The recent and ongoing controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt concerns the politics of literary representation and taste, publishing and canonization. Why should a non-Mexican author whose grasp of the detail of Mexican culture is sometimes precarious be rewarded with both financial capital (with a seven-figure advance) and cultural capital from the arbiters of literary value and media prominence (Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, and so on) for a text that distorts Mexican reality by serving up gringo fantasies of the country’s trauma and pain?
These are important issues, and the critique posed to the book (and more broadly to the media and publishing business) is timely and significant. But amidst all the fuss it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that the novel’s heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez, is, before she is forced to flee the threat of narco violence, herself a bookseller. Moreover, her relationship with the antagonist, a narco boss named Javier Crespo Fuentes, is structured through their common appreciation for the written word. As such, this is a text that in some ways anticipates some of the criticism it has received, and that outlines its own vision (which may equally be subject to critique) of the role of literature in depicting or mediating social antagonism.
Lydia sells everything. As a bookseller, we are told, she is well aware of the basic tension between what the market wants and literary value. But she tries to maintain some kind of personal integrity (however unseen or invisible) by stocking her store not only with “books she wasn’t crazy about but knew she would sell” (let alone the para-literary ephemera of “notecards, pens, calendars” and so on) but also with “books that she loved” (24). This latter category includes “her best-loved secret treasures, gems that had blown open her mind and changed her life [. . .] that she stocked anyway, not because she expected she’d ever sell them, but simply because it made her happy to know they were there” (25). She sells books, in other words, as though they were any other commodity, but within this mechanism of merchandising she quietly insists on the presence of a stubborn countervailing logic, a sort of silent protest against the market.
In other words, Lydia somewhat quixotically (against her own interests of profitability and commercial success), clings to other measures of literary value and purpose that are not reducible simply to exchange. As the novel explains: “Now and again when a book moved her, when a book opened a previously undiscovered window in her mind and forever altered her perception of the world, she would add it to those secret ranks.” Yet her efforts go unrecognized, unappreciated by a public that cares more for the best-sellers and notecards: “In the ten years she’d been doing this, only twice had Lydia experienced the pleasure of a customer approaching her counter with one of those books in hand, unsolicited” (25). Still, she persists.
There is already enough here of the fantastic: Lydia’s habit is obviously enough a compensatory device that enables and obliquely justifies the work in which she is mainly engaged as a bookseller, which is precisely that of the commodification and trivialization of the aesthetic project. It functions something like ideology, though at no point is Lydia deluded about the quality of the goods that she is mostly purveying. But there are also at least two other fantasies encapsulated here: either that one day there might arrive another reader appreciative or worthy of this other set of texts, this restricted canon; or, implicitly, that a book might turn up that would somehow transcend this divide by both “open[ing] previously undiscovered window[s],” altering our “perception of the world” and selling in quantity to the public at large.
Within the novel, it is that first fantasy that (briefly) comes true. A customer enters Lydia’s shop and picks not one but two of her secret list of non-marketable titles. She is dazzled and seduced by this unheralded event, and invites him to linger or return to discuss the books further, though he immediately warns that “sometimes the experience of reading can be corrupted by too many opinions” (26). Yet the source of the corruption here is elsewhere. We soon learn that this ideally receptive reader, one in a thousand or a million, is the feared capo of the cartel that has recently taken over the city. And it is he, Javier Crespo, who is responsible for the massacre of Lydia’s extended family with which the book opens. So much for the civilizing power of literature!
But is not American Dirt itself, at least as packaged and advertised for our consumption, an instance of the second fantasy, of the best-selling book that might also “open [our] mind and change[ our] life”? Of the book that would combine critical and commercial success as so few other texts have? (It is telling that a later communication between Lydia and Javier comes via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the few that might be said to have achieved this same “magical” feat.) Hence the extraordinary blurbs from figures such as Sandra Cisneros: “It’s the great world novel!” Hence the choice to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. This is a novel that aspires to combine the accessibility and readability of the thriller with the transformative aesthetic power associated (again, however fantastically) with high art.
But hence also the controversy. It is not hard, after all, to puncture such fantasies. If it had aimed for just one or the other goal (either a thriller for the masses or enlightenment for a limited readership), it would not have attracted such attention. But attention it has, and the book’s critics are keen to point to the tension between its success already as a commodity (that million-dollar-plus advance; the forthcoming movie deal) and the high-minded ambitions to which the text implicitly or explicitly aspires (“But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” ). No wonder Cummins has received such grief. Who does she think she is? Not that some of her justifications or protestations have helped her case much. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it is easier for an author’s characters to be eloquent than for an author to be so.
As for the real value, if any, of American Dirt–not that it is up to the critic to determine this, and such judgments are the least important and most banal of critical interventions–it is surely not that it depicts the “truth” of contemporary Mexico. But how could it? It may, however, reveal something, even despite itself, about the reasons why we might ever imagine that a literary text could or would disclose such truths. Like many other similar texts, it may tell us far more about its readers, and their hopes, fears, and desires, and about the impact that they envisage reading can or should have, for better or for worse, on themselves and the world around them.
But for those contrasting the work of going elsewhere and experiencing otherness with simply reading about such alterity, Javier Crespo already has a warning: “Books are cheaper than traveling, but they’re also more dangerous” (24).