When John Steinbeck was huddled over his desk, he sometimes found it helpful to imagine that the novel unspooling on the page was addressed to a single person, real or imagined. Modern writers bent on producing the great American novel also have an imaginary reader in their heads, according to Bernard Schweizer, an English professor who has founded a publishing company. Their imagined reader, however, is about to leap out and denounce them.
“In the publishing industry, but also sadly among writers, there is this idea that the public domain is a minefield and readers are lying in ambush,” he said. “Imagine how much creativity can happen under those circumstances.”
Schweizer attributes this to an “inquisitorial approach” in which novels are treated as “compendia of an author’s opinions or stances”, and to the widespread use of “sensitivity readers” to vet manuscripts for scenes and characterisations that some readers might find offensive. It is also a response to recent controversies over cultural appropriation that have shaken the publishing industry in the Unites States, he said. “Look at what happened with American Dirt.”
The novel by Jeanine Cummins features a middle-class bookshop owner from Acapulco whose family are murdered by a drug cartel and who flees with her son to the US. Much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was once presented as the novel that would show the horrors of slavery to northern readers, and would later be seen as filled with racial stereotypes, Cummins’s novel was saluted, initially, as the book that would make Americans wake up to the humanitarian crisis on their border.
“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,’” an unnamed editor at Macmillan publishers told New York Magazine. The writer Don Winslow called it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times” and Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.
Jeanine Cummins’s book was said to be full of racial stereotypes.
However, to many Mexican-American writers who reviewed the book, it did not look like a defining story of the immigrant experience. It was filled with “overly ripe Mexican stereotypes” and a heroine who looked upon her own country like “a pearl-clutching American tourist”, Myriam Gurba wrote. David Bowles, a writer and translator in Texas, said its Spanish dialogue read as if it had been generated by Google Translate. It was also noted that Cummins was from New Jersey and her claimed affinity with her subject seemed to be limited to the fact that she had a Puerto Rican grandmother.
“Yeah, and that was the ethnicity and the culture of my father,” Cummins said. “That fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.”
Amid the outcry, and plans for protests, her book tour was cancelled, although this did not seem to damage its sales, which were higher than for any other novel for adults published in 2020. “But if the proposal for American Dirt landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published,” Pamela Paul, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote in a recent essay, arguing that the effect of the scandal had made publishers more fearful.
The leading critics of American Dirt do not agree that the publishing industry has been reshaped by the controversy. Bowles said there had been only “superficial” changes, adding that 3 per cent of books published each year are by Latinos, “when we make up 20 per cent of the US population”.
The problem, according to the writer Alex Perez, is that the US publishing industry is largely run by “white women from a certain background”. In an interview with Hobart magazine, which itself caused a scandal, he said that these “Brooklyn ladies” all wanted “the same kind of books: ‘I’m interested in BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of colour] voices and marginalised communities and white men are evil and all brown people are lovely and beautiful and America is awful and I voted for Hillary [Clinton] and shoved my head into a tote bag and cried cried cried when she lost.’ ”
Perez said that “these passive-aggressive prude ladies took over an industry” and that “to be a writer today is to know what you can and can’t say”. The novelist James Morrow said that “as far as I can tell, the major publishing houses now routinely employ ‘sensitivity readers’ to vet manuscripts for the cardinal sins of cultural appropriation, arguably offensive characterisations and insufficient deference to purity politics”. He said his recent book, Lazarus is Waiting, featuring a time-travelling Virgin Mary, had been rejected by American editors as blasphemous — but it has been published in France and nominated for a prize. “The French don’t care as much about these matters,” he said.
Publishers have long consulted outside experts to ensure that a story is plausible but in the past decade, starting in children’s books and fiction for young adults, they have increasingly turned to sensitivity readers, particularly where an author is imagining characters of another race, class or gender. As controversies over cultural appropriation rattled the industry, they were used more in adult fiction. Kevin Anderson & Associates, a company that supplies sensitivity readers, says its “cultural accuracy editing” will “ensure your manuscript isn’t offensive, inaccurate or perpetuating harmful stereotypes”.
Critics have asked whether Othello or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could have been written under such restraints. Supporters say they help the author to get it right and that they are only necessary because there is so little diversity among the employees of publishing houses.
Alberto Gullaba Jr, whose first novel, University Thugs, featured a young black man with a criminal conviction making his way at an elite university gripped by campus controversies over race, said his manuscript had initially caused great excitement and a small list of “things to fix”. Then he realised the agent, who had never met him, was labouring under a misapprehension. “I said, ‘Hey, no, man, I’m not black, I’m Filipino’, ” Gullaba said, to which they replied: “Oh.”
Gullaba’s agent then asked someone at the agency to look at it. “Her title was never sensitivity reader,” Gullaba said. “But he was like: ‘Her qualifications are she’s this race’. . . She was of Caribbean extraction, British, she lives in Britain,” he said. “I’m not sure she had ever set foot on American soil.”
Gullaba doubted that she had more of a connection with his main character, Titus, than he did. “I have known guys like this, I may have lived with them as well, I may have them in my life,” he said. “The phrase these days is ‘lived experience’. That was kind of the absurd and hilarious part of it.” He said the agency came back with “a longer list of things to fix” and added: “By the way, can you make the main character Filipino?’”
At the time “I was kind of clueless,” he said. He knew there were sensitivities about cultural appropriation “but my mindset was maybe there are a few exceptions, maybe if you are working in literary fiction, it was: ‘Ah well, let these crazy literary people go have their artistic freedom. He’s not white, he’s brown. Close enough.’”
Fiction now goes through a rigorous vetting process, Gullaba said. “They got lawyers looking over every page. If there’s ever any question, strike it. That’s the ethos. That’s not a value judgment, that’s just where we are.” He chose to self-publish University Thugs under the pseudonym Free Chef on Amazon, where it is drawing a readership.
Schweizer, 61, said his sense that publishers had become more fearful had caused him to start a publishing house, Heresy Press, to offer writers more freedom. However, criticisms of cultural appropriation can be valid, he added. “It can be done better or worse, no doubt about it. It’s tricky but it’s also necessary. You can’t have any fiction without that. Where would Madame Bovary be if Flaubert had said ‘I am a white male. I can’t imagine Madame Bovary’?”
Since opening his publishing house, Schweizer says, he has received an enormous amount of support. “Let’s hit the reset button. Let’s look for great stories,” he said.