American Dirt and Cancel Culture: How the Digital Sphere Shapes Activism and Gives Voice

Image from ¡Somos! Presente

One of the first cultural controversies of the new decade has arisen as a result of the passionate responses — both positive and negative — to the publication of American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. The ongoing debate surrounding the literary merits of the book, whether or not Cummins has the right to tell its story, and the lack of representation in the US publishing industry has largely taken place online, with input from a wide array of sources, including Latinx authors and activists, the book’s publishers, and even Oprah. Many Latinx critics have used the digital sphere — online news publications, Twitter feeds, hashtag projects, etc. — to amplify their voices more effectively, while those in support of the novel have attempted to weaponize the narrative of the toxicity of cancel-culture-like responses in order to delegitimize these criticisms. Ultimately, the American Dirt controversy demonstrates how digital spaces have granted groups that have historically been excluded from the publishing industry and mainstream media, in this context Latinx authors and activists, greater opportunities to express their opinions; however, much of their criticism is steamrolled by a narrative of cancel culture going too far, which helps continue the long-standing tradition of disregarding or eliminating the voices of individuals belonging to marginalized communities.

American Dirt is a fictional work that follows a woman and her son on their journey to escape Mexico and enter the United States. According to various sources, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers, acquired the rights to publish the story after a nine-way bidding war, offering Cummins a seven-figure sum. In addition to the extensive resources the publisher expended in promoting the novel, Oprah’s Book Club also chose American Dirt as its January pick. Controversy ensued when multiple Latinx authors and activists voiced critical concern for Cummins’s work, citing everything from the fact that the white author suddenly seemed to play up her Latinx heritage in anticipation of the book’s release to its cultural appropriation and linguistic inaccuracies to the author’s apparent white-savior attitude (141 Writers; “‘American Dirt’ Tries”; Bowles; Cepeda; Grande; Hernandez; Krauze; Olivas; “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck”; “Why Is Everyone”). Ultimately, Flatiron canceled the book tour, citing “‘threats of physical violence,’” but Cummins did appear on an Apple TV+ episode put together by Oprah in dialogue with some of the book’s most prominent critics (“‘American Dirt’ Tries”; de León; Grady; “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck”; “Why Is Everyone”). Months later, the conversation has not faded away, especially on online platforms like Twitter, and it continues to generate questions about literary authenticity, the US publishing industry’s lack of diversity, and the phenomenon often referred to as “cancel culture.”

I. Initial Criticisms and Reactions: The Digital Space’s Role in Amplifying the Voices of Latinx Authors and Activists

One of the initial, and most widely referenced, criticisms — “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature” — was published online in December by the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba. She criticizes various aspects of the book, referring to it as a “narco-novel” that promotes stereotypes and “fails to convey any Mexican sensibility” (“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck”). Gurba also argues that Cummins projects a white-savior-like tone[3] throughout the novel by adopting an “I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses” attitude (“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck”). This notion is particularly glaring in the author’s note, where Cummins explains that she seeks to write for those that are often perceived as “‘a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass’” while lamenting the fact that “‘someone slightly browner’” had not written her novel (de León; Giorgis; Hinojosa). Gurba concludes her critical review by pointing out that playing a white savior in this situation seems particularly ironic considering that Latinx authors are consistently forced to contend with self-doubt and lack of recognition from the publishing industry, while white authors receive praise and financial gain for writing about the same subjects. Overall, Gurba’s analysis lays out an array of issues in Cummins’s work that have broader implications beyond just American Dirt, specifically with regard to the US publishing industry’s lack of representation and diversity.

