Blurbed to Death

How one of publishing’s most hyped books became its biggest horror story — and still ended up a best seller.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

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On a mild Monday this past February, a tense meeting unfolded in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. Four Latinx writers and activists sat on one side of a long conference table. Facing them was a collection of white editors and executives from Macmillan, the publishing house that had recently put out American Dirt, the most controversial book of the year, or maybe the century. A representative of Oprah Winfrey’s listened in on the phone, and a platter of sandwiches sat on the table. “I wouldn’t eat the sandwiches,” recalled Myriam Gurba, one of the activists. “Those are the enemies’ sandwiches.”

In the months leading up to American Dirt’s publication, Macmillan had positioned the page-turner — about a mother and son escaping cartel violence in Mexico — as a definitive chronicle of the migrant experience. Prominent readers had praised it in terms worthy of a Nobel Prize. The novelist Don Winslow called it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” Oprah, who picked it for her book club, wrote, “This story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant.” Gurba, who is Mexican American, saw it differently. In an essay for Tropics of Meta, an academic blog, she described it as shallow and full of harmful stereotypes and accused the author, Jeanine Cummins, a white woman, of writing “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.” Many agreed. The early praise gave way to a flood of criticism: Thousands of articles and tweets took issue with the author’s identity, the book itself, and, crucially, a massive marketing push that was viewed as tasteless and misleading. There was a plan to protest Cummins’s cross-country book tour. The week after the novel’s release, the tour was canceled. “Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety,” wrote Bob Miller, the president of Flatiron, the Macmillan imprint that had published the book. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

Gurba belonged to a network of Latinx writers, DignidadLiteraria, that had formed in the wake of American Dirt’s release to address what its members saw as systemic racism in the publishing industry. The group had requested the meeting at Flatiron because it hoped the company might listen to some of its proposals. In their detailed presentation, the activists urged Macmillan to hire more Latinx editors and to start an apprenticeship program to attract new talent. They pressed the company to open an imprint for Latinx writers and to provide those writers with the same level of support and publicity Cummins had received. Miller had agreed to meet with them because he wanted to understand their perspective and hoped to quiet the negative attention the book was getting. “He seemed to think, We will listen,” one employee said, “and then they will not be as heated in their rhetoric against the author. And we’ll all just work it out. But I don’t think that was ever really on the table.”

On the publisher’s side, Miller and Don Weisberg, then the president of Macmillan, did most of the talking. The book’s editor, Amy Einhorn, was mostly silent. The executives expressed interest in the activists’ suggestions, but they also wanted to discuss the tone of the online discourse. Miller comes from a generation that prizes “civility,” one employee noted. “He could be accused of tone policing,” added another. Gurba, who had received a barrage of menacing emails since publishing her essay, was disturbed that Miller seemed to be “equating the criticism Jeanine was receiving with the death threats I was receiving,” she said. As Miller and Gurba began to argue over this, one Macmillan staff member blurted out that Cummins had never received any actual death threats. “Everybody just went dead silent,” Gurba recalled.

Over the past few years, writers of color have pushed conversations around race and representation to the forefront of the young-adult-fiction world, prompting publishers to pull controversial books from the pipeline. But the proprietors of commercial literary fiction seemed curiously immune to scandal. Although editors and writers of color had been talking about racism in the industry for years, this corner of the book world had largely relegated its own discussion of the issue to diversity panels at conventions — until a year ago, that is, when a novel about the humanitarian crisis unfolding across our southern border precipitated a publicity crisis in the publishing houses of Manhattan. As it happened, the book would also turn out to be one of the best-selling novels of the year. I spoke to employees at various levels throughout Macmillan, all of whom asked to keep their names and titles confidential out of fear of losing their jobs, about the rise and fall of American Dirt. In retrospect, they felt it was inevitable that a storm of criticism would overtake one of their titles sooner or later. Still, there were unique circumstances behind the publication of this book, one employee pointed out, that “allowed for certain things to get out of hand.”

