Writing Across Asymmetries

Why does Twitter hate American Dirt

Macmillan Publishers released Jeanine Cummings’ fourth novel with every advantage an author could hope for: a seven-figure advance, an endorsement from Oprah’s Book Club, positive blurbs from industry-leading publications. American Dirt was projected to be a breakout success before its first sale.
The most comprehensive explanation for the novel’s controversy is the simplest: People hated it. Four days before its Jan. 21 release, a New York Times review imputed that it “flounders and fails” while “mauling the English language.” CNN and other major news organizations began to cover squabbles between critics, activists, and novelists that spanned the breadth of digital and print media. Cummings canceled her book tour due to threats against her physical safety.

This attention is extraordinary for a work by a relatively unknown author, especially a novel of American Dirt’s middling quality. As with any Twitter-worthy drama, this disaster had another dimension that commanded attention: race. Cummings identifies as white and has never lived in Mexico, while her novel follows a Mexican family fleeing cartel violence to the United States. So amidst surprise that Macmillan threw its weight behind such a poorly written book, Twitter developed an embittered discourse about positionality, privilege, and voice. 

One camp demands that Cummings yield space to authors of the characters’ background. Cummings wished that “someone slightly browner” could write her book. Well, this lot argues, they have. Others defend the novel as true to the inventive spirit that distinguishes good literature. While some shy away from defending her execution, they stand their ground on Cummings’ right to claim this narrative terrain.

American Dirt still hit the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. But, in response, authors and publishers began promoting novels by Latinx authors which, in some cases, sold out—a clear repudiation of Macmillan’s decision to promote and fund American Dirt. I fully appreciate the subsequent support for authors of color. Many of the circulated titles are sorely underread and underappreciated. But arguments raised against American Dirt do little to clarify what one should expect of the industry. Is it helpful to think about literature as a zero-sum game, one in which some authors take space from others? If so, are we condemned to write our own experiences and give up pure creation? 

A third camp, perhaps the most nuanced of the lot, suggests that writing about marginalized groups, especially those underrepresented in literature, entails a unique set of ethical obligations. Rather than categorically barring a set of authors from writing about a set of experiences, this position evaluates each work in its ability to responsibly portray its subjects. 

Another buzzy contemporary novel explores the possibility of such portrayals: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. In the first section we encounter a young writer, Alice, who pursues a relationship with a much older, more famous author. Given Halliday’s own history with novelist Philip Roth, the reader itches with speculation about parallels between the romantic trajectories of author and character, writer and written. 

The second section lurches us, unexplained, onto an entirely different topography. We meet Amar, an Iraqi-American who has been stopped by travel authorities in Heathrow. The text cuts between the airport scene and Amar’s memories, snatching the reader from the remove of the first section into an intimate psychology. 

And just as abruptly, the third section returns us to the world of the first. An interview with Ezra Blazer (Philip Roth’s alter ego) reveals that the second section was written by the young writer from the first. The novel wrinkles itself, folding authorial responsibility back to Alice. 
Unlike American Dirt, this novel—which reduces to a qualified endorsement of straying from one’s lane—was met with acclaim. An indisputable factor of this divergence is the superiority of Asymmetry’s writing. The characterization is more credible, the edifice of the text fuller. Halliday’s world-building is self-aware, self-critical. Alice writes to challenge her own powers of invention, imagining herself into an entirely unfamiliar life. 

Yet the criticism of American Dirt extends past quality—it is about authorship. Cummings stands accused of taking space from Latinx writers who are more qualified to represent the characters in her novel. In these terms, Halliday commits the same sins as Cummings. In this rendering, the argument against American Dirt demands that novels correspond to things as they are. Firsthand experience injects reality into the world of the novel, providing hard-earned credibility to the authorial voice. We can rest assured that the depiction is “responsible” because it is of the writer’s world, art reflecting life. 

This desire for convergence between author and background presupposes that these writers portray their context more accurately. Halliday’s diffusion of authorship challenges the very premises of the debate. It is an illusion that exaggerates the distance an author can close in her writing. Halliday’s identity fades into the background as readers encounter one fully realized piece of fiction inside another.

The problem with American Dirt is not its quality. Nor its author. The misdeed is a betrayal of fiction’s most central self-conceptions. Fiction does not claim to be true because it accurately represents the world as it exists. If that were the goal, we would be better off reading anthropological studies or biographies. The truth of good fiction is generated by the reality we find on the page, in the rigor and coherence of the author’s craft.

In the case of American Dirt, the writing falls short of this truth. It fails to imbue the characters with internal complexity. It fails to interrogate the premises of its plot or the assumptions of its world. Cummings’ book is not racist because it extends beyond the author’s experience. It is racist by diminishing the very people it purports to uplift, in failing on its own terms to elevate itself to truth. Halliday succeeds where Cummings fails because Halliday meets the demands of empathy and imagination that such a project requires. More than coherence, she offers dimension. Writing outside of experience and without depth is more than futile. It is harmful. 

None of this is to say that the solution is a better book about Mexico by a white author. It is to instead propagate precision in our dissent. The danger of throwing money at Cummings is not in her whiteness, or in her relationship with the subject matter. It is in the arrogance with which she approaches difference. 

Uncoupling identity from authority is a vote of confidence in authors of color. They do not need the protection of cordoned-off material or zoned literary geography. What these writers need instead is recognition of their writing as the products of skillfully plied craft. If large publishing houses are incapable of completing this function, then it is time to rethink decision-making power in our literary world. By these lights, the great villain of this story is not Cummings. It is Macmillan.

We must advance this conversation past identity to center on the gatekeepers of our written culture, to truly interrogate how it is formed. We undertake this challenge not to prioritize representation over quality, but because with American Dirt we have sacrificed both.

 

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