There’s been a slew of book controversies and various literary scandals this past year or so. Not a surprise, considering what a mess this year has been as a whole.
Anyway, as we enter into the last few months of the year, here’s the book dramas that people have been talking about! This list covers books that were released this year and controversies that happened from 2019-2020.
Did I miss something? Drop a comment at the bottom of this post if you have something to share!
1. The American Dirt Cultural Appropriation Controversy
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was published early January 2020, with a splashy release and bestseller-type marketing budget. Set almost entirely in Mexico and with a uniformly Mexican cast of characters, American Dirt is about a mother and her child making their way to the United States border after the rest of their family is murdered when her husband gets on the wrong side of a cartel boss.
The publisher, Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure sum for the book. This number matters because it’s directly correlated with how much marketing muscle the publisher plans to back the release with. The bigger the price tag, the larger the release, which says something about what the publisher is choosing to prioritize and what voices are going to be heard.
Almost immediately, readers started pointing out problems with the portrayals of Mexico as well as its Mexican characters. The overemphasis on violence, the inaccurate representations of the culture, and the foreign gaze of the main character were all cited as problems, among others.
(See the Bibliofile’s review of American Dirt for more details on the criticisms of this book.)
American Dirt is also first and foremost a thriller novel, with the cultural considerations and current events implications serving merely as a backdrop. This means that the book isn’t really written with getting those things right as a main consideration.
Also, there was the question of why the publisher chose to promote an improperly vetted book about Mexico by a non-Mexican author in the first place? Why is it that the publishing industry, in 2020, still insists on releasing and promoting “cultural” novels that have been whitewashed, and where accurately representing that culture seems to be very low on their list of priorities?
It didn’t help that a lot of early media coverage from major outlets, especially the Washington Post, misrepresented and minimized the issues. It’s clear that whoever penned these articles didn’t bother to really understand what the controversy was about or purposefully misrepresented them.
They summed the controversy up with inaccurate headlines like “‘American Dirt’ is a novel about Mexicans by a writer who isn’t. For some, that’s a problem.” Or “‘American Dirt’ critics are censoring the author based on her genetic background.” Other coverage focused on what where most likely an extreme minority of “threats” against the author (“Threats against the author of ‘American Dirt’ threaten us all”), blithely dismissing the much more numerous legitimate criticisms that people were offering.
(I’m not linking to these because I don’t think bad journalism deserves more pageviews, but you can easily Google it if you want. They’re all from the Washington Post.)
When American Dirt got picked up to be an Oprah’s Book Club pick, it ratcheted up the drama even further. Soon, photos were unearthed of Cummin’s barbed wire manicure and the barbed wire table settings (see the photo here) that were used at the book’s release party.
In the end, the book tour was cancelled, but the book has remained firmly on bestseller lists. Oprah did an extended show with Cummins discussing the issues at the heart of the controversy. It remains to be seen whether the book industry will do anything to really address these problems.
2. My Dark Vanessa and Excavation Controversy
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell became the subject of controversy soon after its release. My Dark Vanessa, a book about a Lolita-esque relationship between a teacher and his student, was being accused of white-washing and plagiarism by an author of a memoir on the same topic.
The author of a memoir, Wendy C. Ortiz, authored a tweet and an article about how she felt her own authentic voice was passed over for a fictional account of things that had genuinely happened to her. Ortiz had published her memoir, Excavation, about her 5-year relationship with an older, adult teacher back in 2014. Oritz, a Latinix author, also felt it reflect publishing’s focus on white voices.
Oritz was able to publish her book, but only through a small indie press, and certainly without the seven figure price tag that Russell was paid. Oritz also notes the rejections she received, with many publishers praising her work, but saying they’d have difficulty selling it. A number of the rejects cite that lack of public appetite for memoirs.
Meanwhile, Russell fully admits to having read the book when doing her research for My Dark Vanessa. However, she has later come forward to say that the book was also based on her own experiences as a teenager.
Constance Grady at Vox read both novels and offers a very detailed and good breakdown of her thoughts on the two books.
My Dark Vanessa seems to have weathered the controversy, but it was originally going to be picked for the next Oprah’s Book Club Pick, which didn’t happen due to the backlash.
This whole situation is a difficult one, too, since part of the difference between the two books is that one is a memoir. For whatever reason, it is true that readers tend to prefer fiction over memoirs, so it’s hard to say how this reflects on “authentic” vs. “unauthentic” voices. However, it’s also true that white stories do have a tendency to attract more dollars, which equates to more attention and essentially more speech.
3. The What #PublishingPaidMe Hashtag Revelations
On June 6, 2020, a hashtag popped up on twitter, prompted by a tweet asking for pay transparency in the publishing industry. What #PublishingPaidMe was all about authors revealing what advances they were paid for their novels, often with the intention of showing the disparities on pay based on race.
As you might expect, the disparities were huge. For example, Dhonielle Clayton (tweet shown below) received a $45,000 advance, despite writing in a trending genre and a book that set the YA fiction world aflame. Meanwhile, white authors like Laura Sebastian (author of the Ash Princess series) has received consistent 6-figure advances on each of her books. In general, white authors reported six-figure sums, with black authors trailing far behind.
Authors were quick to point out that ultimately advances aren’t the entirety of what writers get paid. Royalties (a share of the book sales paid to the author) often count for far more in terms of what they make. However, the advance is still important since it determines how much marketing muscle the publisher plans to invest in the book’s release.