American Dirt first landed on the desks of editors in the spring of 2018. One editor who had advocated for her imprint to acquire the manuscript recalled reading the opening scene while getting a pedicure during her lunch break and thinking, “Holy shit, I’m not going to be able to put this down.” At the center of the story is Lydia, a middle-class bookstore owner from Acapulco; life is good until her husband, an investigative journalist, writes a profile of a cartel boss who happens to be a charismatic regular at her shop. When the cartel murders her entire extended family, Lydia and her son attempt to flee to safety in the U.S. In the first sentence, bullets fly through an open window; by page 18, Lydia and her son are on the move, heading for “la Bestia,” a gang-controlled high-speed freight train that only the most desperate attempt to board.

“There’s this lore in publishing that immigration books don’t work,” said the editor, who is white. “I remember telling my boss, ‘I feel like this is finally a book about immigration that people who have no interest in immigration will read.’ ” She didn’t consider the identity of its author — perhaps in part, she said, because there was some murkiness around it. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Cummins wrote that she had a Puerto Rican grandmother but identified as white. When her agent began sending around the manuscript, he exaggerated the author’s connection to her subject. “Jeanine is half Puerto-Rican and speaks fluent Spanish, which allowed her to do extensive research in Mexico, lending AMERICAN DIRT its hard-won and impressive authenticity,” he wrote in his pitch letter. In any case, the editor wasn’t concerned about whether the book was authentic. “That wasn’t a question anyone who was publishing commercial fiction was asking at the time — not if a book was this gripping,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Wow, this book is incredible. It’s going to be expensive. How much is it worth?’ ”

A lot of editors had the same thought. Nine publishing houses entered an auction that lasted three days and resulted in a seven-figure advance, the kind of deal only a handful of writers a year can pull in. Einhorn, a white editor who was then the publisher of Flatiron, won the auction. She had built a reputation as a “hitmaker,” as one observer in the industry put it: “She has an eye for what’s going to sell.” Under Einhorn’s leadership, Flatiron had become known for accessible fiction aimed at the broadest possible audience. Her career hits include Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, another divisive best seller written by a white woman from the perspective of characters of color. (Through a publicist, Einhorn declined to be interviewed for this story.) In a 2014 interview with Poets & Writers, Einhorn said she didn’t consider Stockett’s identity when evaluating The Help. “If the author bio influences you one way or another, that’s a problem,” she said. “It should be the work itself that speaks to you.”

At Flatiron, Einhorn’s acquisition of American Dirt was greeted with excitement and became an immediate subject of discussion at sales meetings, drawing the kind of attention most books don’t receive until closer to their publication date, if ever. A team of four people, all of whom were white, worked with Einhorn on the book, but “she was the person who made the call on every major decision in that publication process, with very little discussion or oversight from anyone else,” one Macmillan employee said. As both editor and publisher, Einhorn occupied a uniquely powerful position. She was able to amass considerable resources to throw behind the work of fiction: a six-figure marketing budget; 10,000 early copies sent out to booksellers, many with handwritten notes; a lavish party at BookExpo more than six months before the novel’s publication. “I had never seen anything like it,” another Macmillan employee told me, “in terms of the sheer amount of attention and resources that were going into the book.”

The early response was ecstatic. Booksellers loved it. Famous authors blurbed it in reverent terms, calling it “a moral compass” (Ann Patchett) and “rich in authenticity” (John Grisham). Not all the praise came from white writers. Sandra Cisneros, the Mexican American author of The House on Mango Street, declared, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas.” When Oprah chose it for her book club, she helped cement its fate as a best seller. The hype elevated Flatiron’s already high expectations. “There was certainly a feedback loop,” one employee said. Book clubs tend to pick books that are likely to be hits, and publishers depend on book clubs to raise the profiles of books they believe have hitmaking potential. Half a million copies were announced for American Dirt’s first print run; though not an unheard-of number for a book with a seven-figure advance, it turned heads in the industry.

