[Libs-Or] A response to critics of my post about "American Dirt"

Nicholas Schiller infoliberty at gmail.com
Wed Feb 5 12:21:19 PST 2020

Tony, I think you will find that it is not the case that people disagree
with the general concept of freedom of expression, but rather that we find
your choice to frame criticism of American Dirt as (and only as) an attack
on the author's freedom of expression and the result of a hard-and-fast
rule that cross-cultural writing is taboo is somewhat-less-than-helpful.

If you are interested in my answer about why the books you have listed do
not suffer the same fate as American Dirt, I have two answers. The first is
that there is no such cross-cultural rule. and that criticism of Flatiron's
publicity decisions are not based on violating that rule. The second is
that the bulk of the books you listed were written before Eduard Said's
groundbreaking book Orientalism was published in 1978. Said's work began a
movement in linguistics and literature studies to be aware of how a culture
is portrayed and who is doing the portraying. Western culture cannot
"unlearn" what Said taught us and we cannot (responsibly) read and
criticize work about cross-cultural writing without also examining who is
doing the writing.

For a better contemporary example, I suggest we look at David Mitchell's
novel Cloud Atlas (one I believe we read together in a book group) and the
film version of the story. There were critics of the film's casting
decision who stated that any white actor playing an Asian role is an act of
"yellowface" and is taking paying work away from Asian actors and giving it
to white actors. That is a legitimate argument (one I might levy at
Scarlett Johansson's role choices) but in this case, it would have been
impossible to tell Mitchell's tale of the persistence of the soul across
generations and making that particular film was important enough to break
the rule. That is an example where discussing the morality of creating art
or imitating other cultures might be interesting and bear fruit.

The example of American Dirt, however, does not rise to that level. There
appears to be no reason to label negative reviews of the book as "attacks."
People are allowed to have negative opinions about author's work. There
does not appear to by any valid justification to support the claims that a
white author is being silenced. (at least none that have been offered in
this list-serve thread) The author has been published, the advance has been
paid, booksellers and librarians have made it available to the public.
Librarians are not required to like American Dirt just because Flatiron
spent money to get us to do that. We are free to be informed by Said's
concept of Orientalism to critique the choice of presenting an outsider's
fetishized group in place of that group's own words. Cummins does not have
a right to be the focus of a conversation about the experience of being a
latinx immigrant in our society. She can say whatever she wants, but we are
not required to give her words the primary place. We can ask why we didn't
give Helena María Viramontes a seven-figure advance for Under the Feet of
Jesus without silencing Cummins. As I said, Western Literary culture cannot
unlearn what Said taught us.

As for censorship, you are correct that most definitions include
non-governmental versions. I am comfortable using "things protected by the
first-amendment" as a definition of censorship, since there are a great
many of idea suppressing things that are not bad (Examples: copy editing
and peer review) but I will grant you the point.

Nicholas Schiller

On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 7:13 AM Tony Greiner <tony_greiner at hotmail.com>

> * The range of responses on my post about how libraries can protect
> themselves from the censors of American Dirt makes me think that the
> writers of some of these posts didn’t bother to read mine, just as I doubt
> that all the people who signed the letter to Oprah read American Dirt in
> the week between its publication and the sending of the letter. But I will
> respond to the main statements in opposition to my idea that we should
> defend American Dirt should the censors come to our library doors,  and to
> stand up for Cummins or any author from being mobbed by those who seek
> political gain at her expense. First, some respondents made of point of
> saying that their library had bought copies, of the book, and that no
> library had burned or banned it.  That's true- but I never said that those
> things occurred.   I do anticipate that there may be those that call for
> libraries to remove or not buy the book.  If that happens, I offered an
> argument that libraries can use in defense of having books where an author
> of one race writes about another. That is a defense of libraries, and I do
> not understand why some librarians reject that idea. Nick Schiller put
> forth the idea that censorship can only be done by a government. That is a
> common idea, but it is incorrect.  For years, including my childhood, the
> Catholic Church published a List of Prohibited Books, commonly called “The
> Index.” Practicing Catholics were told they needed to get permission before
> they could read them- and I remember my mother consulting the list one day
> after mass. My understanding is that this list had a chilling effect on
> publishers, who tended to avoid publishing books that would be avoided by
> members of the largest denomination in the country. That’s censorship. The
> “Motion Picture Production Code” also known as the “Hays Code” was a
> voluntary creation of Hollywood Studios that prevented directors from
> making films that had vulgar words, passionate kissing, cursing,
> homosexuality, miscegenation, and other things.  This code lasted until
> 1968, when the present ratings system was adopted. The “Comics Code
> Authority” served a similar function. Censorship can be practiced by
> non-governmental bodies. In this case, the attacks on author Jeanine
> Cummins have the clear intent of chilling future authors who want try
> writing a book with characters from another culture, and publishers who are
> willing to distribute their work. To say this is not a form of censorship
> is disingenuous. If some people are unhappy with how books by Latin writers
> are promoted, then they have the option of working with publishers, or
> starting their own company. Dragging down an author who has had success in
> the business end of publishing doesn’t elevate anyone else.  As for the
> “Cultural Appropriation” claim, that is a Potemkin Village. (Is it cultural
> appropriation that I used a Russian term?)   I shared the list of
> distinguished writers who wrote about another race and culture. Where are
> the cries of cultural appropriation against those writers? An writer has
> the right to telling the story they want to tell.  Publishers have the
> right to promote and sell the titles they choose. We don't need another
> Index.  If someone doesn’t like a book, they can criticize it on its
> literary merits, but to attack the author, claiming that she does not have
> the right to tell a story of her choosing because her skin is of the wrong
> color, or she was born in a different country, or speaks a different
> language is wrong. The name-calling and threats to disrupt a book signing
> is immoral, perhaps criminal. Librarians should oppose efforts to silence
> anyone’s voice.  Lastly, my concerns about these attacks have nothing to do
> with “White Privilege.”  They have to do with protecting any writers who
> are attacked by the mob because they dared to stretch themselves and write
> a story of another culture, or gender, or race. The color of my skin has
> nothing to do with it.  My commitment to the core library value of
> supporting Freedom of Expression has everything to do with it. I am sorry
> that there are librarians who have abandoned that principal.  *
> **tony_greiner at hotmail.com**
> ------------------------------
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