[Libs-Or] "American Dirt" and the Social Justice Warriors

Nicholas Schiller infoliberty at gmail.com
Tue Feb 4 12:31:04 PST 2020

Hi Tony, I want to refute a few assertions from this email and perhaps a
inference or two that I'm making about your post.

First, I think we all could do with some factual context about the American
Dirt and Flatiron Press situation.

   - American Dirt is a NYTimes Bestseller on it's release week. It sold
   50,000 copies
   - Jeanine Cumming received a seven-figure advance for writing the novel
   - American Dirt is still an Oprah's book club pick

There can be no conclusions drawn from this context other than that
American Dirt is a very successful book. In light of this, perhaps you may
want to retract your claims of censorship. (As an aside, our profession has
a special relationship with censorship. Opposing it is a core professional
duty. However, also as a profession it is in our core values to understand
that censorship applies only to governmental actions. Could you please
share which government group is repressing the book? Which libraries are
removing it from their collections?)

As for criticism of the book, librarians also have book criticism in our
core professional values. One might suspect that your reaction to American
Dirt has more to do with the financial impact of the book's unpopularity on
the publisher than on our professional library values. We do not hold
publisher profits to be sacred. Flatiron invested heavily in the book and
it turns out they made a bad investment. (As an aside, something they could
have avoided by paying money to sensitivity readers.) Jeanine Cumming is
free to write her book. She is free to get her book published, but unlike
your letter seems to assume, she is not entitled to sales or a successful
book tour. If people do not like her book, these critics are free to talk
about why they do not like her book to other people and all of those people
are free not to buy the book. We, as readers, are not required to like or
purchase this book simply because Flatiron paid out large sums of money on
publicity and celebrity spokespeople.

This seems like a very simple point, but intellectual freedom does not
require anyone to like a particular book. Certainly enough people have
liked American Dirt enough to put it on the NY Times bestseller list. As
for the book tour, Flatiron Press is more than free to continue to pay for
it. You email suggests that threats of violence discouraged the tour. I
suggest a much more banal reason: the critics are right. The book has
significant flaws and these flaws mean that sales from the tour will not
recoup the costs of publicity. That's not censorship, that's capitalism.

For all that, I expect libraries will buy and circulate the book. Oprah and
the NY Times will ensure that. Cultural appropriation is not a crime. It's
bad manners at least. The book seems aimed at a Latinx market, and the
outsider-written story failed to resonate with that market. In the end, the
appropriate way, from my perspective, to frame this conflict is not as
censorship or silencing. Rather, it is the story of an author who received
a seven-figure advance to write about other cultures. In the end, people
from those other cultures didn't care for it and that bad opinion ruined
the market for the book. It's a story about a business not understanding
it's target market.

Maybe I've repeated this too many time, but Jeanine Cumming is free to
write whatever books she wants to write. She is not, on the other hand,
entitled to sales if her words fail to please the consumers. Successful
book tours are not a entitlement.

Nicholas Schiller

On Tue, Feb 4, 2020 at 6:39 AM Tony Greiner <tony_greiner at hotmail.com>

> Librarianship is in danger of losing one of its foundations- that no one
> can tell you what you can read, or what you can write.  Let's not let that
> slip away.  As I hope you know, Jeanine Cummins' new novel *American
> Dirt, *which tells the story of a middle-class Mexican woman suddenly
> reduced to refugee status, has been the subject of attacks from those who
> want to silence any voice or story they do not approve of. These attacks
> are not primarily on the quality of the book, but on the idea that a white
> American woman dare write a fictional story about Mexicans. The censors,
> and the threats of violence from their supporters have led to the
> cancellation of Cummin's book tour, including an appearance at Powells.
> Paired with that bigotry, the idea that a writer should be silenced if her
> characters don't match her skin color has been given serious hearings in
> the media. To my knowledge, only the wise and big-hearted Oprah WInfrey has
> taken the position that the book should be viewed on its merits, and last I
> heard, she was still planning on featuring the book on one of her programs.
> That said, the advocates of silencing others have tasted victory in
> cancelling the book tour. They may choose to continue their campaign of
> censorship by calling for removal of the book from library shelves. With
> that real possibility in mind (and given the silence from the American
> Library Association, which has chosen to look the other way,) I offer this
> defense that librarians may choose to take against the censors.  It is a
> list of books with white protagonists written by famous people of color.
>  (Some of the titles on this list were found in the research of Robert
> Fikes, a librarian at San Diego State University, and Martin Japtok of
> Palomar College.) If the censors assert that a white woman should not write
> fiction about a Mexican woman, then ask them if they wish to censor these
> authors as well.  Included is a thought from a better writer and thinker
> than I can ever hope to be.
> Tony Greiner
> * “No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to
> understand, to learn, to inhabit another world”- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
> Novels with a protagonist of one race or culture written by an author of
> another race or culture: Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck:  Tortilla Flat; The
> Pearl. Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck:  Good Earth, and others. Buck has also
> been a target of race-based criticism, but she spoke Cantonese, and her
> work has been praised by Anchee Min. There is a statue of her in Nanjing,
> China.   Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.  Remains of the Day.  David
> Guterson. Snow Falling on Cedars. Winner of the Pen/Faulkner award for
> Fiction, 1995. Dubose Heyward. Porgy. Praised by Langston Hughes, who said
> that  Heyward's  brings "with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities
> in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive." This book is
> the basis for George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”  "Porgy and Bess"
> has had some criticism, but was also praised by Duke Ellington and recorded
> by many black jazz musicians. Gershwin’s will stipulates that the opera may
> only be produced with a black cast. James Patterson.  A series of detective
> novels featuring Alex Cross. James Baldwin.  Short Story: “The Man Child.”
> Ann Petry.  Country Place. Petry isn’t well known now, but her first novel,
> The Street, (set in Harlem) was the first novel by an African-American
> woman to sell 1,000,000 copies.  Richard Wright. Savage Holiday. Wright’s
> novel about an insurance executive has no black characters.  Zora Neale
> Hurston. Seraph on the Suwanee. This novel looks at the life of poor white
> ‘crackers’ in Florida. *
> * Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  Dunbar, better known as a poet, had two novels
> with only white characters, The Uncalled (1898) and The Love of Landry
> (1900) a western. *
> **tony_greiner at hotmail.com**
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