Of Mammies, Migrants and Book Editors

Posted on February 6, 2020

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What do you give up as an author, when you turn over almost all creative control to a publishing kingmaker?

Sometimes the cost should give an ambitious writer reason to pause.

The publishing industry tried to peddle another error prone novel about people of color, specifically Latinos.

But this time a marginalized group fought back. The book is American Dirt, published by Flatiron Books under MacMillan (one of the big five consisting of Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.)

 

Salma Hayek endorses American Dirt-then rescinds her endorsement

Salma Hayek endorses American Dirtthen rescinds her endorsement

 

Flatiron/Macmillan pulled out all the stops. Their promotion dept went into overdrive hyping up the book. Celebrities, even those who now admit they hadn’t even read the novel (Salma Hayek) lended their name and star power. Oprah Winfrey announced American Dirt as her book club pick of the month. That appeared to be the tipping point. Social media’s backlash was so swift, the very same media outlets that were enlisted to positively market the book ended up promoting articles that dissected the novel.

Many weren’t positive or complimentary. And several were mad as hell. Additional mis-steps were made by the book’s publisher. A glaring one was to claim that the author had received death threats. While Flatiron has still not publicly retracted their allegation, a group called Dignidad Literaria met with representatives from Flatiron and also Oprah Winfrey’s company, where they received confirmation that the author had not received any death threats.

 

 

Yet Flatiron pulled Jeanine Cummins off her book tour because of “safety concerns” (primarily due to death threats that never were). This then caused Cummins to be viewed as a victim who needed protection from her critics.

I’ve already got a post up listing the top ten issues with both The Help and American Dirt here

In this post I’d like to explore the puppet master behind the scenes, the book editor who saw promise and dollar signs in American Dirt and The Help, but somehow missed red flags both stories possessed.

 

 

FIRST, A BIT OF HISTORY ON THE POWER OF AN EDITOR

 

 

 

Chances are you haven’t heard the name Tay Hohoff.

But I think you should know her. Ms. Hohoff was the editor behind “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a book that has reached almost mythic proportions in the United States. Tay Hohoff whipped the manuscript into shape. She made suggestions, edited sentences, and helped to craft at least one well known character into a fictional icon. That character is Atticus Finch.

The book and its characters are regularly referred to and still taught in schools. Atticus Finch is the paternal, patient, perfect single dad. His goodness is Christlike. Why, the way he stands up to the bigots who want to lynch his black client Tom Robinson is dramatic tension at its finest.

So for those of you who don’t want to know the truth, I’d advise you not to read any further.

 

Okay, you were warned.

 

 

“Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—“Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.” – Publisher’s description of Go Set A Watchman

 

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But that’s the thing. It takes talent to distill a novel into a few key points and clever language that will pique a reader’s interest. Too bad the book doesn’t do it justice.

 

Because the Atticus Finch most of us grew up reading, the Atticus many admired and perhaps even strived to be like was a lie. Sure, he was always a fictional character. But he was so well drawn that he almost felt real to some. And when well respected actor Gregory Peck portrayed him in his Oscar winning role from the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, that sealed it.

The first manuscript draft of what is known worldwide as “To Kill a Mockingbird” was released as a novel in 2015. That book is called “Go Set a Watchman,” and without Tay Hohoff’s editing (more like intervention I’d call it) “To Kill A Mockingbird” would not be the beloved, idolized classic we now know.

I say all this because TKAM’s bad first draft probably has much in common with The Help and American Dirt. The thing about the latter two books is that they share the same editor, Amy Einhorn. Einhorn majored in creative writing. Amy Einhorn is the person behind why and how both these books became the blockbusters they are, though each contain cultural blind spots that many readers readily overlook.

 

In “Go Set A Watchman” Scout is fully grown but the book is not a sequel. Atticus is a surly, disillusioned, newly converted member of the White Citizens Council and believes the NAACP is influencing Negroes to become “uppity.” As written, Atticus Finch is a racist.

