How to handle disaster

American dirt, best literary hotels, and two quick recommendations

Two weeks ago, Flatiron Books looked to be in deep trouble. The publisher had paid a seven-figure advance for Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, about a Mexican bookstore owner and her young son running for the border to escape a drug lord. Flatiron hoped it would be the defining novel of the migrant experience—a north-south John Steinbeck. Instead, it landed in the wood-chipper of identity politics.

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American Dirt’s critics, led by several Latinx writers, deemed it inaccurate, racist, and an act of cultural appropriation. Clumsy publicity efforts by Flatiron fed the rage (centerpieces at a fancy promotional dinner featured barbed wire). Cummins (beside Oprah, above) was deemed insufficiently ethnic to write such a book (only one of her grandparents was Latina). She did herself no favors by passing off her husband as an illegal immigrant—he’s Irish, which in the American discourse on these matters, doesn’t count.

More than 100 writers signed a petition demanding that Oprah dump American Dirt from her book club. The writers who blurbed the novel, and the book press that hyped it, were assailed as “tone deaf.” Flatiron and the entire publishing industry were indicted for insensitivity to minority writers.

After several bookstores backed out of hosting Cummins due to threats of violence, Flatiron canceled the remainder of her national book tour. The book itself seemed on the verge of cancellation.

Yet as of yesterday, American Dirt was the number-one New York Times fiction bestseller, and number-three on Amazon.

What happened? For one thing, Flatiron managed to bend but not break. After canceling Cummins’s tour, it organized meetings between Cummins and some of the critics who objected to her book. Some smart bookstores, like Politics and Prose in D.C. (a wonderful place if you ever have the chance to visit), used the author’s appearance as an opportunity for a respectful discussion of the issues.

Also, Cummins defended herself:

I did five years of research. I went to the border. I went to Mexico. I travelled throughout the borderlands. I visited Casa del Migrante in Mexico. I visited orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador, which is like a soup kitchen for migrants. I met with the people who have devoted their lives on the front line to the work of protecting vulnerable people…. And despite the fact that it has grown into this crazy moment that I never anticipated and that feels as if I’m in the eye of the hurricane, I know for a fact that this book is moving people.

Acknowledging and engaging with the critics was smart. So was the choice by Flatiron and Cummins to stand their ground. This gave a chance for the market to speak, and readers obviously like the book. It’s more than 500 reviews on Amazon and almost 15,000 ratings on Goodreads are stellar.

One happy consequence of the American Dirt controversy is that the editorial assistant who worked on my Hoover book has landed her own seven-figure book deal. Until about a year ago, Zakiya Harris was employed at Knopf in New York. She quit to work on a novel that became The Other Black Girl, “a cheeky blend of horror, suspense, and cultural commentary that sends up the industry the 27-year-old used to work in,” according to Publisher’s Weekly. “The novel puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the microaggressions and racism that many people of color say continues to be a staple of an industry with an overwhelmingly white workforce.”

Fourteen publishing houses participated in an auction for The Other Black Girl. Zakiya’s agent says the American Dirt controversy helped demonstrate a market for the book. Nice to see good things happen to smart, capable people.

Books do furnish a hotel room

Some people like hotels with fine furnishings, others give priority to fine dining, and still others worry over location and views. The Wall Street Journal this week identified six hotels for people who like their accommodations to have libraries. Some simply loan guests books, others don’t mind if you leave with the book. Others host author events. And one, the Gates Hotel in Key West, has what it calls an underwater library of waterproof and tear-resistant classics so that “you can quote Lady Macbeth while playing Marco Polo.”

The WSJ’s list is great, but US News & World Report a few years back produced a better one that includes two hotels we particularly like.

The Heathman in Portland has a grand library with 2,700 books signed by authors who have stayed there over the last thirty years.

The Library Hotel in Manhattan organizes its rooms by the Dewey Decimal system, and has both a reading room well stocked with books, and a rooftop writer’s den with a fireplace.

If you’re into bookish travel, you might also check out Nigel Beale’s The Literary Tourist.

Two quick recommendations

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a short, snappy book that does a better job than anything else we’ve seen to provide context on the protests in that city. It is highly readable—gripping, even—and the many references to John Le Carre don’t hurt.

Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning is all over the place. Philip Kennicott, a pianist turned Pulitzer-prize winning music critic, listens obsessively to Bach while coping with his mother’s passing. He then spends five years trying to master Bach’s Goldberg Variations. So the book is about Kennicott, his mother, mourning, Bach, the Goldbergs, and what makes them so particularly challenging and beautiful. It also provides a lot of background on piano performance through the last century, and it asks the questions: “what does it mean to know a piece of music, and what does it mean to know another human being?” In 224 pages. And somehow it works.

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