This week, I saw a proposal for a new app that would cancel a meeting provided both participants signal their desire to pull out; if only one side prefers not to meet, it goes ahead and the other party will never know—no offence caused, no explanation necessary. Publishers must wish there was a similar button for book contracts: if enough people object to a new title, everything can simply disappear: the book, the campaign and all.
I refer, of course (though not only) to American Dirt, the Headline-published Jeanine Cummins-written thriller that details the experience of a Mexican mother and son fleeing to the US. The subject of a “competitive auction” back in 2018, it has been described as a modern-day The Grapes of Wrath, and was once fêted to be this season’s big hit. It débuted last week in second spot in the Original Fiction chart (and is now fourth, pp14–19). But the author is neither Mexican, nor an immigrant, and the book has been called out by members of the US Latinx community for both its inauthenticity and insensitive portrayal of migrants.
In the US, its publisher—Macmillan imprint Flat Iron—has apologised for its approach to the title, in particular referring to Cummins’ husband as an “undocumented immigrant” (in fact, he is Irish), and using “barbed wire” to adorn a table at a BookExpo launch dinner. In the UK, Headline has been quieter. I suspect, like Flat Iron, it too is in listening mode, for it has not tweeted about the book since its launch on 21st January, despite its modest success. Meanwhile, much schadenfreude is taking place elsewhere, as if the mistakes made here are unique to Flat Iron, or Headline; as if only a few are tone-deaf in matters of representation, not the institutions themselves; as if that original rights-frenzy was imagined.
I have warned on a number of occasions that publishing must ready itself for a storm, one that can be, in unequal measures, righteous, alarming and random. Before American Dirt there was John Boyne’s My Brother’s Name is Jessica. Last week saw Kate Elizabeth Russell, author of the Lolita-esque My Dark Vanessa, accused of fictionalising someone else’s abuse story. (As it happens, it is the author’s story too.) There will be others. Yet the idea that books have never been called out before, not quietly dropped or re-edited, is nonsense. It is also not the case that criticism is the same as censorship. Members of the Latinx community in the US have won important concessions from Macmillan, with their complaints of insensitivity around the publishing of this title entirely justified.
Yet for all the listening we need to do as an industry, we also need to do some talking. We cannot be a business prepared to see off Donald Trump, but shrink away when it is progressives on the charge. If we reject, as PEN America put it this week, rigid rules around “who has the right to tell which stories”, then we need to work out how to defend those authors who wish to be unboundaried with a publishing process that supports it. To publish is to make public, but that’s the easy bit. To do it well, you also need to be able to say why.