In its own way “To Kill A Mockingbird” created characters that are as firmly etched in the American consciousness as Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s. Quizzical, precocious Scout. Protective, lovable big brother Jem. Doomed, innocent victim of racism and wrongly accused Tom. And wise, compassionate father knows best, Atticus.

For more information on Tay Hohoff, please read this article:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/books/the-invisible-hand-behind-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird.html

 

“To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee never released another novel in her lifetime.

 

 

Because this entire site deals primarily with The Help’s errors, this post contains more info on American Dirt.

 

 

THE HELP

 

US book cover for The Help

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid, Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her 17th white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women – mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends – view one another.

 – Publisher’s description of The Help

 

For The Help, editor Amy Einhorn assisted Kathryn Stockett in resurrecting and polishing up stereotypes named Aibileen, Minny and Constantine, Mammies for a new generation. In American Dirt, Einhorn helped Jeanine Cummins sharpen murderous Mexicans who will stop at nothing to kill Lydia Quixano Peréz and her genius son Luca. It’s also important to note that Einhorn bought both books. The Help was Einhorn’s pick for her own publishing imprint. American Dirt was bid on for Flatiron Books, where Einhorn was VP of Publishing. Einhorn has since moved to Henry Holt/MacMillan.

 

 

AMERICAN DIRT

 

So as not to offend, racially ambigious bird art continues to rule as covers when minorities or sensitive subjects are involved.

 

 

“Lydia Quixano Perez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable. Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with four books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same. Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward America, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the thousands of people trying to reach American dirt, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed when they finish reading it. It is a page-turner, it is a literary achievement, it is filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books for our times”  – Publisher’s description of American Dirt plot

 

 

“She’s [Einhorn] willing to work sentence by sentence with her authors”

https://stanfordmag.org/contents/the-einhorn-touch

 

 

” . . . to hit the sweet spot between literary and commercial—intelligent writing with a strong narrative and great storytelling.” – quote from Amy Einhorn

 

“In addition to that sweet spot, she’s [Einhorn] looking for a book she can describe in three minutes. A brief and compelling pitch to the firm’s sales staff is a necessity. “If you can’t get them on board immediately, the book won’t work.” The pitch also is needed for the outreach she does to booksellers. With a dwindling number of newspaper book-review sections, sales are increasingly dependent on word-of-mouth enthusiasm.”

https://stanfordmag.org/contents/the-einhorn-touch

 

 

Much like Einhorn and Stockett did with the black males of The Help, where it’s not segregation blacks should fear but the men they’re paired with, in American Dirt, author Jeanine Cummins has Mexicans as the heavies (all except Lydia and Luca – how much do you wanna bet they’re light, damn near white looking as the soon to be released movie will probably affirm).

Lydia and Luca decide to “pass” as migrants, joining in with the otherworldly beautiful Honduran Soledad and her sister. Others travel with them, side players who could very well state “well you know Lydia-“ as they’re enlisted to recite info instead of having it deftly woven into the storyline. Some are killed off to keep the action moving. Once the group reaches the promised land, a younger side character dies even though his presumed salvation is just up ahead.

Like Kathryn Stockett plunked naïve Skeeter right in the middle of the civil rights movement then forgot all about Jackson, MS being one of the main hotspots, Cummins places Lydia in Acapulco and has her also naïve to the viciousness of cartels, though she is a native of Mexico. The narco turf war of which Lydia’s journalist husband reports on only serves as a backdrop. The real story in American Dirt is the three way between Lydia, Sebastian (her murdered husband) and Javier, the suave, Don Juan cartel head who could be played by Johnny Depp (I doubt Antonio Banderas would want the headache of this role).

And because Lydia can’t appear too foreign, lest some American readers become unable to identify with her, she speaks (and reads) fluently in English. Javier is also gifted with fluency in English, and so is Lydia’s smarter than smart son Luca.

By doing this the reader can be comfortable being a voyeur during Lydia’s wistful flashbacks regarding how she was taken in and fooled by Javier.