Oprah Winfrey, Jeanine Cummins, and Anthony Mason on CBS This Morning in January 2020. Photo: Getty Images/2020 CBS Photo Archive

Einhorn and others had initially spoken of the book as a commercial page-turner, several Macmillan employees noted, but as the publication date drew closer, the editor seemed to lean into describing it as a literary masterpiece. Originally, advance copies had been splashed with a quote from Stephen King — “One hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy” — but when Winslow’s Grapes of Wrath blurb arrived, it was swapped in. “There are certain ways of elevating a book so that it seems as though it is meant to define an experience,” one Macmillan employee explained. Einhorn had deemed American Dirt one of those rare, “profound” novels that “changes how we think about the world.” In an editor’s note affixed to advance copies, she stressed the author’s moral agenda, noting that Cummins had embarked on this project because migrants at the border were being portrayed as a “faceless brown mass.” The author, she explained, “wanted to give these people a face.” In a lengthy author’s note, Cummins elaborated further: She hoped that when readers saw migrants in the news, they might remember that “these people are people.” She confessed she had at times wished “someone slightly browner than me” would have written it, but her belief in the importance of her mission won out. “I thought, ‘If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?’ ”

Stories about how Einhorn was talking up the book circulated around the office. Several employees recalled hearing about her performance at a sales conference where she had compared American Dirt to the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Roots, by the Black writer Alex Haley. (Through a publicist, Einhorn said she had no recollection of saying this.) “Roots was a book that explained and defined what slavery had been,” one employee said. “And Jeanine was going to be the person who defined what the migrant experience was.” All these choices made the book “something more than a thriller — something that was supposed to be important.”

Some four months before the book’s release date, Einhorn moved on to a new position as the president and publisher of Holt, another Macmillan imprint. But she continued to oversee the publication of American Dirt — an unusual arrangement, employees told me. “She thought it was going to be a huge hit,” one said. “And she wanted to make sure she was the only one getting credit for it.”

In her essay titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” Gurba criticizes American Dirt for its reliance on “overly ripe” Mexican stereotypes, for its portrayal of characters who are either comically evil or angelically good, for the inaccurate Spanish sprinkled in italics throughout the text, and for the “white gaze” of the authorial perspective, which “positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary.” Published in a small online journal, the essay didn’t make much noise, but a month later, a review by the New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal set the internet ablaze. “I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives,” Sehgal wrote. She did not believe Cummins’s identity should have barred her from writing about the topic. “But it has to be done well,” she told me. She was “shocked at the lack of care.”

As many came to see it, Flatiron had inadvertently brought on this derision. “As soon as they called it a work of literature, they opened themselves up to a new level of criticism,” one publishing insider said. “They invited in readers who are much more well versed in conversations about race and immigration, and, of course, those readers will start to pick it apart.” By the time Oprah announced her pick, more than 140 writers, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kiese Laymon, and Rebecca Solnit, had signed a letter urging her to reconsider her choice. Salma Hayek apologized for promoting the book on Instagram and said she hadn’t actually read it.

It’s possible the backlash would have died down if critics hadn’t uncovered several bizarre details from the book’s promotional campaign. Gurba unearthed a tacky photo from Cummins’s Facebook feed taken at the party Flatiron had thrown for her at BookExpo. The floral centerpieces were decorated with faux barbed wire — a reference to the illustration on the book cover. And while all modern publicity campaigns in publishing ask authors to draw out their personal relationship to the material, it appeared that Cummins’s connection had been cynically played up. The author had previously identified as white, but in a Times profile that came out shortly before the publication date, she said she was “white and Latina.” In her editor’s note, Einhorn had written that Cummins was the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant, and in her own note, Cummins described her fear that he might be arrested and deported. Neither mentioned that her husband is Irish, a fact that came as a surprise to some Macmillan employees. “I had assumed, based on the way the book had been presented to us, that he was from South or Central America,” one staffer said. “I found out he was Irish after publication day, and I would say my jaw dropped.”

Through a publicist, Cummins declined to be interviewed for this piece. Last March, she told the Evening Standard that the author’s note was her biggest regret and suggested Flatiron had pushed her into writing it: “The first question in those early editorial meetings was always ‘Why did you write this book?’ I’d give my answer, but it wasn’t enough.” (The note was removed in the second printing.)

