn — the famed editor behind past blockbusters like The Help — and all but willed to commercial success. The industry buzz, even at rival publishing houses, was that this was the modern Grapes of Wrath; in a blurb, King dubbed it “extraordinary.” Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, hailed it as a definitive migrant novel. But the book, about a Mexican woman and her son fleeing perilous conditions for a new life in the U.S., had yet to be tested by the public. Same goes for Cummins. Born in Spain and raised in Maryland (her grandmother was Puerto Rican), she’d previously published a few books. This was poised to be her breakout.

Despite early praise from authors such as Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros, Dirt soon faced overwhelming backlash from the Latinx reading community. In December, Chicana author Myriam Gurba (Mean) posted an incendiary review arguing that the book trafficked in clichés about Mexican people that were worthy of a President Trump rally; she assailed its “trauma porn” structure and lambasted Cummins for writing a migration story outside of her experience that rang of “racism” and inaccuracy. The piece picked up steam ahead of Dirt’s Jan. 21 publication, and went viral once Winfrey picked the novel for her hot Apple TV+ book club.

Sales have been huge — Dirt debuted atop the New York Times best-seller list and has already sold well over 100,000 copies — with public outcry no less vigorous, particularly as insensitive elements of the novel’s marketing resurfaced. Large floral centerpieces wrapped in barbed wire went on display at its BookExpo party last May. Vitriol flooded Twitter after Gurba reposted photos. Pulitzer Prize-finalist author Laila Lalami called the arrangements “repulsive”; The Queen of the Night author Alexander Chee described them as “depraved.” Winfrey later acknowledged the controversy, saying she’d recognized “a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion.” (Her representatives did not respond to requests for further comment.)

NEW YORK - JANUARY 21: Oprah Winfrey with author Jeanine Cummins Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil Co-Hosts of CBS THIS MORNING. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
CBS via Getty Images

The morning of Jan. 29, 82 authors, including Carmen Maria Machado and Rebecca Solnit, jointly published an open letter on Literary Hub asking Winfrey to rescind her selection. (She did not.) More added their names; 142 signatures are now featured. One such writer, Ingrid Rojas Contreras (whose best-selling debut, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was published in 2018), had been thinking about her and other Latinx writers’ experiences trying to sell their books, and the rejections they’ve faced. “There’s a desire for [stories about the border] to be lighter, to be easier to digest,” she says. “The pain that we carry because of our experiences creates
a sensitivity. It’s interesting to me that only on the outside could [someone] have thought to write American Dirt, or a book like it. [Because] all of that was missing.”

That same day, Flatiron’s president, Bob Miller, released a statement announcing the suspension of Cummins’ book tour due to “threats of physical violence” and broader safety concerns. (Several events had already been canceled.) Miller admitted, “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.” He apologized for, among other things, the barbed-wire centerpieces. He added that he was committed to improvement.

That’s how Miller and Gurba found themselves in the same room a few days later. Indeed, while Flatiron was doing damage control, a bona fide movement emerged. Gurba and David Bowles, a Chicano author and professor who’d been similarly critical of Dirt on Twitter, were contacted by Roberto Lovato, cofounder of the Latinx organizing group Presente.org, to join forces. They developed the campaign #DignidadLiteraria (or Literary Dignity) and started holding events nationwide to advocate for lasting change in publishing. (Per a 2019 study, the industry is 6 percent Latinx.) They proposed a sit-down with Macmillan, and the publisher agreed to a meeting in its New York offices.

The discussion turned tense. “Bob Miller switched gears when he began to tone-police me,” Gurba recounts to EW. “He kept saying that I was a mean person.” Adds Bowles, who corroborates: “We were like, ‘Don’t ask a group of Latinx people to sit down at a table [with you] and expect them to talk to you in this overly civilized, rational way.’ ” Gurba, who has received death threats in response to her Dirt commentary, also says Miller repeatedly claimed Cummins was “in danger,” at which point another Flatiron editor in the room undercut Miller, revealing that Cummins had not received any death threats. “It sucked the air out of the room,” Gurba recalls. (Flatiron declined an interview for this story, and had no further comment.)

Hispanic writers raise theirs fists after meeting with the CEO of MacMillan USA and executives of its division Flatiron to protest the publication of the novel "American Dirt" in New York City on February 2, 2020. - The writers have created a new movement called Dignidad Literaria to push for more diversity in the publishing industry, both in terms of staff and number of books published by Hispanic authors. (Photo by Laura BONILLA CAL / AFP) (Photo by LAURA BONILLA CAL/AFP via Getty Images)
LAURA BONILLA CAL/AFP via Getty Images

Macmillan ultimately acceded to three action items. Per Bowles, president Don Weisberg initially resisted agreeing to anything within their roughly two-hour window. “They just wanted to listen to us and take notes and get our feedback and then [say], ‘We’ll get back to you.’ We were not having any of that,” Bowles says. “I said, ‘Don, you are the president of one of the most powerful publishing companies in the United States. You can absolutely make some determination today.’ ” Macmillan committed to substantially increasing Latinx representation among authors and staff, developing an action plan to do so in 90 days, and meeting again in early March to assess progress. The initiative, Macmillan sources say, is being taken seriously. “I actually feel really, really confident,” Bowles says. “What we’re hoping to see, I think we will see it.”

Gurba did not expect her essay to resonate much, let alone spark an industry’s reckoning. “As a Mexican-American woman, I’m used to being ignored,” she says. “ I didn’t imagine that the words that I penned would have any tangible consequences. Every day I’m taken seriously, I’m shocked.” She’s inspired more to share their experiences. Rojas Contreras went on to write her own widely read piece about authorship via The Cut, and joined Lovato for a #DignidadLiteraria town hall in San Francisco. “What is in our power to do is to apply pressure,” Rojas Contreras says. Gurba is more skeptical — “a verbal promise is meaningless without actions,” she reminds — but all agree they must seize this opportunity beyond what started everything. “For the most part [we’ve] pivoted away from American Dirt,” Bowles says. “The cat’s out of the bag. We’re moving on to the bigger fight.”

Illustration by Doug Chayka for EW

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