Last October, Oprah’s Book Club chose My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell as its March pick, positioning it to be one of the biggest debuts of the year. A few months later, amid a heated controversy surrounding its January pick, American Dirt, they abruptly dropped it.
When the book club first contacted Russell’s publisher to inform them of the pick, My Dark Vanessa, a propulsive read about a relationship between a 15-year-old and her high-school English teacher, had already secured a seven-figure advance and blurbs by superstar authors, including Stephen King. Oprah’s selections continue to be one of the best ways to get people to buy books in the increasingly uncertain business of publishing. (American Dirt, despite its controversy, has sat on or near the top of the Times best-seller list since its publication.) Russell’s publishers decided to move the book’s release back from January to March to accommodate the club’s schedule. Then, in late January, as the pushback to Oprah’s selection of American Dirt was gathering momentum, a minor controversy surrounding My Dark Vanessa sprang up on Twitter. It was after that, a spokesperson for Russell’s publisher, William Morrow, confirmed that Oprah’s team said they would not be moving forward with the pick. Publishers Lunch first reported the news earlier this week.
Leigh Haber, the books editor for O magazine, declined to discuss the book club’s rationale for choosing to drop My Dark Vanessa. But she did suggest that, moving forward, they hoped to avoid books that provoked controversies that might overwhelm the book club’s discussion. “We want to be sure that Ms. Winfrey continues to pick books she is passionate about, but we also want to be really mindful that the selection process doesn’t create noise around the book that will drown out the discussion of the book itself and prevent her from being able to focus on what’s in the book and the author,” Haber said.
The controversies around the American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa vary in significant ways, but in the swirl of tweets and subtweets, the two stories were conflated, which may have influenced Oprah’s decision to drop the book. The book club took heat after Oprah announced that her choice for January was American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants written by a white woman. Like My Dark Vanessa, American Dirt had also secured a seven-figure advance, and many in the book world accused the author, Jeanine Cummins, of perpetuating racist stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and profiting off of a trauma she’d never experienced. Oprah’s selection arguably turned the controversy into a national conversation, and eventually, American Dirt’s publisher canceled the book tour, citing “threats to booksellers and the author.” Oprah didn’t change her selection. A few days later, she posted a video to her book club’s Instagram account noting the “outpouring … of very passionate opinions,” and announcing that she intended to address the concerns of the Latinx community at her upcoming televised book club meeting this month, where she hoped to “bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories.”
Meanwhile, My Dark Vanessa, was swept up in a parallel drama. On January 19, a writer named Wendy Ortiz tweeted: “[C]an’t wait until February when a white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like Excavation is lauded.” Ortiz, who is Latinx, is the author of a 2014 memoir about a teenage girl’s relationship with her English teacher, and her followers were quick to suggest that Russell had co-opted her book, and was yet another example of the publishing industry’s long history of valuing white voices and disregarding others. Russell didn’t plagiarize Ortiz, and the controversy eventually subsided, even as the anger over American Dirt continued to gather momentum.
“I’m truly surprised that Oprah pulled her pick of My Dark Vanessa,” said an industry insider familiar with the situation. “The controversy about American Dirt, which is legitimate, is a completely separate situation than the My Dark Vanessa controversy, which was a few days of Twitter drama that was quickly resolved.”
In an interview with the Associated Press after the book club meeting dedicated to American Dirt, Oprah lamented the way the controversy shifted the conversation away from the book itself — instead, the discussion had focused on the lack of diversity in the publishing industry and who has the right to tell certain stories. “This has taken up a lot of my energy, a lot of her (Cummins’) energy, and it’s taken away my attention from why people want to read books,” Oprah said. She added that she planned to anticipate potential backlashes in the future so that she would not be forced “to wade into that water” again. (On Friday, Oprah’s book club discussion of American Dirt will be out on Apple TV+.)
Haber echoed her boss’s perspective. The controversy surrounding American Dirt, she said, “inhibited the conversation about the contents of the book. What Oprah wants to do is to pick books she’s passionate about, and to help facilitate important conversations around them.” In the future, she added, “We are going to be very cognizant of wanting the selections not to create noise around the book that prevent her from discussing the book.” For now, the book club has no pick for March.
“We’re disappointed with the decision but we’re thrilled that My Dark Vanessa is resonating in such a powerful way with readers,” a spokesperson from William Morrow said in an email, noting that the book, which will be released next week, is still the No. 1 Indie Next pick, No. 1 Library Reads pick, and the Amazon Best Book of the Month pick.