On the day the barbed-wire centerpieces went viral, employees of Macmillan gathered for the annual all-staff meeting. Most had nothing to do with the publication of American Dirt, and many of the younger staffers in particular were upset by what they were learning about the process. One employee asked John Sargent, then the CEO of Macmillan, for his thoughts. “Are people saying this author is not allowed to write this book?” he replied. “Because a woman can write a book from the point of view of a man.” Some understood his perspective. Sargent “comes from a certain publishing tradition,” a Macmillan employee explained. “He is a staunch defender of freedom of speech, and he publishes all different points of view. When people objected to the book being written by someone who wasn’t of the ethnicity of the characters, on principle that upset him.” Others described his response as “bungled.” If the author’s identity were irrelevant, why had Cummins and Einhorn overstated her tenuous connections to Latin America and reached for authenticity as a marketing tool? He “hadn’t yet understood what it was that was bothering people,” one Macmillan employee said. “The problem wasn’t necessarily that she wasn’t Mexican — the problem was that we published the book in a way that we said defined Mexicans.”

A day later, Macmillan released a statement noting that “the concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories,” were “valid.” Yet “we ultimately go back to the novel’s intention,” it continued. The story “gives us empathy with our fellow human beings who are struggling to find safety in an unsafe world.” “It was poorly written and poorly conceived,” one employee said of the statement. “Everyone at Flatiron was deeply unhappy with it.” Internally, the senior leadership stressed that the company should double down on its support of its author. “Amy was telling people, ‘We don’t need to pay attention to this. It’s going to go away,’ ” another staffer recalled.

It did not go away. Activists began to organize protests, intending to hold them along the route of Cummins’s planned 40-stop book tour across the country. One of the stops was Blue Willow Bookshop, a store in a mostly Republican neighborhood on the west side of Houston. The owner, Valerie Koehler, a white woman, had loved American Dirt. So had her staff. They had all read it back in the summer and held a book club at Koehler’s house to discuss it. “We all thought it was a really good thriller, I’m not gonna lie,” she said. They related to the protagonist — a middle-class mother who happened to work in a bookstore. “She was a bookseller in a city, and we were booksellers in a city. And what would happen if we had to save our child? That was what we talked about.”

Koehler and her staff were surprised when they learned about the backlash. “We all looked at each other and thought, What did we miss? Are we kind of tone-deaf?” Koehler said she was open to having a conversation about whether the book had flaws but grew upset when she received an email from a Latino radio host in Houston. The email, shared with New York, was polite and perfunctory, informing Koehler of the fact that he and other local activists planned to protest Cummins’s reading outside her store, but she had found it “threatening.” She worried the protesters would “make it very uncomfortable for the other people in the audience. And I want it to be a pleasant experience when you come to my bookstore,” she said. Koehler called Flatiron to say she could no longer participate in the tour. A few hours later, she learned the imprint had decided to cancel the tour entirely after having conversations with concerned booksellers like herself. The company released a lengthy statement, acknowledging it had made “serious mistakes” while accusing its critics of the same. It attributed the cancellation of the tour to “threats of physical violence” and “concerns about safety.” (A Macmillan employee told me the company had never received or reviewed any threats but had heard from a handful of booksellers who said that they had.)

Many Macmillan employees found this statement more offensive than the first. “It made it seem like the people who were upset with her were dangerous, vicious savages,” a Latinx Macmillan employee said. One of the problems with the book itself “was a representation of Latinx people as vicious, dangerous savages,” the employee continued. That was “the worst message they could possibly send.” Recognizing the staff was unhappy, Macmillan held a series of town-hall meetings to listen to concerns. Over the course of these discussions, several Latinx employees stood up and said they had, in fact, expressed reservations about the book before it was published. “It’s unfortunate that those concerns were not heard,” one staffer said. Neither Cummins nor Einhorn had hired a sensitivity reader, but the author had shown the manuscript to several Latinx people and asked for feedback. An employee whose family was from Honduras wanted to know if any of these readers are from her homeland, where one of the main characters is supposed to be from. Einhorn said she didn’t know. “For you not to even differentiate between us is very upsetting,” the employee said. Someone else wanted to know how the barbed-wire centerpieces “could have ever happened.” It happened because a Macmillan employee had sent an image of the book cover to the event coordinator at Gramercy Tavern to serve as inspiration. “The fact is we didn’t notice it was a problem,” Miller told the staff, “because we had a blind spot.” (The florist who designed the centerpieces had some regrets too. “I received the book last minute, and I was very literal about the cover art,” she told me. “I hadn’t read the book. If I knew more about it, I would have not done that.”)

