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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins- Is This an Important Novel?

February 3, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was meant to be an important novel.  The cover features a reviewer’s comment that calls American Dirt “A Grapes of Wrath for our times.”  That’s a big deal.  American Dirt became an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  Sandra Cisneros has praised this book.  Even prolific horror author Stephen King even gave advanced accolades for the novel.

I should mention that American Dirt has become a bit controversial (you can read more about it here) because the author is not of Mexican heritage and allegedly gets a bunch of details about immigration wrong.  Some critics say that because the author is not of Mexican descent and hasn’t experienced that particular immigration experience that she had no business writing the book in the first place. 

This type of thing has been an issue for a while.  A few years ago publishing companies started hiring sensitivity readers to double check stuff for writers who were writing about experiences they hadn’t experienced.  I guess at the very least, the sensitivity readers for American Dirt didn’t do a good job.

Anyway, I’m more interested in Jeanine Cumming’s writing in American Dirt.  Is this book really any good  Did this novel deserve the hype?  What makes other people think this writing is so great?

When Stephen King praised American Dirt, he wrote,”I defy anyone to read the first seven pages and not finish it.”

I enjoy defying Stephen King, so I’ve done exactly what he defied me to do.  I read the first seven pages of American Dirt and decided not to finish it.

The first scene (or the first seven pages) depicts a boy Luca and his mother hiding in a bathtub listening to their family get massacred outside.  It’s meant to be an emotional scene.  It was probably a difficult scene to write because it’s from the boy’s point of view and the semi-stream of consciousness for an eight year-old boy makes the scene plod a bit.

Plus, the author is not an eight year-old boy (and has never been an eight year-old boy) and (according to today’s online mob critics) has no business trying to tell the story of an eight year-old boy.  It’s not the author’s story to tell.

I’m kidding.

Like I said earlier, I’m more interested in the author’s writing style.  Here’s a sample of what I mean (the parenthesis are my commentary):

The clatter of gunfire outside continues, joined by an odor of charcoal and burning meat.  Papi Is grilling carne asada out there and Luca’s favorite chicken drumsticks.  He likes them only a tiny bit blackened (misplaced detail), the crispy tang of the skins (misplaced detail).  His mother pulls her head up long enough to look him in the eye.  She puts her hands on both of his face and tries to cover his ears (she’d probably hold him still and cover his mouth).  Outside, the gunfire slows.  It ceases and then returns in short bursts, mirroring, Luca thinks, the sporadic and wild rhythm of his heart (would he really think that?).  In between the racket, Luca can still hear the radio, a woman’s voice announcing Le Mejor 100.1 FM Acapulco! followed by Banda MS singing about how happy they are to be in love.  Someone shoots the radio (I guess someone doesn’t like Banda MS), and there’s laughter (nobody in that group likes Banda MS?). Men’s voices.  Two or three, Luca can’t tell.  Hard bootsteps on Abuela’s patio.

This scene might have worked better from an adult’s point-of-view, especially with the “…mirroring, Luca thinks, the sporadic and wild rhythm of his heart” kind of insights that literary authors feel like they have to put into important books.

But I could be wrong.  Editors, and Oprah, and Sandra Cisneros, and Stephen King disagree.  I thought the first seven pages were a little sloppy.  The story could have been gripping, but the author’s style (and her cultural misappropriation… haha) got in the way.  An important novel really should be written more carefully than that.

American Dirt isn’t the only highly publicized novel that I didn’t finish.  Two decades ago, I actually got angry at the following novel, but it wasn’t because of cultural misappropriation.  As much as I hate admitting this, it was for a much dumber reason.

Literary Glance: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen


When The Corrections came out in 2001, I didn’t want to read it because I thought the author Jonathan Franzen came across as a prick. He looked like a prick in his publicity photos.  To be fair, a lot of authors look pretentious in their publicity photos, but Franzen came across even worse than most.  Plus, he was going through a literary feud with Oprah Winfrey that didn’t make him look good.  Even people who despised Oprah Winfrey thought Franzen came across like a prick during their feud.

I admit, most of my anti-Franzen attitude was my own bitterness.  Every unsuccessful writer should be allowed to go through a bitter stage, and 2001-2003 was mine.  I had just given up on writing after ten years of several projects, one coming kind of close to getting published (“kind of close to” probably meant “never had a chance of,” but I was at least told I was “kind of close”) and I was bitter that some guy like Franzen who wasn’t much older than me was getting published, getting publicized, and then almost winning a Pulitzer, while I had nothing to show for my own efforts.  I tried reading The Corrections just so that I could be justified in hating it.

Read more here!

Not every book is important.  Some are MUST-READ novels.  Must-read novels are more important than important novels because readers are manipulated into thinking that something will be missing from their lives if they don’t read these must-read books.

I have heard (truism alert!) that people regret what they haven’t done more than what they have done.  I’m not sure this applies to books.  There are a lot of must-read books that I’m glad I haven’t read.

The Literary Rants: Must-Read Novels

Whenever there's a must-read list, this one's on it.

There are only two legitimate reasons for a book to be a “must-read.”  You fail a class if you don’t read it.   Or you get fired from a job for not reading it.  I don’t have to worry about failing classes anymore, and I don’t have to read books for my job (I have to read stuff that’s worse than most books), so there are no must-read books anymore.

I understand that using the term must-read is hyperbole.  I have nothing against a little hyperbole.  And I usually don’t like it when people take hyperbole literally.  During the political season, politicians use hyperbole, and then other politicians accuse each other of lying when they were using hyperbole.

Read more here!

What do you think?  Does American Dirt sound like an important novel, a must-read novel, or neither?  Should fiction authors write only about cultures and events that they have experienced?  Have you read the first seven pages of American Dirt, and if so, are you willing to defy Stephen King?

  1. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel permalink

    Sounds just as important as Shakira and Jenifer Lopez in the superbows: crap that many people think they enjoy but have been actually manipulated into giving their own life time to crap instead of dedicating it to doing something they might actually enjoy, like masturbating or watching a Bergman movie or making coffee with plenty of sugar.

  2. I think the idea that fiction writers may only write from their personal experience is, by definition, ridiculous. Because, you know, it’s fiction, it’s not supposed to have happened to anyone.

  3. I haven’t read American Dirt, but that excerpt doesn’t sound too compelling. I don’t think I will read it at all.

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