February 17, 2020

Recently, I wrote an article for UnHerd lamenting what feels like the collapse of professional norms within my area of — broadly speaking — Left-of-centre journalism.

Using the controversy surrounding a group of Covington Catholic High School students filmed in front of the Lincoln Memorial last year as a prime example, I complained that staffers and contributors at mainstream progressive outlets increasingly seem to see themselves more as activists and cheerleaders whose job is to fall on the “right” side of a given controversy, rather than journalists whose job is to investigate that controversy fairly, with a critical eye.

Not two weeks later, I stumbled into a wonderfully specific example of how these dynamics work in action. It involves Huffington Post, a controversial novel, and imaginary Mexicans eating chicken dipped in barbecue sauce.

In the United States, the book publishing industry — or parts of it, at least — is swaying and buckling from certain seismic cultural forces. As America’s conversations on race and identity have gotten louder and more public, some in and around publishing have argued that the industry is unwelcoming to people who aren’t white, straight, cisgender, and so forth, and that this discrimination is apparent when you look at which books gets published, and by whom.

There’s more than a kernel of truth to this. Publishing is (and has long been) a redoubt of the privileged, and the editorial offices of major New York publishers tend to be staffed largely with graduates of top colleges. Publishing isn’t quite as lily-white as some claim it is — yes, it’s about 76% white, but that’s in a country that’s about 72% white, and half of all interns are non-white — but few insiders would argue that there aren’t certain significant issues to address in making it more accessible to a broader swath of the population (which, after all, often leads to better stories anyway).

If the core claims of those criticising publishing on identity grounds are reasonable, that doesn’t mean that individual campaigns targeting supposedly “problematic” books always have been. Far from it, in fact — in the last few years there has been a succession of fundamentally unfair online pileons targeting books, mostly in young adult publishing, that are deemed offensive and emblematic of publishing’s broader diversity issues.

As Kat Rosenfield and others have shown, these campaigns tend to be based on highly exaggerated, ripped-from-context misreadings of the books in question, often spread via social media. Sometimes, for example, the argument a racist character in a book about overcoming racism said something racist, and therefore the book is racist is presented unironically, by grown adults familiar with literary conventions, as evidence of wrongdoing on an author’s part.

In one incident I covered, members of the Twitterati decided a character in the fantasy universe of the then-upcoming novel Blood Heir was black (there was no real evidence to suggest this), decided an allusion to modern-day slave trafficking in Asia was actually about American slavery, and decided that they therefore didn’t like the book’s handling of race and slavery.

They raised a sufficiently loud outcry that the imminent publication of the novel, authored by Amélie Wen Zhao, a Paris-born woman of Chinese ancestry who lives in the United States, was cancelled, though the book was later revised and released. In another instance, a black male author’s book about two foreign boys escaping Kosovo as it is engulfed in warfare was cancelled entirely based, again, on questionable claims.

These campaigns might now be spreading from young adult to general literature. Since late 2019, the biggest story in American publishing has been American Dirt, a novel written by Jeanine Cummins about a Mexican woman, Lydia, and her son, Luca, who are forced to flee their home in Acapulco to the United States after a drug cartel murders much of their family, including Lydia’s husband (Luca’s father), at a relative’s quinceañera barbecue.

While the book appears to be selling quite briskly — reaching Number One on the New York Times’ fiction bestseller list (it now sits at number three) — it sparked a raging controversy that appears to have popped off after Oprah picked it for her very influential book club. Since then, an endless parade of articles and essays have lamented how deeply offensive and harmful American Dirt is, most of them focused on the fact that Cummins is neither Mexican nor a migrant but a white American-born woman who is a quarter Puerto-Rican.

American Dirt’s critics insist, almost unanimously, that it isn’t Cummins’ race that is animating their anger, but rather her handling of the novel’s subject matter, combined with the fact that Latino authors, and authors from migrant backgrounds, rarely get seven-figure advances like Cummins’ (you will notice this hefty sum is mentioned quite frequently; the YA campaigns, too, tend to focus on authors who earned enviable advances).

