Review: Why I’m Not Reading “American Dirt”

Given the national uproar swirling around the new novel about Mexican immigrants, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, you’d think Congress might have launched an investigation. Or that the president might be moving some Pentagon funds to build a wall around the book.

Its part-Hispanic author is being pilloried far and wide for many things:  ignorance, stereotyping, shallowness, whitewashing, appropriation, trauma porn, inaccuracy and saviorism.  Oh, and what seems to infuriate some of her detractors most is Oprah Book Clubism, making-a-lot-of-moneyism, and movie dealism.

How dare this literary imposter tread on sacred Mexican/Mexican-American ground when apparently only someone of that ethnicity could handle that subject matter? Doesn’t she realize that her book must represent the entire rich reality of Mexican culture, not just some sordid aspects of it?

There’s apparently a Geneva Literary Convention that stipulates restrictions like these that I must have missed while I was publishing and teaching over the last few decades.

Some of the strongest protests attack her for daring to make money, lots of money, when there are apparently so many more deserving authors who are being ignored and should be doing better.  Maybe they deserve a telethon.

I’ve been a published author for a long time and guess what? The world of publishing is wildly unfair and complaints about who does well and who doesn’t reek of jealousy and childishness. Books have their own karma and whining about how a certain book hits a cultural sweet spot while others languish is a total waste of time. Likewise besieging an author because she happened to write a popular or noteworthy book at the right time.

All the furor made me sample the book on Amazon and I gave up at the end of the first chapter.  The writing bugged me in various ways, partly because it seemed too sophisticated in describing what a kid was feeling. But what truly turned me off were the closing lines after a scene of major gunfire:

Outside the window he hears Mami’s tentative footsteps, the soft scuff of her shoe through the remnants of something broken. A solitary gasp, too windy to be called a sob. Then a quickening of sound as she crosses the patio with purpose, depresses the keys on her phone.

This is a hot mess. How does this kid know that the steps are tentative? What are the remnants of something broken? Is that poetic or a reference to objects of some kind? Bodies? Something else? And why would she be scuffing through them, why wouldn’t she avoid them? How can he possibly know that his mother is crossing “with purpose”? And finally, if he’s inside, how can he see her depressing the keys of her phone?  Is he some kind of superhero?

Sloppy point of view kills a book for me because I lose faith in the author’s ability to tell a story deftly and clearly. In the many years I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and half a dozen other newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, I learned to trust those warning signs. Maybe the novel gets better, but I’d rather not continue when a book raises serious doubts in the very first chapter.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Writers: Don’t Let Yourselves Be Exploited

Recently, a Washington, DC hairdresser was asked to do hair for someone in the public eye who was going to attend the Inauguration.

This person tried to bargain down the hairdresser’s rate and then proposed something very different than payment: “exposure.” If she would do the job for free, she could be sure her business would get PR on social media.

The hairdresser declined–and rightly so.

As a writer, I hear stories like this all the time from other writers at all stages in their careers who are asked to work for free in one way or another with the promise of that elusive (and dubious) thing exposure.  It always strikes a sour note.

I understand why people want to get something for nothing.  And it’s also not hard to see why the fantasy of exposure is so tempting to newbie writers.  People don’t know who you are yet, and nowadays everyone thinks that we’re all just one click away from becoming viral.

But unless someone incredibly famous at the level of Oprah or Ellen with amazing media access makes you an offer, you might as well pass.

Even after having published two dozen books, I still get asked to write things for free with the promise that it’s somehow going to enhance my stature in the world and make me oh-so-much better known.  As if I’m a beggar and I’ve just been waiting for that specific handout.

The offer sometimes feels insulting, but I don’t care anymore.  I know how empty the promise is, and I decline.

And so should anyone who doesn’t want to waste their time.  Writers need to value what they do.  A young writer I know was all excited about the possibility of her first invitation to do a reading to a special interest group for her debut novel and I urged her to ask for a nominal speaker’s fee.  She asked why.  Wasn’t it enough that she was going to have an audience?

I told her that being paid something would mean that the group inviting her took her seriously, and that she did the same thing herself.  It would set a standard going forward.

Writers, artists, professional of all kinds aren’t charities.  What we all do is work and it deserves recognition and respect as work unless we’re donating it to raise money for a charity.  Selling ourselves short is never a winning proposition.

Lev Raphael currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and has published books in a dozen different genres from memoir to mystery.