By this point, several people said, Miller seemed to be one of the few senior executives trying to understand the reaction. In late January, he began to call up the company’s harshest critics to talk. He reached out to someone who had tweeted that she hoped everyone at Flatiron would get diarrhea and to a young Latina bookstore employee in Seattle who had written a blog post about how upsetting she’d found Miller’s statement announcing the cancellation of Cummins’s tour. “He said, ‘I’m starting to see I made some missteps,’ ” the bookseller, Rosa Hernandez, told me. Several Macmillan employees pointedly noted that Einhorn didn’t seem to engage in a similar way. The editor attended an Oprah’s Book Club special dedicated to the conversation and answered a few questions, but for the most part, she seemed to her colleagues to avoid it entirely. “Amy just disappeared,” one employee said.

Macmillan declined requests for interviews with all major players in the publication process. In response to questions regarding Einhorn, a publicist said she had encouraged the company to “lean in and address the criticism.” Several employees suggested that Macmillan has a “vested interest in preserving Amy’s reputation and future.” Some had heard that Holt had been struggling financially when Einhorn agreed to take over. “Holt couldn’t take another hit,” one employee said. They said that Einhorn, with her eye for commercial best sellers, had been tasked with reviving the brand. “Amy was doing a huge favor for the company by being willing to go in and try to fix it,” another employee said. “They needed her to be successful.”

In late January, Oprah said she would be changing the format of her book-club discussion to “bring people together from all sides.” In the resulting two-part Apple TV+ special, three Latina writers joined Cummins onstage. Toward the end, one of the writers, Julissa Arce, asked Cummins whom she had written the book for. “You’re saying you wanted to use your book to change people’s minds,” she pointed out.

Cummins leaned toward her. “Of course,” she said. “Well …”

“So whose minds?” Arce pressed.

Cummins stumbled, paused, and started again. “The readers’ minds,” she said. “I don’t have a conglomerate reader. I wrote the book because I hoped it would move people.”

Even if the author didn’t have a particular reader in mind, there’s little question the book’s publishers did. Einhorn was known for her ability to capture the interests of the “book-club crowd.” The industry doesn’t collect demographic data on readership, but when agents and editors talk about book-club readers, they tend to have a particular person in mind: “suburban white women ages 35 to 65 who lean liberal,” one agent explained.

The manuscript for American Dirt had all the necessary ingredients of a book-club best seller: a mother and child in peril, a clear villain and an uncompromised heroine, a subject that was all over the news. Although all of the characters are Latinx, the protagonist’s perspective is that of a privileged outsider. Before going on the lam, Lydia had never considered why someone might be forced to leave their homeland. “All her life she’s pitied these poor people,” Cummins writes in the book. “She’s donated money. She’d wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option.” Now, the knowledge that she is one of them “knocks the breath clean out of her lungs.” The story deals with a politically divisive issue, but its perspective is apolitical. “In my experience,” the agent said, “the books that produce this kind of frenzy take something complicated and simplify it so the book-club reader can find some thread of connection to themselves while at the same time feeling protected and safe.” The fact that it was written by a white woman was part of that appeal, the agent added. “People are tribal,” she said. “White women would rather listen to a white woman tell them about racism.” Cisneros, the Mexican American author who had praised American Dirt, felt the book could reach an audience that her work could not. “The reader,” she said, “is going to be someone who wants to be entertained. The story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds.”

The publishers of American Dirt might have been oblivious to the nuances of the national conversation around race, but they didn’t misjudge their market. The book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list; according to BookScan, it was the best-selling novel for adults published in 2020. Einhorn understood her audience. She would often say in meetings, “Is a woman in Kansas going to buy this book?” several Macmillan employees recalled. “Is she going to hear the pitch and want to read it?” Her other controversial best seller, The Help, faced charges of white saviorism, but when protesters rallied against systemic racism this past summer, the film adaptation became the most-watched movie on Netflix. The question in publishing, one agent explained, is always: “Do you meet people where they are, or do you put something in front of them that you hope they move toward?” She continued, “To be realistic, to meet people where they are will sell more books.” A Latinx employee at Macmillan said the book had achieved “exactly what they meant for it to do.” “Publishers are not set up to be moral companies,” they said. “They are set up to sell books to readers.”