As a result of her critical review, Gurba was invited to participate in an episode of the NPR podcast Latino USA in which host Maria Hinojosa interviews her, Chicanx authors Sandra Cisneros and Luis Alberto Urrea, and Cummins herself, one of the few instances in which she responds publicly and directly to criticism of both her and the novel (“About”; “Biography”). During her timeslot, Cisneros defends her praise of American Dirt, for which she wrote a blurb, arguing that Cummins’s ability to reach a white audience — multiple critics have noted that the novel was clearly written for white America as opposed to Latinx people — is actually an asset and that many of the criticisms are overblown. After Cisneros, Urrea discusses his frustration with the fact that one of his earlier novels, which addresses many of the same themes as does Cummins’s, took ten years to reach the mainstream public because publishing companies told him point-blank that “nobody cares about starving Mexicans” and “no American reader is gonna read a book by someone with a name as strange as yours” (Hinojosa). Hinojosa dedicates the last timeslot to Cummins, in which she questions her about the seven-figure advance, her research process, the cover’s barbed wire aesthetic, accusations about lifting material from Urrea’s work, and the author’s note. For much of the interview, Cummins attempts to avoid direct accountability, instead attributing the majority of the blame to the publisher. This is not to say that the publishing industry does not necessarily deserve to be thrown under the bus; however, Cummins’s repeated evasions of responsibility seem indicative of a lack of willingness to engage in legitimate dialogue about her role in the controversy. For example, her response to a question about the whiteness of the US publishing industry diverts attention to its socioeconomic profile: “It’s not just a very white industry, it’s also a tremendously affluent white industry… I had to bartend on the weekends because there was no way to earn a living on that paycheck” (Hinojosa). Instead of acknowledging that she comprises a part of this white majority, Cummins chooses to position herself as a victim of the industry as well, ultimately missing the point of Hinojosa’s criticism. Furthermore, when asked about how much of a role she played in the release and promotion of American Dirt, Cummins responds “the writer has very little to do with the publication of the book and is often unaware of things that are going out” (Hinojosa). She concedes that there were certain problematic aspects she should have flagged — notably the usage of a barbed wire flower aesthetic at a launch party — but continues to attempt avoiding personal responsibility for the larger themes that the controversy symbolizes by accepting blame only for smaller, surface-level mistakes. In other words, Cummins fails to situate herself accurately as an actor within the US publishing industry by instead portraying herself as a bystander caught up in the crossfire of a larger conversation. And while this may be true to an extent, Cummins is not blameless because she did choose to write this story specifically and therefore comprises a part, regardless of how large or small, of an industry that systematically denies opportunities to Latinx authors. Hinojosa addresses these issues of representation and voice when she directly comments on the line from the author’s note about wishing “somebody browner had written this”: “which is a kinda weird way to say it, honestly, Jeanine” (Hinojosa). This candid phrase brilliantly embodies the overall sentiment of the podcast, in that Hinojosa’s incredulity shines through as a tool to encourage critical dialogue about issues that have been glaringly obvious to Latinx authors for decades, yet which easily managed to escape the publishing industry’s radar.

Other online criticisms have come from Julissa Arce, Esther Cepeda, and Reyna Grande, the three Latinx authors Oprah invited to participate in her Apple TV+ special. In her initial essay, Arce — a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant — notes that, by writing this story in the way that she does, Cummins manages to erase all political meaning from the inherently political topic of immigration. More specifically, Arce points to the author’s note, in which Cummins writes that she wants to turn away from US policy regarding immigration and instead focus on “‘moral or humanitarian concerns,’” which is a concerningly naïve stance to take on an issue that historically has been politicized against Latinx people (“‘American Dirt’ Tries”). This is not to say that the moral and humanitarian aspects of immigration are unimportant; rather, they need to be considered alongside a political perspective in order to avoid leaving out a crucial component of the conversation. Cepeda’s criticism focuses more on the exclusionary nature of the US publishing industry: “[this] isn’t an issue of who can or ‘should’ write fiction about people who are not their own so much as it’s about who gets to write about important issues that are about their own people” (Cepeda). In other words, she does not necessarily suggest that Cummins has no right to tell this story, but she does wonder why Cummins specifically has been met with widespread praise and acclaim, while countless Latinx authors — Urrea, for example — who have told stories strikingly similar in subject matter have experienced rejection. Grande focuses on the publishing industry as well, noting that, while the circumstances surrounding these discussions about its lack of representation and diversity are unfortunate, at least conversations are being had. More specifically, she concludes that “the issue is neither with the book nor its author, but rather with those institutions that silence some voices while elevating others” (Grande).

