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A most profitable cancellation


Molly Fischer’s mordantly witty profile of Pamela Paul is all the more devastating for its give-’em-enough-rope restraint:

“Unpopular opinions” seem like a strange loss to blame on the Internet, a place where more opinions than ever, many manifestly quite unpopular, are in evidence every day. Indeed, what Paul seems to be recognizing is the cacophonous array of opinions—and the implied rules and social milieus behind them—that the Internet makes visible. From a certain vantage, this development could be liberatory: what a relief, that no one set of rules now demands fealty. But it is also a development that muddles the role of the opinion columnist. Weighing in on “the way we live now” entails new scrutiny on that “we,” and someone in search of clear rules to observe might well be left yearning for simpler times.

“I’m not so naïve as to think that things are always getting better,” Paul said, when I asked about her nostalgic streak. Her “skepticism,” she said, was rooted in such factors as “climate collapse and potential global war,” and she’s skeptical even about changing anyone’s mind. “People often talk about opinion writing as persuasive writing,” she said. “I don’t think it always has to be persuasive. I think that it could sometimes just be eye-opening.” She has arrived at other measures of success. “If people on the fringe are accusing me of ‘making straw-man arguments’ or ‘both-siderism’ or ‘false equivalency’ or ‘just asking questions’ or ‘concern-trolling’—and please put scare-quotes around those things—then I know that I’ve done something right, because it means I’ve written something smart and complicated.”

Hey, we all have to tell ourselves things to keep going sometimes.

Appositely, Paul took to the occasion use the most precious op-ed real estate in America to lament the alleged cancellation of a 3-year-old book that, uh, sold more than three million copies. Max Read has a deeply hilarious post about its utter incoherence:

“And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog.” This is a pretty strong claim, I wonder if it’s worth trying to soften a little bit just to acknowledge, e.g., the two Times reviews.

“This, its champions believed, was one of those rare books that could both enthrall readers and change minds.” This might be a good place for you to spend a graf talking about how you personally felt about the book when you first read it — did you agree with all the people who loved it? Were you surprised by their enthusiasm? I think the big question on readers’ minds after reading the previous graf will be “OK, but was it actually good?”

“But in December 2019, a month before the novel’s release, Myriam Gurba, a Latina writer whose memoir, ‘Mean’ had been published a couple of years earlier by a small press, posted a piece that Ms. magazine had commissioned as a review of ‘American Dirt,’ and then killed” “by a small press” sounds kind of petty to me, I would cut. (I also think it might be worth exploring, even as an aside, the fact that Ms. magazine commissioned and then killed this review — did that count as a kind of (self-?)censorship? What is the difference between that and how publishers responded to Cummins’ book?)

“It wasn’t just that Gurba despised the book. She insisted that the author had no right to write it.” It would be good to use a specific quote from the review in here rather than paraphrase

“The hype from the publisher, which marketed the book as ‘one of the most important books for our times,’ was viewed as particularly damning.” Not to repeat myself, but this might be another place where you address the hype … was the marketing copy fair? Not fair? Was the hype a problem?

Well, not entirely incoherent, I suppose: as is so often the case, the implicit definition of “cancel culture” boils down to “it is extremely bad, indeed it is incompatible with the Sacred Principles of Free Speech, when a lower status person criticizes a higher status person.”

Read’s blog did compel me to re-read the Parul Sehgal review that Paul commissioned at the time and conspicuously left out of her column, which is typically brilliant:

Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, slain on the patio, was a reporter who once fearlessly pursued stories about the cartel, which controlled Acapulco. Los Jardineros, as they call themselves, have a taste for baroque punishments and are helmed by a charismatic kingpin. Lydia, meanwhile, ran a bookshop. Her life was quiet, content and enlivened recently by a new friendship with a patron, an older man, devastatingly suave (or so we’re meant to believe), who shared her taste in books. Their bond was instant and deep.

This stranger turns out to be the kingpin. Of course he does; everything follows as predictably as possible. When Sebastián publishes an exposé, the kingpin rewards him by slaughtering his family.


There is a fair amount of action in the book — chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal — but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy. There is subtext announced at booming volume. There are the strained similes (when Lydia finds she is unable to pray, “she believes it’s a divine kindness. Like a government furlough, God has deferred her nonessential agencies”). There are perplexing bird analogies (the beautiful sisters look at Lydia, “their expressions ranging like a quarrel of sparrows”; “Mami’s cry, a shrill, corporeal thing, it bubbles out of her like a fully formed bird and it flies, but Mami doesn’t”). Then there are the real masterpieces, where the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives. Lydia’s expression “is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek.” Yes, of course. That expression.


The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.

What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets. Occasionally there’s a flare of deeper, more subtle characterization, the way Luca, for example, experiences “an uncomfortable feeling of both thrill and dread” when he finally lays eyes on the other side of the border, or how, in the middle of the terror of escape, Lydia will still notice that her son needs a haircut.

Maybe the book was “cancelled” (if we ignore that it was a massively hyped bestseller that made its author millions of dollars, which seems like a pretty big thing to ignore) because of a rejected review (which is apparently not cancellation, darlings) by an obscure author accusing the author of cultural appropriation. Or maybe the book’s poor literary reputation was because its plot is ridiculous, the prose awful, and the characters one-dimensional. I haven’t read it, but I know how I’m betting. The thing is, at no point does Paul actually dispute anything in the review — the argument seems to be that it is wrong an author receiving the benefits of corporate hype to face any of the potential downsides, irrespective of whether the criticisms have merit. But don’t the criticisms just prove that you’ve just made a complex and smart argument? It’s all very confusing.

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