Publishers, of course, could imagine different readerships. But like every industry with economic power in the country, publishing is dominated by white people from affluent backgrounds, and its editors are taught to acquire manuscripts that personally move them. Historically, it has been rarer for writers of color to get splashy book deals, or any deals at all. A recent New York Times analysis found that 95 percent of novels published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white authors.

After the meeting with DignidadLiteraria, Flatiron made a number of concrete changes to its business. It hired Nadxieli Nieto, a board member of Latinx in Publishing, as an editor-at-large. It organized a committee to audit its complete catalogue of books to find out how many had been written by authors of color and to review the advances offered to each writer, and another committee to review the language used in marketing materials around these books. (The company would not share the results of these audits.) Macmillan trained editors in how to hire and work with sensitivity readers, already a widespread practice in the YA world but one that few adult houses had previously incorporated into their routines. Several employees said they felt there was a tonal shift in conversations about race, diversity, and imagined readership and a feeling of momentum and support behind acquiring and marketing authors of color. Flatiron’s lead title for 2021 is Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt. Garcia, who is of Mexican and Cuban descent, told me Dignidad’s meeting with Macmillan had given her the courage to approach the publisher and ask for a conversation. “I was able to be honest about what the process is like for a writer in this overwhelmingly white publishing industry, where my book is ushered through all of these different rooms of white people before it comes to fruition,” she said.

After Einhorn moved to Holt, Macmillan replaced her with a white editor named Megan Lynch. Lynch had published commercial hits, like The Nest, but she was also known for making the careers of literary stars, including Nell Zink, Rumaan Alam, and Helen Oyeyemi. At 41, Lynch is more than a decade younger than Einhorn and takes a different view of many of the critical questions at the heart of the American Dirt saga. “When Megan thinks about acquiring books, she’s not only thinking about the market right now,” a source close to Lynch told me. “She’s thinking about authors who are going to be a part of what the future of books looks like.”

A national reckoning over race this past summer has compelled publishing houses beyond Macmillan to make changes to their businesses. Each of the big-five publishers has hired executives of color, in some cases for prominent roles. Some authors of color have received seven-figure advances. When Zakiya Dalila Harris secured one for The Other Black Girl in February, her agent noted that some editors felt more confident that they could find an audience for her book in the wake of American Dirt. Several editors and agents told me that discussions in acquisition meetings have undergone a marked shift since the beginning of last year, but others were skeptical about how deep or long-lasting these shifts would be. “It was a little easier to get more money than it had been in the past for my clients of color,” said Monica Odom, a Black literary agent. “But that just sets up a new dilemma — are the publishers going to push these books in the way they pushed American Dirt, so this author can really have a career?” One Macmillan employee put it bluntly: A book like American Dirt “will absolutely happen again.”

For its part, Macmillan remains dedicated to the novel and its author. Under Einhorn, Holt will be publishing the paperback edition of American Dirt, along with Cummins’s next book. American Dirt is “a terrific novel and has been embraced by millions of readers,” a publicist for the company said in a brief statement. “Clearly the book resonated with a wide audience.”

This past March, as countries were closing their borders, puncturing the hopes of immigrants and refugees from around the globe, the popular podcast and blog Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books sent out an email that began with a proposition: “With Spring break travel plans getting disrupted, why not turn to books that will take you around the world instead?” What followed was a list of eight books recommended by the blog’s founder, the literary influencer Zibby Owens — a list that perhaps only a white person like herself could have written. The Red Lotus, a thriller by the white writer Chris Bohjalian, would take readers on a “bike tour to Vietnam”; Finding Chika, a memoir by the white writer Mitch Albom, would transport them to a sad orphanage in Haiti; and then there was American Dirt, which would make you “feel like you’ve just been trekking across the desert.” Owens seemed to understand that the fundamental appeal of the book lay not in its stated moral mission but in the vicarious thrill of an adventure story. “Head down to Acapulco and ride the top of the Bestia train with bookstore owner Lydia and her son, Luca,” she wrote, “as they escape the drug cartel that just murdered their entire family.”

*This article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Implosion of American Dirt