The “Right” To Write

We are away for a week here in France. We spent our first night in Geneva, Switzerland:

[Geneva, Switzerland. January 31, 2020. Photo by me.]

We didn’t stay in that hotel! We couldn’t afford that on the shore of Lake Geneva. We were just taken with its name – “D’Angleterre” – French for “Of England” – so I snapped that pic. LOL!

We are now in the ski town of La Clusaz in the Alps, about an hour and a half drive from Geneva. We have been here many times over the years. We love this place:

[Roman Catholic Church, La Clusaz. Photo by me, February 2, 2020.]

But this is not a travel post. It is mostly a further look at the “uproar” I addressed in my previous post on the American Dirt “controversy”. That you may know had been stirred up by Oprah Winfrey recommending that novel and actor Salma Hayek having then recommended it without reading it.

A sorta famous writer named Stephen King also praised the book. On his Twitter the other day, Mr. King posted – although it is hard to tell if he is being sarcastic here or not – apparently about threats directed at American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins:

Shocking exactly no one, Mr. King’s tweet attracted LOTS of replies. Most it seems attack him, attack Ms. Cummins, and beat up on her novel; although it is unclear how many of those assailing the book have actually read it cover to cover – as Oprah Winfrey recommends. America’s likely best-known book reader had even called it “a magnificent novel.”

Having a look into some recent tweets by one I had noticed vehemently disagreeing with King (and by extension, Winfrey), led me to see this in her Twitter timeline:

[From Twitter.]

As someone a bit more than half Italian-American, I know a few things about being misunderstood and stereotyped. Based on her tweet, it appears “rice and beans” is one of those “very basics” of Mexico. So “Author Missy Jane” bashes Ms. Cummins for getting Mexico so “wrong,” yet could it be asked disturbingly what is more reductionist and stereotypical in asserting – as she does there and proudly – that “rice and beans” are something that is “very basic” about Mexico?

Think of what any author faces based on muddled thinking like that?

1) Author sitting at their desk opens an emailed Word doc, to find the manuscript full of editor suggestions, and spots this sentence…

“Carlos was enjoying a plate of rice and beans…”

…with a red line through it. Editor wrote: Stop! You can’t write that Mexicans eat rice and beans. You are perpetuating a stereotype. They eat other things too.

Author thinks: Yet if I don’t write that, am I not misrepresenting Mexican culture?

2) Author emails back this correction:

“Carlos was enjoying spaghetti and meatballs…”

Editor replies: Nope, you can’t write that either, because it displays a lack of understanding of Mexican cuisine. Yes, some Mexicans do eat pasta and love it, but it isn’t really representative of the full experience of the people.

Author thinks: But maybe Carlos just likes spaghetti and meatballs?

3) Author skips to their manuscript’s next chapter and sees this too was red-lined:

“Carlos was skiing in the Alps…”

Editor had struck that out too: Won’t do. You know only the very affluent European-status-chasing elite really can do that. So writing that Carlos skis in Europe separates him from most Mexicans and so misrepresents most Mexicans.

Author sighs and then throws his computer out the window as he fumes: But there are Mexicans who love to ski in the Alps!

…And on and on it could go. “Carlos,” frankly, could enjoy spaghetti and meatballs in the Alps after skiing and the next day have some rice and beans. “Carlos” is NOT all of Mexico or all Mexicans, “Carlos” is merely “Carlos.”

To some, clearly that is not quite possible, as one commenter told Oprah Winfrey at her book club:

[A comment about “American Dirt” at Oprah’s Instagram book club page.]

Also unnerving is when we see comments like those above that declare a writer has “no right” to write a book: there are people who actually think that way. Ms. Cummins does not owe anyone an explanation for her fiction or the reasons for what she wrote and why. The book is her statement and her art is her art… and no one has a “right” to tell her how to pursue it.

Overlooked is Ms. Cummins merely wrote a novel that tells a fictional story. She did not attempt to produce a doctoral dissertation on drug cartels. Nor is the tale meant to be a United Nations survey on the position of women within the “basic” culture of Mexico and how Mexico and Mexicans must be portrayed in literature.

At the root of this type of literary “controversy” is usually this. I am regularly surprised – although I don’t know any longer really why I am – by how many out there do not understand what a novel is. defines a “novel” as:

a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.

Like this:

[In-flight reading. January 31, 2020. Photo by me.]

No novel is meant to address an entirety of anything. For instance, The Winds of War does not come anywhere near close to covering “ALL” that happens between the years 1939-1941; nor are the characters meant to be representative of humanity’s “social makeup.” Expecting such from a book is madness.

[In-flight reading. January 31, 2020. Photo by me.]

Thus novels are not encyclopedias. They are fictitious snapshots the author chooses to highlight of various moments in the lives of a few chosen fictitious individuals, set amidst a backdrop of certain wider – possibly fictitious, but perhaps factual to varying degrees – events, in order, often, not just perhaps to entertain, but also to make some broader moral and social statement(s).

Doubtless she made some mistakes in the book; no book is perfect. That said, I believe if Ms. Cummins made any major overall misjudgement in writing it, it may be this. Evidently she either chose to overlook, or in her determination to write the novel she wanted to write she simply forgot, how major English-language fiction has been written for the last two centuries: from Jane Austen, to the Brontes, to Fitzgerald, to Hemingway, to Zadie Smith, and the list goes on, authors call(ed) upon personal experiences to center their books.

In building her novel around a Mexican woman, regardless of Ms. Cummins’s personal knowledge or researches or great sympathy for her main character and the subject, she may have veered perhaps a bit too far from the adage attributed to Hemingway: “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.”

[The beach not far from La Madeleine, known since June 6, 1944 as “Utah Beach,” in Normandy, France. Photo by me, 1995. Used as back cover for Trilogy: Passports, Frontiers, Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1997: The Three Novels in One Volume (2018 Compilation). Paperback only.]

I suppose that is why my novels tend to be centered around – whether in the 1990s or in the 1790s – uh, a New Yorker man who I admit is often a lot like, well, err, me.

No one can reasonably argue I don’t know such a man or cannot write of him accurately.

I know “him” a heckuva lot better than does anyone else.

At her book club, this self-identified Mexican-American commenter (whose Instagram handle, interestingly, is in French – is that reflective of the “very basics” of Mexico?) stating…

[From Instagram.]

…drew this reply from Oprah Winfrey herself:

[From Instagram.]

And we live in a literary world now that appears increasingly overrun with “fantasy” and “sci-fi.” Fewer and fewer writers seem to write about “real” people. And why might that be?

One reason could be seen in just this American Dirt brouhaha: the minefield that potentially awaits any author in writing about human beings (who have races, religions, sexuality and much more) in actual places. Note, for example, again, Texan “Author Missy Jane.” As an author herself, she writes about… “gargoyles.”

Have a good Monday, wherever you are reading and writing in the world. 🙂


NOTE: More previously, here, January 28: “In The Face Of The ‘Numerous'”.