Their campaign has been successful: according to a press release reported on by the LA Times, Macmillan, the parent company of Flatiron Books, which published American Dirt, met with a group of the book’s critics and stated that they would be “substantially increasing Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff and its overall literary ecosystem” as well as to “regroup within 30 days with [the activist group] #DignidadLiteraria and other Latinx groups to assess progress.” Cummins’ book tour, meanwhile, was cancelled because of safety threats.

The problem, as I noted in my newsletter, is that many of the examples of the supposedly awful parts of American Dirt bemoaned by its critics are strained at best. In one widely circulated Medium essay, for example, the Mexican-American author and translator David Bowles made extremely basic errors about the book’s plot. For this misleading essay, he was rewarded with a New York Times column (which repeated some of his errors) and a chance to be one of the activists who met with Macmillan. In Jezebel, the writer Shannon Melero exhibited a similar lack of familiarity with the actual writing contained in the novel.

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But the article that is really sticking with me, for reasons that will become clear, ran in Huffington Post. It’s headlined American Dirt Isn’t Just Bad — Its Best Parts Are Cribbed From Latino Writers” and is written by David J. Schmidt, also an author and translator.

His very strange main argument is that Cummins’ erred, somehow, by including real-life places and events in her novel based on the work of Mexican non-fiction writers — non-fiction writers she explicitly thanks in the book’s Author’s Note, and in one case references in the text of the novel itself. It’s difficult to even suss out a genuine criticism here, given that novelists include real-world elements in their books all the time and, like Cummins, frequently thank the individuals and texts that help inform their world-building.

Schmidt’s piece also includes this sentence: “[Cummins] describes an imaginary country where people put sour cream on their street tacos, dress their chicken with BBQ sauce rather than mole, eat black licorice drops rather than mazapán, and fear the Bogeyman rather than El Coco. American Dirt is also riddled with linguistic gaffes, including a character thinking of her own mother as abuela (grandma).”

This is a useful example of how, during a public outrage, so much smoke is generated by bad-faith actors that the casual passerby will assume there must be a roaring conflagration generating it, that whoever is being targeted did something truly wrong.

Because it’s remarkable, once you’ve read the book, how little there is here, and how conveniently devoid of proper context these examples are. American Dirt contains a single mention of licorice drops — Lydia recalls that her recently-murdered mother enjoyed that particular candy.

I’m not saying Mexicans are huge fans of black liquorice, but is it impossible a middle-class Mexican woman living in a major city lousy with American tourists (Acapulco) could enjoy, and have access to, that particular candy? And Lydia thinks of her own mother as abuela in the same way an English-speaking person might think of her mother as grandma, because that’s how she’s known to her children.

There are two mentions of “bogeymen” in the book, and they both come in the narrator’s voice, not out of the mouths of a Mexican character — “Because these are the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico,” Cummins writes of cartel assassins early on. Later she writes, in relation to a terrible incident in the United States, that “The vigilantes wanted to stoke community fear and incite outrage by inventing a group of murderous migrant bogeymen”. There’s no scene in which Mexicans “fear the bogeyman” himself.

As for the sour cream, it is not served with a street taco. Rather, Lydia and Luca buy it in the food court of “a vast shopping mall with a Sephora and a Panda Express and even an ice rink” in Mexico City — one which also includes a Crepe Factory. The idea of an establishment like this, plopped in the middle of a cosmopolitan megacity, having American-style sour cream, is a lot less ridiculous than the image Schmidt is attempting to conjure.

It’s Luca who eats the tacos with sour cream; he’s the English-speaking son of middle-class Mexican parents and grew up, again, in an American-tourist-heavy city, so in context, the idea of him enjoying sour cream isn’t ridiculous, either. The point, here and elsewhere among some of Cummins’ least honest critics, is to make her look as ignorant as possible, even if that requires massaging the facts a bit.

