Flatiron Cancels American Dirt Tour, Plans Town Hall Meetings
In a striking turn of events, Flatiron Books has cancelled the rest of the 40-city tour that Jeanine Cummins had begun for American Dirt. The novel was published last week, at first to great fanfare. But as pub date arrived, the book evoked a strong backlash that included charges of cultural appropriation, stereotypical characterizations, inaccuracies, neglect of books by Latinx authors on the same subject, and not enough diversity in publishing. The furious groundswell of criticism online had led several bookstores in the past few days to cancel appearances by Cummins, and to calls for Oprah Winfrey, who last week made American Dirt her next book club pick, to rescind the selection. (The book is also Barnes & Noble's national book club pick for February and the top Indie Next List pick for February. It's also the #1 fiction title on national and many regional bestseller lists.)
In a statement yesterday, Flatiron president and publisher Bob Miller said that "based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety." Instead, he said, the publisher will "be organizing a series of town hall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book. We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community."
Saying that the company was surprised "by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities" about the book, Miller acknowledged "serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine's husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them."
He stated, too, that "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. We are committed to finding new ways to address these issues and the specific publishing choices underlying this publication, and feel an obligation to our colleagues, readers, and authors alike."
Miller promised "to listen, learn and do better," but stressed that such a process "must include a two-way dialogue characterized by respect. Jeanine Cummins spent five years of her life writing this book with the intent to shine a spotlight on tragedies facing immigrants. For that reason, it's unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor. We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. While there are valid criticisms around our promotion of this book that is no excuse for the fact that in some cases there have been threats of physical violence. We join with those in the Latinx community and others who have spoken out against such violence."
|Cummins at Winter Institute last week.|
Several bookstores had already cancelled events featuring Cummins before Flatiron ended the tour, including Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., and Blue Willow Bookstore, Houston, Tex. In its announcement about the event cancellation, Blue Willow wrote that it made the decision "after much consideration and discussion" with Flatiron. "It was our hope to have a meaningful conversation about American Dirt and the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, which affects our city deeply. It has since become clear to us that we could not deliver the event we had envisioned."
At least one bookstore expressed disappointment about the tour cancellation. Eagle Eye Book Shop, Decatur, Ga., was going to use its event with Cummins as a fundraiser for Inspiritus, a regional organization that works with refugees in the Southeast to assist them in resettlement, job placement, and related needs. The bookstore planned to make a donation of $5 per event ticket, for a total likely to be more than $1,000, and Cummins planned to match those donations.
Co-owner and manager Charles Robinson expressed irritation both at the publisher and the people who issued threats. "I am shocked and frankly, incredibly frustrated by Flatiron's decision to cancel the entire tour," he said. "The fact that there are those who would threaten the author and my fellow booksellers with violence over a work of fiction is completely unacceptable. This decision is not only frustrating because it vaporized the six months of hard work my shop has done, but mostly because our event was in a large part a fundraising event for the wonderful organization, Inspiritus."
Flatiron Books' decision to cancel the rest of Jeanine Cummins's tour for American Dirt drew a strong response from #DignidadLiteraria, a campaign that was formed this past week and is headed by Myriam Gurba, Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, among the most prominent critics of American Dirt. In a statement posted on Latino Rebels, #DignidadLiteraria said, "As lovers of free speech, we view the cancellation of American Dirt events with great concern, for such closures deny us the opportunity to exercise our right to engage in powerful, spirited debate about the literary merits of the book and the racialized ways it is being marketed.
"As a community of almost 60 million whose stories and authors have been and largely continue to be censored by the publishing industry, we understand how angry, disappointed and disillusioned Jeanine Cummins must feel. We've been dealing with it for more than a century, since William Randolph Hearst and the U.S. publishing firms started their march to monopoly in the 19th century by trumpeting the colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, parts of Mexico, and other countries.
"We call on our community to continue the call to action we made last week under the #DignidadLiteraria banner: actions that center *US*, our issues with Flatiron, Macmillan and other large publishers, not Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt. We caution publishers, journalists and others who've excluded us from the national dialogue NOT to resort to racist attempts to paint Latinos as a barbarian horde of censorship and 'canceling.' "
In a statement, PEN America said, in part, "The breadth of passionate perspectives unleashed by this controversy has sparked an overdue public conversation. We urge that this dialogue unfold in the realm of ideas and opinions, and avoid descending into either ad hominem attacks or caricature. As defenders of freedom of expression, we categorically reject rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories. We see no contradiction between that position and the need for the publishing industry to urgently address its own chronic shortcomings. If the fury over this book can catalyze concrete change in how books are sourced, edited, and promoted, it will have achieved something important."