Some of the tweets are below:
There isn’t much of a resolution in this matter. But the hope is of course that authors going forward will be able to use this data to better negotiate for themselves and their work.
4. The Poet X Cover Copyright Controversy
This happened in July 2019, but the cover of Elizabeth’s Acevedo’s The Poet X inspired a lot of angry tweeting when it was clear the image was sketched from a self-portrait by a photographer, Amanda Rivas, who had not been compensated for her work.
It was soon established from an article published online that Erin Fitzsimmons, HarperTeen’s in-house designer, had hired an artist named Gabriel Moreno to design the cover, who likely cribbed the photo.
In a now-protected tweet, Rivas wrote that “The artist you talked about in this article committed plagiarism. This is not his original drawing. It is a photo manipulation/traced sketch of my image. Of my face. Please discredit him.” “Seeing my face on tote bags, on fan art, on peoples book reviews. Is so bittersweet. I always imagined my work being everywhere, but not like this. Not without anyone knowing it’s me, not without being credited. I worked hard to get my camera gear, my following, it makes me sick.”
It seems that the photographer and publisher were able to determine a proper licensing agreement / settlement for her work being used, since the same image is still being used.
5. The Giver of Stars Plagiarism Controversy
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is a novel about the horseback librarians that were established as part of a program instituted by Eleanor Roosevelt in the mid-1930s. The book is fictional, but the horseback librarians are an entirely real part of U.S. History.
Soon after, the author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson, accused Jojo Moyes of plagarism. The Book Woman is also a work of fiction that deals with the horseback librarians. However, it also focuses on the Blue People of Kentucky, a group of people living in Kentucky who were notable for their blue-tinged skin.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was published in May 2019, but galleys of the book were made available on September 23, 2018 (on Netgalley and Edelweiss). Meanwhile, The Giver of Stars was published in October 2019. Moyes, through her representatives, has maintained that she didn’t know about the other book.
You can go through the full list of the similarities here.
However, I will note that apart from the appearance of the horseback librarians, the other details that are brought up as similarities really are details in the book. These are not major plot points. I personally came to the conclusion that while I can understand that another author publishing a similarly-themed book in a similar timeframe must be annoying, you can’t copyright a topic.
The Giver of Stars ended up doing pretty well, but actually The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek I think probably ended up getting a lot more publicity than it would have otherwise as well. So, all’s well that ends well, I suppose?
6. The Woman in the Window Exposé and Scandal
This is probably is craziest entry on the list, and the one that’s the least fraught with touchy issues about representations and whatnot. Instead, you have have some good ol’ fashioned personal dramas, lies and deceit. It’s tea that everyone can enjoy!
The Woman in the Window was published in January 2018, and it was a huge success, full of secrets and plot twists. However, in February 2019, it came to light (from a New Yorker article) that the author A.J. Finn, a pseudonym for former book editor Daniel Mallory, had a lot of his own secrets and plot twists in his personal and professional life.
The revelations ranged from the embarrassing and silly, like faking a British accent and a weird vocal affectation, to the very concerning, like lying to his colleagues about having cancer. Mallory lied about his educational background h(he falsely claimed to have Oxford credentials) and even claimed that J.K. Rowling’s novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (submitted anonymously) had been published at his recommendation. He seemed to have some variant of Munchausen syndrome, continuously lying about death and disease in order to garner sympathy from others.
Anyway, the article is fascinating and worth reading in full. Plus, Sophie Hannah makes an appearance, if you’re a fan of hers. It’s pretty clear that A.J. Finn has some pretty deep-seated personal and mental issues that he needs help with, and even if he has behaved like a bit of a cad, I do hope he gets help.
So, this is where it gets even nuttier. The A.J. Finn debacle is being developed into a movie with Jake Gyllenhall attached to star. If this ever sees the light of day, I bet it’ll be entertaining as hell.
Also, HarperCollins has stated they still plan to publish another A.J. Finn novel, despite all the drama. It was slated for January 2020, though, and that date has come and gone. Of course, publishing deadlines get pushed all the time so that’s not to say we won’t see it on the shelves at some point.
I’m wondering if they’re planning on having the release coincide with either a) The Woman in the Window movie or b) The A.J. Finn controversy movie. No matter what, you know that crazy mofo is making bank either way, so at least he can afford help if he decides to get it.
7. Where the Crawdads Sing Exposé
This is probably the most nothing-burger entry on this list, but basically in July 2019 there was an “exposé” that was published on Slate having to do with Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing.
The short version of the story is that there was a poacher that was killed in Zambia in 1995. Delia Owens ex-husband Mark and stepson, Christopher, “were implicated” and it was filmed by an ABC camera crew. Mark was the one helping to oversee the group of scouts (one of whom killed the poacher). As for Christopher, there were three shots and one of the shooters was identified by a witness (the camera man) to be Christopher.
(You can read my full thoughts about this “expose” here.)
So, what does this have to do with Delia Owens or Where the Crawdads Sing? Not much.
The Slate article wasn’t that widely read, I don’t think. If it was, it certainly didn’t seem to cause much buzz. I imagine most of the people had a similar reaction to mine, which was, this seems very distantly related to Delia Owens, if at all. It certainly has nothing to do with Where the Crawdads Sing.
Hope you enjoyed this recounting of book-ish scandals and controversies! If there’s something I missed, just drop me a comment below!