Functioning as Oprah’s response to the aforementioned criticisms, the Apple TV+ event was the media mogul’s attempt “to ‘bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories” (“Why Is Everyone”). The main discussion included Oprah, Cummins, Arce, Cepeda, and Grande, while Gurba and her Dignidad Literaria — a movement which will be explained later in this essay — colleagues David Bowles and Roberto Lovato, notably, were not invited to participate (de Léon; “How Controversy Over”; “I Spoke Out”). Some of the highlights of the event include Cummins being held accountable for some of her actions — although perhaps not to the degree that many critics would have hoped for — a direct address made to the president of Macmillan Don Weisberg, who was in the audience, and an opportunity for real-life Latinx migrants to have their voices heard (“7 Key Moments”; de León; “I Spoke Out”). Afterward, Arce wrote about her experience in an essay called “I Spoke Out Against ‘American Dirt.’ Then Oprah Asked Me To Talk About It,” in which she discusses how, while she did what she could to stand up for her community, she left feeling as though parts were more geared toward defending Oprah and Cummins, and that the event itself did not adequately promote genuine conversation. One such shortcoming is the fact that, while Cummins did respond to some criticisms, they were relatively tame in comparison to, for example, Hinojosa’s. For instance, Cummins conceded regret for having conflated her husband’s immigration experience from Ireland with that of someone attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico (de León). Oprah also asked Cummins about the decision to play up the fact that she had a Puerto Rican grandmother, despite having previously identified exclusively as white. In response, Cummins seemingly contradicted what she had previously written by doubling down: “‘In the same essay, I identified myself as Puerto Rican.’” Arce notes that this is not entirely true (“I Spoke Out”). Ultimately, Oprah’s Apple TV+ special seemed to offer little consolation to those who hoped for a more legitimate conversation about the controversy, which is perhaps most apparent in the fact that none of the members of the Dignidad Literaria movement were invited to participate on the panel. Lovato took to Twitter to express his frustrations with regard to this aspect event. Gurba also expressed a mixture of appreciation for the Latinx panelists and seeming frustration with the fact that the episode left something to be desired: “[Oprah stated] ‘Well, I am guilty for not looking or Latinx writers.’ While Oprah shelters in place inside her California mansion, I hope she takes the opportunity to do so” (“How Controversy Over”).

Roberto Lovato’s Tweet about Oprah’s Apple TV+ Episode

II. Hybrid Activism: The Intersection of Digital Platforms and Real-World Change

Roberto Lovato’s Tweet about Dignidad Literaria’s Meeting with Macmillan and Flatiron
David Bowles’s Tweet about Meeting with Macmillan and Flatiron

With regard to the context of this essay, the notion of online spaces as crucial components of inclusion and mobilization seems particularly relevant in the case of Gurba’s review. That is, her essay was rejected by Ms., the magazine that initially requested it, so she resorted to publishing her work on an academic blog called Tropics of Meta, self-described as “Historiography for the Masses” (Hinojosa). As is evident both in this subtitle and the website’s willingness to publish Gurba’s insightful, yet scathing, review of American Dirt, Tropics of Meta provides an alternative channel for more subversive work that challenges dominant power structures to reach the general public. Furthermore, the website describes itself as “giving voice to communities across the United States and the world,” as its “platform is open to a broad and inclusive discussion of issues” (“about”). This self-stated mission implies the amplification of diverse perspectives, presumably many of which come from individuals belonging to historically marginalized demographics, that other news sites often fail to incorporate. As a result, Tropics of Meta plays the role of an online space — and Gurba an online voice — that challenges the status quo by criticizing a novel that had, in more mainstream information outlets, received large amounts of critical acclaim and praise. As Bowles writes, “Ms. Cummins and Flatiron Books probably would have preferred that Latinx writers and critics like Myriam Gurba and I just kept our mouths shut and let this book go unchecked [but] Mexican Americans and collaborators alike [refuse] to be silent” (Bowles). Additionally, it is important to note that this criticism has been made possible, in large part, due to Gurba’s lived experience as a Chicana individual in combination with her expertise as an academic and activist, a perspective which may very well have been passed over by many members of the public without alternative options for the dissemination of content like Tropics of Meta and Gurba’s active Twitter presence (@lesbrains). The author’s review also supports Mohammed’s findings that online activism alone is not an effective mechanism for promoting tangible, real-world change, but that it can certainly help. That is, Gurba’s Twitter presence and online review were partly responsible for the creation of the Dignidad Literaria movement, which, in turn, inspired real-life activism that resulted in the aforementioned promise of Macmillan to commit to greater Latinx representation and Oprah’s Apple TV+ special, which, while lacking, nonetheless made space for some dialogue to occur. Ultimately, the case of Gurba’s American Dirt review exemplifies the crucial — although not exclusive — role that the digital sphere can play in amplifying the voices of those who are part of demographics that have been historically excluded in order to cause meaningful disruptions in established institutions like the US publishing industry.