While Javier struck me as swarmy as hell, this character seduces Lydia through a mutual love of books and conversation. And in a maddening turn Lydia seems to mourn more for the end of her budding relationship with Javier than her bullet riddled husband.

 

“I talked at great length with Amy Einhorn [her editor] about pulling the threat of Javier through the book so that Lydia never felt safe from him. The final reckoning with Javier actually came from a meeting with the producer who bought the movie rights. He wanted them to meet face-to-face, which I was very reluctant to do, but I did realize after talking to him that there should be a moment when Lydia has some kind of final say.” – Jeanine Cummins

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/81696-jeanine-cummins-s-new-novel-is-a-harrowing-immigrant-s-tale.html

 

In the same interview, Cummins admits that under Einhorn’ guidance she added 40,000 more words to the novel:

“She [Einhorn] was the only one who rolled up her sleeves; we spent our hour talking about how to edit the book. I ended up adding about 40,000 words after she bought the book, and I feel it is so much better because of her. She’s so smart; every time she gave me an edit, I would almost be embarrassed—I would say, ‘Why did I not see that before?’ She has a way of homing in on exactly the thing that’s missing or isn’t exactly right, and of really articulating what you need to do. The final third of the book, the border crossing, was just too quick, and she recognized every moment I had glossed over or rushed. Amy gets me in a way that feels tremendously exciting.”

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/81696-jeanine-cummins-s-new-novel-is-a-harrowing-immigrant-s-tale.html

 

But what about that premise of Mexican natives/citizens Lydia and Luca having to travel by land to the border? In the book, Lydia is unable to board a plane because Luca has no ID.

 

Professor Ignacio Sanchez Prado disputes this: 

“In Mexico, a citizen can go online and request a birth certificate and print it. This certificate is of legal value,” he said.

https://www.nbcboston.com/news/national-international/where-things-stand-on-the-american-dirt-book-controversy/

 

 

Cummins 4 year research time line has been reported as either 4, 5 or 7 years, up to the book’s publishing on Mexico and the migrants traveling through the country to the border.

 

“Einhorn will edit Cummins’s next novel as well, despite her recent move to Holt as president and publisher. “I don’t know exactly how the contract is finagled,” Cummins says, “but she will be my editor either at Flatiron or Holt. About the new book, I can say what very little I know, which is that it’s going to be about Puerto Rico. I don’t have any idea of the narrative arc yet, but there are so many social justice issues in Puerto Rico that are being underreported right now, it definitely feels like fertile ground for a new novel.”

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/81696-jeanine-cummins-s-new-novel-is-a-harrowing-immigrant-s-tale.html

 

For more on the mis-steps of American Dirt, see this post where Latino critics weigh in:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/a-list-of-critical-reviews-for-american-dirt/

 

 

When readers clapped during one of Jeanine Cummins’ early readings for American Dirt, the author gushed, “this is my Oscar moment” not wanting the applause to recede as she soaked it all in.

I don’t begrudge her that. But how is it Cummins couldn’t see the mis-steps in her own novel?

Was she too close to the project? Or did she agree to changes to please the powers that be at Flatiron? It all begs the question, how much of American Dirt is Jeanine Cummins, and how much is Amy Einhorn?

 

Because an author’s name is on the book, they get most of the accolades as well as the blame when something goes wrong. 

And something went terribly wrong with both The Help and American Dirt, though both are considered blockbusters. 

 

Many African Americans complained about the stereotypes in The Help.

Many Latinos complained about the stereotypes in American Dirt.

 

“what I bring to the picture is a publisher/editor who is incredibly hands on – about everything – covers, flap copy, securing quotes, soliciting booksellers, the list goes on and on. And lastly, a major difference is probably that I edit everything I publish. And I really edit. (which never ceases to amaze some agents, I should add)” – Amy Einhorn

http://blog.lauramunson.com/2010/01/25/interview-with-my-wonderful-editor-amy-einhorn/

 

 

 

This post is still being updated.

 

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