But when it comes to the chicken dressed with barbecue sauce, the facts aren’t even massaged, but rather snapped in half like a wishbone: there is no scene, anywhere in American Dirt, in which a single Mexican slathers a single piece of barbecued chicken in barbecue sauce. It simply doesn’t happen.

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I think Schmidt confused himself. Right at the beginning of the novel, when Luca and Lydia’s extended family is murdered (I’d say “spoiler alert” but the book’s literal first sentence is about a bullet whizzing past Luca’s head as the massacre commences), Cummins writes: “The clatter of gunfire outside continues, joined by an odor of charcoal and burning meat. Papi is grilling carne asada out there and Luca’s favorite chicken drumsticks. He likes them only a tiny bit blackened, the crispy tang of the skins.”

Then, a bit later, as Lydia, in shock, surveys the scene of the massacre with investigators: “In the shade of the backyard, there’s the sweet odor of lime and sticky charred sauce, and Lydia knows she will never eat barbecue again.”

Nowhere here, in the only mention of a sweet and/or sticky sauce that could possibly apply to Schmidt’s claim, is there any evidence of a Mexican person eating chicken with barbecue sauce on it. These passages prove neither that the sauce in question is barbecue sauce (all we know is that it’s sticky, at least when charred) or that it was intended for chicken (“Papi” is grilling both carne asada, meaning beef, and Luca’s “favourite chicken”).

I emailed Schmidt to ask him about this, and he replied that “The sauce is described as sticky, sweet sauce that is put on barbequed chicken.” But nowhere does Cummins say the sauce is for the chicken, and even if she did, that wouldn’t make it American-style barbecue sauce, which is the basis of Schmidt’s accusation of cultural illiteracy.

I found out who the story’s two editors were and emailed one of them about this, suggesting she correct this. She forwarded my request to the other, a fairly well-known progressive journalist — one whose name I recognised and respect. “The debate about the sauce seems like you’re projecting your own guess on the text rather using the context clues,” she wrote, declining to correct the story.

I was very surprised by this, and I found myself dwelling on it ever since, somewhat fixated. This barbecue chicken issue is a little thing, sure, but it’s a big little thing. That is, whatever disagreements may exist between journalists, we all agree — or at least publicly claim to agree — that, at root, our job is to print stuff that’s true.

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Other critiques of American Dirt may be unfair, but they’re fundamentally subjective. This one isn’t: Huffington Post is telling its readers that a controversial book was written by someone so ignorant of Mexican culture she thought Mexicans dress their barbecue chicken the exact same way Americans do, even though this simply doesn’t happen anywhere in the book. If this doesn’t warrant a correction, what does? If we can’t agree on the norm “Don’t print stuff that plainly isn’t true,” what norms can we agree on? This is the lowest-hanging journalistic fruit imaginable.

I don’t think Cummins or Flatiron Books are blameless here. Setting aside linguistic critiques of the book’s Spanish I’m ill-equipped to evaluate, they did make two very silly unforced errors that warrant criticism: an Author’s Note in which Cummins refers to her previously “undocumented” husband without noting he is Irish (which, yes, is still a stressful situation to be in, but is miles away from being an undocumented Mexican migrant), and a book party at which barbed wire was used, rather insensitively, as a “cute” decorating motif.

But these issues don’t bring us anywhere near the apocalyptic storyline that has settled in as fact — that this is a disastrously ignorant, under-researched, harmful book — in some quarters. Watching the outrage bloom has been deeply depressing, and has only solidified my worries about rightside norms in journalism.

It’s one thing for resentful critics, eager to jump on outrage-bandwagons, to publish bad-faith misreadings of books on random blogs or their Facebook walls. There will always be unfair critics. But when major outlets like the New York Times and Huffington Post are helping to amplify this nonsense, without even checking whether the critics have closely read the books they claim to be furious about? When they won’t even correct textbook errors which hinge on objective facts about the contents of the books in question? We have a problem.

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