Monday, March 09, 2020

Oprah Was Not Quite as Cowardly as I Accused Her of Being

(This was written to record my reactions to the show while watching it for just over one hour - sort of a live streaming of my immediate reactions.)

As it turns out, and I just found out about this ten minutes ago, I was a little hard on Oprah Winfrey in Saturday's post about her handling of American Dirt on her Book Club television show (as shown exclusively on Apple TV). 

I've just learned that there is a second part of the broadcast, a segment of just over an hour, during which Oprah interviews Jeanine Cummins in detail. I'm watching that interview as I write this post, and it provides some insights into the author's struggle to write the book and why she wrote it. Cummins was stalled and about to finish her "second failed draft of the book" when her father died suddenly at the dinner table. The author then went into a period of deep grieving that ended only months later when she began to write a new draft, the first half of which she completed in eight days, with the second half taking her another eight months to complete.

The conversation between Jeanine Cummins and Oprah Winfrey lasted for about 18 minutes before three of the author's critics were brought on stage to join the conversation. Jeanine Cummins admitted that she made some mistakes, and that some of what she said in her "Author's Note" was insensitively worded. I have to say that Cummins appears to be in a bit of shock during some of the conversation, and that she is obviously hurt and saddened by the personal attacks she has received since January. 

I found it a bit ironic to hear the word "saddened" used by two of her critics when they expressed how the publication of American Dirt made them feel. In their cases, they say they were hurt because they have written similar stories themselves and almost no one noticed their efforts. I get that. But one of the critics said that her goal is to keep American Dirt off of bookshelves - and that is simply wrong. I don't get that, and it saddened and angered me to hear her say it.

The book's publishers were also in the audience and they fielded a number of questions from the three Latina authors sitting on stage with Cummins. In fact, the publishers were strongly challenged on why the book tour promoting American Dirt was said to have been  cancelled because of "safety concerns." The three authors claim that assertion makes any criticism of the book look like something coming from an angry mob rather than from serious critics - and from this point onward, the publisher took the brunt of the criticism from the three women. I had to shake my head a bit when one of the women stressed that anyone has the right to write any story that touches the heart, only to immediately turn to Cummins to tell her that the way she wrote American Dirt proves her incompetence on the subject. 

Overall, Oprah Winfrey did a passable job here of covering the controversy (and herself) by handling the discussion the way she did. The critics of American Dirt had their say, and Jeanine Cummins had the guts to sit there and listen to their points. The publishers, to their own credit, said that the criticism should have been directed at them rather than at Cummins - and from the look on her face when they said it, Cummins probably agrees with them. Surprisingly (to me, at least), when personally criticized for her choice of American Dirt for her book club, Oprah buckled immediately and admitted that she was guilty of everything they charged her with (mostly negligence when it comes to choosing LatinX authors as book club picks) -  but NOW she promises to do better.

Questions/statements from audience members were largely supportive - as one look at the faces of the authors on stage with Cummins could have told you even with the sound off. I was, however, surprised that one particularly childish and vindictive comment that was personally directed at Cummins was not edited out of the program because it did nothing but taint the whole conversation. Too, some of the questions directed to Cummins from on stage near the end of the program made clear just how much the three authors seated near her dislike Cummins and how much contempt they have for her. 

Jealousy is an ugly thing, but even though Cummins sometimes had that deer-in-the-headlights look on her face, I think she handled herself well here. It's time to move on. It's time for publishers to be more aware of LatinX (a term I see no real need for) authors because they deserve a wider audience. It's time for readers to search these writers out and to read their work. 

But the conversation should not be specifically about Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt. It should be about the lack of diversity in publishing and it should be directed at publishers, not the author of one book. The truth is that Jeanine Cummins's critics (especially that shrill smart-ass from L.A. who was not on this panel) owe Cummins a debt of gratitude for making the whole lack-of-diversity-in-publishing conversation possible. Without the success of a book like American Dirt, none of this would be happening right now.

So thank the woman. She deserves it after what you've put her through. 

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