III. Taken Too Far? The Cancel Culture Narrative’s Role in the American Dirt Controversy

Having acknowledged the significance of digital spaces in amplifying Latinx voices in the American Dirt controversy, the question then becomes “how has the notion of cancel culture ‘taking things too far’ interfered with the work of historically marginalized communities standing up for themselves and engaging in legitimate criticism online?” Known for her Twitter presence, culture critic Haaniyah Angus defines cancel culture — a largely digital phenomenon — as consisting of four essential components: “1. A well-known figure (or viral action) 2. A problematic action 3. Outrage for said action 4. An apology for said outrage” (Angus). Cummins and American Dirt fit relatively easily into this model: Cummins is a well-known figure by virtue of having four books published and the controversy surrounding the novel has certainly gone viral; the problematic actions and consequent outrage are outlined by critics like Gurba, Hinojosa, Urrea, Arce, Cepeda, Grande, Bowles, and Lovato; and apologies — the sincerity and adequacy of which have been questioned — have come from sources like the publishing companies, celebrities who initially voiced their support for the book, and Cummins herself (Acevedo; Grady). In this sense, the American Dirt controversy certainly fits the criteria for cancel culture. However, many also add the stipulation that cancel culture involves the public retracting support for the figure and their work as a crucial component: “[la] forma más inmediata de materializar la cancelación conlleva dejar de seguir a esa persona en redes sociales, y si es un artista, evitar escuchar su música, ver sus películas o leer sus libros” (Lepe). Adding this condition makes the case of American Dirt more difficult to define with certainty as cancel culture because the book is still selling incredibly well, it was ultimately the central talking point of Oprah’s Apple TV+ episode, and Charles Leavitt has reportedly made a bid to turn it into a movie (“Why Is Everyone”). What is more, the notable success of the novel could actually be due, in part, to the controversy itself — many people want to find out what all the fuss is about — and in many ways demonstrates that neither the book nor its author has been canceled by facing real-life consequences that affect financial gain or professional development. In fact, the condition of retracted support questions the very existence of cancel culture, as, barring the most extreme of circumstances, many public figures who have been canceled remain financially stable and supported by enough members of the public to continue their careers in one way or another. And ultimately, can we really say someone has been canceled if their work is still being consumed and financially rewarded?

Of course, this debate over whether or not cancel culture actually exists does not mean to suggest that online criticism, even in situations where it is seemingly justified, cannot be detrimental. That is, the initial, valid, well-thought-out criticisms crafted by the aforementioned Latinx authors and activists often get conflated with and overshadowed by the large groups of online participants eager to call something problematic solely in order to feel morally superior or as though they belong to the “right” group. Simply put, cancel culture can be taken too far by those who engage in it strictly for performative reasons. For example, Dianna E. Anderson writes about the ways in which she would use her Twitter account to “accuse [her] fellow feminists of failing in their jobs [so she] felt better about [her] own feminism” (xii-xiii). Furthermore, in writing about a recent cancel culture controversy involving J Balvin, Jimena Be concludes that there exists “un halo de superioridad del que hay que hablar,” and Angus argues that call-outs have “spiraled into something we cannot contain anymore; instant-gratification for calling out those we do not like” (Angus; Be). Scenarios in which significant numbers of online users mindlessly and gleefully jump on the bandwagon of chastising public figures on social media in order to situate themselves as more morally pure can represent, for lack of a better phrase, cancel culture being taken too far. This is not because the public should refrain from holding public figures accountable; rather, shaming or canceling in the name of moral superiority does not serve the purpose of promoting action oriented toward improving society by reducing harmful behavior. That is, chances are those who criticize others solely for the thrill of moral superiority do not care whether the offender, or anyone else for that matter, learns a lesson and attempts to change, which should ultimately be the goal of legitimate criticism. Canceling someone solely in order to feel better about oneself is counterproductive, and in this way, it is possible to argue that cancel culture can be taken too far.

