On January 21, 2020, author Jeanine Cummins released her new novel American Dirt.
American Dirt is about a Mexican migrant’s American migration struggles. Predictably, the novel was celebrated as great fiction prior to its release:
It sold to Flatiron Books at auction for a reported seven-figure advance. Flatiron announced a first print run of 500,000 copies. (For most authors, a print run of 20,000 is pretty good.) It received glowing blurbs from luminaries like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Sandra Cisneros. Early trade reviews were rapturous. The New York Times had it reviewed twice — once in the daily paper, once in the weekly Book Review — in addition to interviewing the author and publishing an excerpt from the novel.
But when the author revealed that she is, gasp, white, its glowing reviews quickly soured:
But as the publication date approached, the narrative around American Dirt has changed. One of those New York Times reviews was a pan, the other was mixed at best. Another critic revealed that she’d written a review panning the book, too, and the magazine that commissioned her review killed it.
Suddenly Cummins’ novel “seemed to fetishize the pain of her characters at the expense of treating them as real human beings,” such that it was “trauma porn”.
Shortly thereafter Cummins’ publisher cancelled her American Dirt book tour and Oprah Winfrey backed off her glowing endorsement of the book. General social justice handwringing about narrative and structural cultural appropriation ensued.
Generally, cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. It’s a whole-cloth social justice invention born of postcolonial white guilt over relative Western civilization success.
All cultures borrow continuously from each other, taking the best parts from others and merging them into their own culture. And they always have.
If white women must stop wearing bejewelled bindis then the rest of the world must give up blue jeans and pop music.
And no, cultural borrowing doesn’t magically become sinful because the borrowing culture has more wealth than the borrowed, in large part because the borrowing increases the soft power of the borrowed culture: India has more influence in the world because the West is obsessed with yoga and butter chicken, not less.
Antidote #1: Cultural appropriation doesn’t exist.
Ie: the author imagines a story and then writes it. If the market likes the book, it sells.
Authenticity of the author’s life experience may inform the quality of the fiction. But it has no bearing on that author’s right to express his or her imagination in literary form.
To think otherwise is as dumb as thinking actors must actually be the identity of the “acting” role they’re playing. Could you imagine telling Tolkien he couldn’t write about hobbits because he wasn’t one?
Antidote #2: an author’s lack of identity authenticity does not reduce her right or ability to express her imagination.
ARTISTIC QUALITY IS DEAD: LONG LIVE AUTHENTIC IDENTITY
The social justice mob got the American Dirt controversy wrong. Cultural appropriation isn’t the story. The real epiphany is that artistic quality no longer determines artistic value.
Literary critics originally characterized American Dirt as a good book because it discussed the tribulations of migrants, who, because of their brown skin and poverty, are located high up on the intersectional hierarchy.
When its author turned out to be a white woman writing about brown experiences she did not authentically share, American Dirt moved down the hierarchy to its lower end. In doing so it became a bad book.
For social justice, literary quality has literally shifted from a product of character development, plot arc, and story-crafting to a product of location on the intersectional hierarchy.
In other words, you’re no longer permitted to like art because you like it. You may only like art if it serves the “correct” political perspective.
Social justice war is peace.
Antidote #3: Social justice has shifted art’s quality from content evaluation to the degree of the artist’s identity victimization.
1. Cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. All cultures continuously borrow from one another, enhancing the culture and power of borrower and borrowed, respectively.
2. Fiction is a work of imagination. An author’s lack of life experience authenticity does not disentitle her from expressing her imagination in written form.
3. Social justice has shifted artistic quality from content evaluation to artist’s location on the intersectional hierarchy. The greater the artist’s historical identity victimization the better the art (which is crazy).