Political Correctness: American Dirt

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courtesy of Amazon

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!

Bullshit.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Political Correctness: American Dirt”

  1. Yes!

    This book has garnered quite a bit of discussion in my literature class. On the one hand we seem to agree she should have some level of understanding how life is for Mexican immigrants, and on the other hand, we wonder why she is being judged unjustly harsh for her work of fiction. It really makes no sense to me. I am quite tempted to order the book and read it so I can rationally make up my own mind.

    Here is one thing I have wondered; is it at all possible that the hubbub surrounding this book and it’s release is nothing more than a manipulative ploy to get this book known, ordered, read, and discussed? “Let’s create a media frenzy about this book by pointing out how unqualified the author is to write it. People will talk about it and buy the book.” The methods are crazy and leave a lot to be desired but the book is well-known and discussed…even on a small college campus in podunk Nebraska.

    I really miss the days of friendly disagreements, debates that were debates, we could agree to disagree, and please pass the potato salad. Now everyone is so hot to be offended and then in turn, offend everyone else. I sat in a high school classroom today judging a speech meet and noticed a sign on the wall, “Be Kind or Be Quiet.” I think we all need to learn that.

    Please, don’t completely stop blogging. I enjoy your voice of reason in the crazy. We need it to counterbalance the rest of the world who has gone mad with hatred.

  2. As a Mexican and a writer, my gripe is the stereotyping, the inaccuracies, and lack of knowledge. It needed to be better researched; understand the culture and lifestyle inside the country, not just some stories heard at the border.
    Plus, not great style, nor language. As far as the writing goes, it’s average.

    1. Those are all valid criticisms; when I finally get to read the thing I’ll see if I agree with you. I think what shocked me the most in the negative reviews I read was the ugly vitriol, not to mention enough threats, apparently, to cause the publisher to cancel the promotional tour. Though I suppose the writer above could be correct and that it was all a ploy to get free publicity. Either way, it dovetails neatly into the general, worldwide anger that seems to be taking over everything from politics to art to social commentary. Did Twitter create a culture of ugly anger, or did it just release something that had been simmering unnoticed?
      JP

      1. Neither comment was directed at me, but I do not believe Twitter (or Facebook which is even uglier in my experience) created the ugly anger. It merely became a place for us to anonymously expose what is inside.

        We are an incredibly angry people living in an increasingly angry world. We are no longer afraid or ashamed to show our anger and spew it wherever we desire.

        Have we always been angry?

  3. Here is another example; this time from music. I was annoyed to read about this last spring. I have hopefully attached a link to the news article but basically there was concern that a non-Inuit artist should be throat singing and that this was cultural appropriation. I always felt music was the most universal and unifying language. My ancestors were Czech and German yet I perform Celtic music. I also play Native American flute music and use R. Carlos Nakai’s book as a guide. Am I violating someone’s culture? Did R. Carlos Nakai not write and publish the book so that someone like me can learn and play his songs? I am more than happy to have someone else of any culture play the music I have written (but if you start making a lot of money with it, please send me a cheque!).
    Please let us know what you think of this book you refer to when you have read it and I can add it to my reading list.

    nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/should-non-inuit-performers…

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