What Happens When a Novel Gets People Talking?

What Happens When a Novel Gets People Talking? by @barbaradelinsky #talking #books #controversy

It used to be that a good writer could write about anything, that a novelist could interpret reality in the way she chose, that a publisher could publish any book that was intelligent, relevant, and well-grounded. But have the rules changed? In this day and age of PC to the extreme, can only a rape victim write about rape or a Jew write about the Holocaust? Can only a gun owner write about gun rights, or the parent of an autistic child write about autism?

I haven’t blogged in nearly eight months, in part because I’ve been busy writing other things and in part because I didn’t feel I had anything to blog about. That changed with the publication of AMERICAN DIRT, by Jeanine Cummins.

What Happens When a Novel Gets People Talking? by @barbaradelinsky #talking #books #controversy

What Readers Are Talking About

I received an advance copy of this book from my editor, who knows my taste in reading and thought I would like it. Honestly?  I was blown away. The subject (Latino migrants making the perilous journey to the United States), the main characters (a desperate Mexican mother, two Honduran sisters), vivid settings, flawless pacing, heart-pounding situations, and the power of the author’s prose made this as good as any book I’ve read of late.

Not everyone agrees. Since its publication, there’s been a huge uproar from those who feel that it misstates the immigrant experience, that it panders to stereotype, and that, since it was written by a non-migrant, non-Latino woman, it has no value.  Social media has provided a platform for the frenzy, particularly now that Oprah has chosen it for her latest book club pick.

My Own Brush With Controversy

Having been the butt of similar criticism, I take this issue personally. Do any of you remember FAMILY TREE? In it, I created a white couple who gave birth to a black baby. The book did phenomenally well and sparked amazing discussions. While on tour, I met many African Americans who said that I had told their story in this book. At the same time, the nay-sayers asked, What made me think that I could tackle this subject? I was white!

My answer was the same then as now. I wrote FAMILY TREE with no pretense of being anything but what I am. I had a publishing platform and an interest in this subject, and I researched up the wazoo to get it right. My book is told from the POV of the parents and grandparents of this child, all of whom are white. Had this same story been written by a black writer, it would be different. I invited my critics to write their own books on the topic.

Isn’t Talking About Controversial Issues A Good Thing?

I say the same to the critics of AMERICAN DIRT. A novelist comes at a book from a point she chooses. That is her right. Mind you, I don’t know Jeanine Cummins. But at the end of her book, she offers a detailed account of how she came to write AMERICAN DIRT and the efforts she made to get it right. It sounds to me like she acted in good faith. Whether you agree with her approach or not, she has certainly gotten people talking about the immigrant experience.

Can we all agree that’s a good thing?

I’m a strong advocate of political correctness. But I’m an even stronger advocate of free speech. So yes, the critics can have their say. I simply wish they would respect Ms. Cummins’ right to it as well.

Feel free to comment.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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  1. Jayne Martin on February 24, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    I could not agree with you more. Every day it seems the PC police have labeled another word or term we aren’t allowed to use with no consideration for context or intent. It drives me up the wall. I’m strongly on Team Artistic Freedom. This poor writer has been hounded out of the right to enjoy the publication of something she worked so hard on. If people have issues with the publishing industry, fine. God knows, there are issues to take up with them. But don’t shame a writer for doing what writer’s do. Create an imaginary world and populate it with imaginary characters. When I was writing for television I wrote about a rape victim. I’ve never been raped. I wrote about a family who’s son is randomly shot and killed. I’ve never experienced that either. Arg! You’ve clearly pressed one of my buttons here. Thanks for writing about this. Oh, and full disclosure, I will be contacting you about doing a review of my new flash fiction collection, but one has nothing to do with the other.

  2. Pat Hart on March 25, 2020 at 1:39 am

    After 83 years of living, it should no longer amaze me that so many people have difficulty separating the requirements of ‘fiction’ from those of ‘nonfiction’ in the literary arts particularly – in ‘real life’, generally, come to think of it. We are in the era of ‘alternate facts’, after all. However, the Arts have always provided rich fodder for critics. Most of us learn to lick our wounds in private.
    Guess most also yearn quietly for someone to champion their work, as you have championed Jeanine Cummins. As a visual artist, I’m a chronically addicted reader and will certainly read this book. Thank you for yours, too.

  3. Melody Reed on September 4, 2020 at 9:01 am

    I just finished “Afterlife” by Julia Alvarez and found it to be an interesting insight into the lives of desperate migrants fighting to find peace in America. It is based during present times and sadly reminded me of the plight of Jewish people during Hitler’s regime trying to hide from the Nazi Gestapo. I love your recommended reading list and this book was on it. Thank you.

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