As ‘American Dirt’ Racks Up Sales, Its Author Becomes the Story

As ‘American Dirt’ Racks Up Sales, Its Author Becomes the Story

“There is a lot of work to be done in the publishing industry on this front,” she said. “I hope to contribute what I can to that conversation in a constructive way, but I don’t feel like I’m responsible for the problem.”

Expectations for the book have been high from the outset.

Pre-orders from booksellers were so strong that Flatiron increased its announced first printing to 500,000 copies from 300,000. The novel appeared on more than a dozen lists for the most anticipated books of 2020 in magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. Some prominent authors of Mexican descent, including Ms. Cisneros and Reyna Grande, publicly praised the book, with Ms. Cisneros calling it “the great novel of las Americas.”

Criticism began building in December, when the writer Myriam Gurba posted a lacerating review online, which she said had been assigned and then killed by a feminist magazine. “Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it,” she wrote.

Mainstream reviews, mainly written by white, non-Latino critics, were largely admiring, though there were some strong dissents. Parul Sehgal, a staff critic for The Times, called the book vivid in places, but predictable, clumsily written and marked by “a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin.”

In the midst of the fallout, some writers who offered blurbs for the book have reconsidered. The Mexican-American poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez, who had praised it as written with “grace, compassion, and precision,” said in an interview this past week that she wouldn’t have thrown her weight behind the novel had she known it would upset so many in the literary world.

“I hope this book inadvertently opens up doors for people of color,” she added.

The complaints about the book mix concerns with its execution (including what some have said is Spanish not typical of Mexico), the identity of the author and the belief that a Latino writer telling the same story would not get the same support.

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