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How Not to Write a Book Review

The fallout over "American Dirt" reveals the publishing industry's biases and blind spots.

Heat​her Sten/The New York Times/Redux

Lauren Groff’s review of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’s new novel about a mother and son fleeing cartel violence in Mexico, is one of the odder articles that The New York Times Book Review has published in recent memory. It is less a work of criticism than a lengthy self-examination, with Groff, who is white, agonizing about whether it is even appropriate for her to review the book:

I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.

Things took a stranger turn when, shortly after the review was published, the Times tweeted a pull quote: “American Dirt is one of the most wrenching books I have read in a few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels.” There was one problem: That sentence did not appear in the review itself. Groff demanded that the Times delete the tweet, which it did. Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, explained that Groff had revised her piece, seemingly at the last minute—and seemingly once she got wind that a backlash was brewing against American Dirt. Groff then quasi-renounced the review: “I give up,” she tweeted. “I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.”

Groff’s public turn in a hair shirt raised several questions: Did she change her opinions in deference to political correctness? Why did she agree to the review in the first place, if she was so clearly uncomfortable putting her byline on it? And why didn’t Groff or Paul see this disaster coming a mile away?

The answers to these questions begin with the publisher’s acquisition of American Dirt. Hype for the book began building as soon as it was bought by Flatiron for a seven-figure advance in 2018. A movie deal, involving the producers of The Mule and the writer of Blood Diamond, followed a year later. The book was hailed by John Grisham and Stephen King as a perfect thriller, and in the lead-up to its publication there were profiles of Cummins in the usual newspapers and glossy magazines, heralding the year’s first blockbuster novel.

The marketing campaign worked. On Tuesday, the book’s publication day, Oprah Winfrey announced that American Dirt had been selected for her coveted Book Club, guaranteeing it would become a bestseller. “From the first sentence, I was IN.… Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way,” Winfrey tweeted.

But the manufactured hype was accompanied by a grassroots backlash. Cummins, whose grandmother is Puerto Rican but who identified as white as recently as 2016, was accused of appropriating and sensationalizing the migrant crisis. In December, the writer Myriam Gurba wrote that Cummins had “identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.” Another writer, David Bowles, wrote that the book’s reception was “especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare.” In an apparent attempt to preempt criticism, Cummins tacked on a tortured afterword to the book, in which she conceded, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

It didn’t mollify anyone. The critical coup de grâce came when The New York Times’ own Parul Sehgal eviscerated the book on both moral and literary grounds: In American Dirt, the “deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach,” she wrote.

Groff’s review is so odd because it’s caught between these two narratives. On the one hand, she writes that it is a pitch-perfect thriller, causing her to pace the house, anxious about the fates of Cummins’s characters. On the other, she laments its “shallowness”—how the very elements that make it a good thriller prevent it from saying anything worthwhile about the situation at the southern border. Should Cummins have written the book? Groff doesn’t know. Should she have reviewed it? She doesn’t know! “Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism; at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me,” she writes.

Clearly this was not what Groff or the Times Book Review signed up for. She was not assigned American Dirt to wrestle with questions of whether white people can write about brown people. She was brought in because she is the author of Fates and Furies, a mega-bestseller that was Barack Obama’s favorite novel of 2015. Groff’s byline was meant to signal to readers that American Dirt is also a big novel—the Review was just doing its part in the hype cycle.

This is a long-standing problem for the Review, which is more an industry tip sheet than a venue for serious criticism. The majority of its fiction reviewers are novelists, not professional critics, and they tend to review books with professional restraint—partly out of the sympathy that comes from toiling in the same industry and partly out of the knowledge that the situation could someday be reversed. For all of its pedigree, the Review is a safe, staid publication, one that is firmly embedded in the publishing establishment.

Needless to say, both the Review and the publishing industry writ large have a blind spot when it comes to books about nonwhite characters. (Look no further than Flatiron’s release party for American Dirt, which featured barbed-wire decorative pieces on the tables. Really!) Combine that with an almost comic fear of being canceled, and you get Groff flagellating herself in the pages of the country’s most prominent book review. It was all too little, too late: It is amazing, looking at Groff’s panicked reaction now, that they realized this would be a problem only when the criticism of the book reached a fever pitch.