In the midst of the American Dirt backlash, Oprah ditches her next book selection

As you may recall, there was a huge backlash to Oprah selection of the novel American Dirt for her book club. The situation became so intense that the publisher canceled the author’s book tour citing safety concerns. For her part, Oprah didn’t do what the critics wanted her to do, which was pull the book as a selection for her book club. Instead, she held a two hour long, televised discussion featuring some of the book’s critics. The Associated Press said the critics put the novel on trial:

When Oprah Winfrey chose the novel “American Dirt” for her book club, she imagined engaging in an impassioned television dialog about the narrative, which follows a Mexican mother and her son fleeing to the United States.

Instead, Winfrey ended up organizing a show that put the book, author Jeanine Cummins and Winfrey herself on trial. After critics complained about the novel’s portrayal of Latinos, she turned the forum into a debate about the marginalization of Latino voices, the lack of diversity in publishing and the question of who is best suited to tell a given story…

After introducing Cummins, Winfrey was openly sympathetic but directly raised the many issues of recent months. The author was visibly tense — her expression grim and unchanging, her hands and fingers entwined — as Winfrey read from social media postings that called Cummins “clueless” and her novel a “whitewash” of a human rights crisis.

It sounds less like a trial and more like a struggle session. Oprah acknowledged that in the past she hasn’t really thought about who published the book or who wrote it, only about whether she liked it. But she admitted that, going forward, she would avoid wading into similar controversy which takes up a tremendous amount of energy:

It has not been a concern of mine, or of interest to me, who is publishing the book. …. “Oh, I chose three Random House books in a row,” or “I chose the Harper’s (HarperCollins) book and then I chose another Harper’s book.” That has never been the (focus). I just really go on “Do I like the book?” and “What is the book?” And, now, I will pay more attention to that. I will also pay more attention to who is writing it. This has actually caused me to pause about who’s writing it: Am I going to have to spend the next two months defending the writer, defending the writer’s right to write the book, or can we actually talk about the story?

I’m not going to play it safer, but I’m not going to wade into water if I don’t have to. I don’t have to wade into water and drown if I don’t have to, because, you know, this has taken up a lot of my energy, a lot of her (Cummins’) energy, and it’s taken the attention away from the real reason I want people to read books.

Who wants to spend time defending themselves against SJW critics? Better to simply avoid irritating them in the first place. And it seems Oprah is taking her own advice to heart because yesterday the next selection for the book club was canceled after some similar criticism:

Winfrey had originally chosen “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell as the March selection for “Oprah’s Book Club,” but the decision has been taken to ditch the forthcoming novel, Variety has confirmed.

“Ultimately we did not end up moving forward with it as a book club selection,” read a brief statement from an “Oprah’s Book Club” spokesperson.

“My Dark Vanessa” centers around a fifteen-year-old girl who becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher. The novel has been subject to criticism online, notably from author Wendy Ortiz, whose 2014 memoir “Excavation” had a similar plot to Russell’s novel, only with a Latinx character at the heart of it.

“can’t wait until February when a white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like ‘Excavation’ is lauded,” Ortiz tweeted earlier this year.

Both books have since been reviewed, and no plagiarism found, while Russell has also admitted that “My Dark Vanessa” is based partly on her own experiences.

So there wasn’t any plagiarism but Oprah ditched the book anyway. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say she is hoping to avoid a fight with someone named “Ortiz” that could lead to her spending the next month defending another white author from a Latino author’s fury. The accusations don’t have to be true at this point they just have to be potentially exhausting to deal with. Why drown yourself in controversy when it’s so much easier to placate the critics?

As for Cummins, the author of American Dirt, she has also changed her future plans:

In a pre-publication interview with the AP, Cummins had said she was working on a novel set, at least in part, in Puerto Rico. She now expresses doubt about that book.

“I’m not a glutton for punishment,” she said, explaining that her greatest concern is in keeping her literary “voice” and “making sure that the experience of this moment doesn’t make me second-guess or subvert the stories that move my heart.”

All of which sounds like a win for identity politics and a loss for the idea that authors and artists can tell any story and reach any audience.