I haven’t been blogging much lately, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that I decided I am sick to death of American politics and equally with the egregious and vitriolic non-political polarization in this country along cultural, ethnic, racial, or religious lines. Everybody is racing to see who can be the most offended or offensive, tell the most lies, launch the most completely gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Twitter, be the most outraged by innocuous misunderstandings or misstatements, then grovel the lowest in apology, and generally behaving like adolescents at their worst. And those are the reasonable ones; it goes downhill from there.
I was at my desk when my friend Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) called to tell me he had just read the first few chapters of American Dirt and that he was blown away by how good it is. He and I don’t always agree on our choice of books, but before Dan became a Hollywood screenwriter, he taught creative writing and American literature at two different colleges. He received his PhD from Princeton with accolades for his research on F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he worked there with Carlos Baker on the latter’s definitive biography of Ernest Hemingway. He had a very successful career in the salt mines of Hollywood. When I got stuck writing Dancing with the Dead, he told me accurately and succinctly where I had gone wrong and what to do to fix it. So when Dan says he thinks a book is good, I sit up and take notice. I typed in American Dirt on my search engine.
Dan had told me, and I was vaguely aware, there was a lot of controversy surrounding American Dirt. I had even heard the author’s book tour had been cancelled over safety concerns for both the author and the various bookstores involved. But even with all that in mind, I was unprepared for what I stumbled across on the internet.
I have not read American Dirt (I intend to read it, primarily because I trust Dan’s judgement, and I have already ordered a copy) so I am in no position to judge the merits of the few legitimate reviews I read. I say “legitimate” because ninety-five percent of the negative reviews were everything I just mentioned in my opening paragraph: superficial, gratuitous, egregious, vitriolic, ad hominem, adolescent. None of the negative reviews I saw discussed literary quality, plot structure, character development, point of view, verisimilitude of detail and landscape. Instead, there was a litany of adolescent outrage and irrational anger that a non-Mexican lady had written a novel about a uniquely Mexican experience. Cultural appropriation!
A writer’s job is just like an actor’s job in that he is supposed to project himself into the person he is writing about just as the actor does with the character he is portraying. Shakespeare probably never even laid eyes on a black person in 16th century England, but in Othello he created one of the most enduring, moving, and powerful portraits of any fictional black man ever created. Cultural or racial appropriation? Get over it. Mark Twain was neither black nor a slave, but he created one of the most moral and unforgettable black men in all of literature with the dignified and compassionate Jim. Cultural and racial appropriation? Get over it. Hemingway was not a Cuban, nor was he an impoverished, elderly commercial fisherman, but The Old Man and the Sea will be revered as long as people can read books (which, given some of what I read on the internet, won’t be for very long now). Cultural appropriation? Get over it. William Faulkner was neither black nor female, but he created poignantly memorable women, black and white. Cultural and sexual appropriation? Get over it. Tom Clancy doesn’t know diddlysquat about running a submarine, but he did a hell of convincing job of writing about it. Maritime appropriation? Get over it. Joaquin Phoenix may be a little weird, but he isn’t a psychopath and hasn’t killed anyone yet, as far as I know, but he did a hell of a convincing job in Joker. Psychiatric appropriation? Get over it. If writers and actors were only allowed to write about and portray what they really are, the world would be an artistically impoverished place. More than it already is, I mean.
One reviewer whined that it was hard enough already for Latino and Latina writers to get their work published. Well, baby, I’ve got news for you: the publishing industry has changed in the same ways the movie industry has changed and save for the few insiders who churn out the bestsellers or the pulp fiction, everyone has a hard time getting published. Far better and more successful writers than I have a hard time getting their next one into print. The only ones who appear regularly in print are the ones who churn out books that make pots of money, and I don’t care if they’re great artists or schlock artists; I envy them and wish I could do it.
Any work of art, any creative endeavor, must be judged for its merits and only for its merits. If you start conflating the art and the artist, you’re on the road to perdition (great movie with that title, by the way). Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski both apparently committed despicable criminal acts. Ask me if I’m going to let that inhibit my enjoyment of Shakespeare in Love or Chinatown. Hemingway was a loathsome and insecure bully and braggart. Ask me if I’m going to stop rereading him from time to time. Caravaggio was a murderer and a generally violent and unlikeable fellow. Ask me if I would refuse to hang one of his paintings in my living room.
There are countless gifted Mexican writers. They should fire up their computers and get to work with their own take on American dirt.