Furthermore, those who partake in cancel culture solely for the thrill of moral superiority actually work against the goals of those in the Latinx community who have been genuinely hurt by American Dirt, as opponents of cancel culture in its entirety — who often want to avoid the accountability that accompanies the positive aspects of legitimate call-outs — often willfully misinterpret any and all criticism as evidence of rabid, illegitimate high-roading. For example, Flatiron has apparently attempted to use this perception to its advantage by portraying the company and Cummins as victims of extremists who have taken cancel culture too far without any valid, productive criticism. And while this may be the case for those who have attacked Cummins and American Dirt in the name of moral superiority, this interpretation also erases many of the critical voices in the Latinx community who have spoken out thoughtfully in order to stand up for themselves. More specifically, Miller released an online statement at the end of January which announced the cancelation of the book tour in response to “‘threats of physical violence [and] real peril to their safety’” (Grady). According to Gurba, “‘they are attempting to reframe the issue [as one] that falsely implicates Latinx people as a threat’” (Grady). Similar concerns have been voiced by actress Eva Longoria — “‘[what] made me really upset was when the publisher said, ‘We have to cancel the book tour because of safety concerns,’ which made my community look like we’re crazy people going to cause trouble. We’re not. We’re just being outspoken about the inaccuracies of what this book represents’” — and Arce when she directly confronted Weisberg on this issue during the Apple TV+ event: “‘To have this language in that statement furthers the narrative that we are violent and that people should be afraid of us’” (“I Spoke Out”; “Why Is Everyone”). Furthermore, in focusing exclusively on the threats directed at Cummins, Miller has ignored the threats that Gurba and others have received in response to their criticisms of American Dirt. In fact, a key concern brought up during both Dignidad Literaria’s meeting with Macmillan and Oprah’s Apple TV+ episode was that, while Gurba received death threats, Cummins had not, despite the fact that the publishing companies both indirectly and directly implied that she had (Canfield; “I Spoke Out”). Simply put, by conflating the thoughtful, valid concerns raised by many in the Latinx community with those who have simply jumped on the criticism bandwagon in the name of moral high-roading, the people who have done something wrong attempt to avoid accountability and erase the voices of those who have fought against discrimination and marginalization in the publishing industry.

What is more, the voices of Latinx critics represent more than a simple expression of opinion; that is, as Lisa Nakamura argues, historically marginalized communities — often women of color — take on the burden of calling other people out on their unacceptable behavior as forms of unpaid labor. Specifically, she claims that “the labour of educating white men and women about racism and sexism is difficult, valuable, and underappreciated” (108). So, by publishing, tweeting, and engaging in other forms of online activism in response to American Dirt, critics like Gurba, Hinojosa, Urrea, Arce, Cepeda, Grande, Bowles, and Lovato are essentially performing additional labor for free. Of course, some have received financial compensation for the publication of their articles, but the work of organizing in other ways — especially on Twitter — largely goes unpaid; Arce even writes that “beyond travel arrangements [she] did not receive compensation to attend” the Apple TV+ event (“I Spoke Out”; Nakamura 107–108, 110). Therefore, attempts to delegitimize Latinx critics by conflating them with moral-superiority seekers partake not only in voice erasure, but also in another complex and sinister process of ignoring an already underappreciated form of labor that is performed online, overwhelmingly by women of color. So ironically, while Cummins purports to be giving a voice the voiceless, she is simultaneously helping to fuel a system that actively takes opportunities to be heard away from others who happen to be more qualified to speak on the issues she addresses in American Dirt. In other words, by devaluing the voices and unpaid labor of Latinx critics by relegating them to the masses that participate in cancel culture for moral superiority purposes, Cummins and Macmillan contribute to the exact process that American Dirt allegedly aspires to rectify.

In sum, the American Dirt controversy has resulted in broad-ranging discussions regarding issues like social media activism, cancel culture, and representation in the literary world. And, while online spaces have provided more expansive opportunities for historically marginalized communities like Latinx people to have their voices heard by larger audiences, those being held accountable for their actions often seek to lump valid criticisms in with a negative perception of cancel culture in order to delegitimize them. Ultimately, many of these issues come down to the question of intention for everyone involved; that is, Cummins has a responsibility to ask herself why she wants to tell this story as much as those who criticize her have a responsibility to ask themselves why they want to engage in the controversy. Often, these intentions appear to be a desire to act as a literary messiah or for moral superiority. However, many Latinx critics like Gurba, Hinojosa, Urrea, Arce, Cepeda, Grande, Bowles, and Lovato appear to intend to speak out against the harm that Cummins, Macmillan, and various other high-profile actors have caused to their community with the publication of American Dirt.

[1] A process that “signals the ways in which productions — whether of video, web-based communications, gardens, radio transmitters, or robots — are understood as politically transformative activities” (Ratto 1).

[2] “a term intended to highlight the diversity of ways citizenship is enacted and performed… digitally mediated DIY practices have recently become more mainstream” (Ratto 3).

[3] Matthew Hughey defines a white savior in the context of cinema as “a white messianic character [saving] a lower- or working-class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate,” which describes the intentions — conscious or not — that Gurba and other Latinx critics have deduced from Cummins’s writing (1). The only difference between Hughey’s explanation and the American Dirt controversy would be that Cummins as the author plays the white messianic character while the nonwhite character being saved from a sad fate is played by the book’s protagonists.

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