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Editing the New York Times
I am at this moment self-employed as the President/CEO of the newsletter you are reading (subscribe now for only $5/month or $50/year), but in the recent past I was employed as an editor, a job I identified closely with and still sometimes miss. As a writer and small-business owner, I am duty-bound to believe that the stupidest and most annoying people alive are editors; but as a former editor I know the real truth, which is that writers are the stupidest and most annoying people alive, and editors are generally salaried employees who have health insurance. While writing is an arduous and often painful process, like giving birth to a baby, editing is a fun and exciting challenge, like doing plastic surgery on someone else’s baby. Or even just drawing a couple imprecise dotted lines on someone else’s baby’s face and handing it to them with a scalpel and saying “can you get it back to me by Friday?”
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I don’t get to do much editing anymore, except when my friend Dan confesses to me that he bought a stupid cell phone, and the truth is I am very happy (and lucky) to make money writing about whatever bullshit crosses my mind every week to an audience of people who apparently enjoy that. But still, every once in a while I come across a piece of writing and think -- hey! I would love to have sent a gently condescending email about this piece to a writer who would have ignored 95 percent of my suggestions! I would love to have complained about this writer/piece with a colleague! I would love to have rewritten 40 to 50 percent of it and have many of my lines be widely circulated on Twitter as the work of the bylined author! And I would love to do all that with the added benefits of health insurance, paid vacation, a 10 percent discount at a local gym that I will never use, possibly even an office, or at least one of the Better Cubicles, etc.
As it happens, my lot in life is to serve my inexplicably loyal readership by enacting increasingly stupid premises for newsletters until the economy collapses. But I came across such a piece as I describe above today: New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul’s new column, “The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt.’” Maybe Paul was on my mind because of Molly Fischer’s excellent profile of her this week in The New Yorker, or maybe this column had some particular quality that called out for intervention -- but either way, something about its under-baked-ness transformed me not from a “normal guy” into an “outraged guy” (as is often the case with op-eds) from a reader into an editor, frustrated not by the underlying weakness of the argument but by the lack of attention or care put into articulating it.
What I mean to say is that when I read it I found myself almost unwillingly composing in my head the email I would have written Paul had I been her editor and this her first draft. In most cases I would have ignored the impulse to actually write it out and publish it, because, frankly, that’s a pretty annoying thing to do. But I am still waiting to hear from a guy in (I think) Hanoi before I can write the other newsletter topic I was working on for this week (on’t get your hopes up; it’s gonna be disappointing), and I need a newsletter, so here you go:
The email I would have written Pamela Paul about her column “The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’” had I been her editor and it been a first draft
Thanks for another thought-provoking column. It really goes off in a bunch of extremely interesting directions, and I think it’s just a matter of focusing the argument and making it as fair and rigorous as possible. There’s a lot to chew on here, and because it’s a thorny topic I want to make sure we’re putting the piece in the best position to succeed. To that end I have two overarching thoughts and a handful of line edits below.
(1) I always love reading pieces that revisit a hot social-media topic well after it’s cooled off -- they can be a good reminder that often our memories of a story are incomplete, or even wrong, and that events are often more complicated, and more particular, than we remember. That being said, right I’m not sure that this column makes the case for revisiting American Dirt at this moment in time. It’s been three years since it was published, the world has both changed and not since then. What about January 2023 makes it a good time to return to the book and its detractors?
One quick-and-dirty way to make the case, I think, would be to find a quick news peg -- a recent article or book or controversy we can hang the essay off of. (Nothing’s coming to mind right now but we could get an intern to Google around for one.) This is probably not the best to go about it, but I think it would be essentially fine.
A slightly more labor-intensive means of giving the column a little more immediate relevance would be to include a new interview with one (or more!) of the people involved. I love that you’ve got quotes from Ann Patchett -- great get -- and some interesting stuff from Arriaga, but do we think we could convince Cummins to talk on the record? Or Oprah, or Myriam Gurba? I recognize that this is sort of a long shot and all of them are likely to be wary, but new interviews would be more than enough to justify the piece’s existence.
For that matter -- and I recognize that this would be a big ask and might require some substantial rewriting -- I wonder if you might include more of your own personal memories and experience about the book’s publication and subsequent firestorm. As a reader I found myself immediately intrigued when you remember how excited Book Expo attendees were for the book, but you don’t really return to your own experience with the book’s publication in your capacity as (arguably) one of the more powerful people in American publishing. If I remember right, you edited two very different reviews of the book -- a positive one by Lauren Groff and a negative one by Parul Seghal. This is the kind of experience that very few people have, and I think readers would be absolutely fascinated to hear more about your feelings about the book, those reviews, and your memories of how people in publishing were reacting at the time. Am I remembering right that the Groff review was edited to be less positive after the backlash began? Again, that kind of behind-the-scenes editorial decision-making is an experience that very few other people can speak to with authority, and I think giving readers a window into that world would illuminate the whole process and idea of “cancel culture” a lot more than simply recounting the events passively/neutrally.
I totally realize that it’s a lot to ask to be more personal in an op-ed column, but in my experience readers really respond to that kind of even limited vulnerability! Admitting that you feel ambivalent or unsure about an issue or act (or book) can be a powerful rhetorical move in the right context. And, just to repeat myself, a personal recounting would justify itself much more strongly and be more compelling to the average reader.
(Regardless of whether you want to get into it deeply, I think just from a fairness-to-the-reader point of view we need to acknowledge your role in editing those two reviews, since they were an important factor in kickstarting the whole controversy. What do you think?)
(2) I think there’s a slight tension in your argument here that’s worth exploring in more depth… Toward the end of the column you suggest that the aftermath to American Dirt has resulted in a situation where (as you quote Alex Perez saying) “the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals.” I guess my question is … wasn’t American Dirt precisely “work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals”? Maybe I’m misunderstanding some of the anger about it, but I don’t think Cummins was writing a “conservative” book, or even a, for lack of a better phrase, politically ambiguous one. (Indeed, it seems like part of the reason the book got so much advance praise was that it expressed a bunch of unchallenged liberal pieties and stereotypes?) Am I getting that wrong?
I think this tension arises because we don’t really get a sense from your column of what the book is like as a book, rather than a marketing campaign/culture-war object -- is it good? Is it bad? If you’re up for it I’d love to hear more about the contents of the book itself from your perspective, and your own understanding of it as a book-review editor and as a reader. In your opinion, was it actually a great book, unfairly tarred? Was it a mediocre book caught up in a publicity storm? What ideas about the world did it express, and how or why did those ideas offend (or not offend) certain readers? Right now the column focuses a lot on the hype around the book without making any judgment calls about whether that hype was deserved. But let’s enter the fray! Pass judgment! It’s an op-ed column, you’re allowed to have opinions, and I think readers will appreciate your steady hand guiding them, especially if they (like me!) never actually read the book. Even better, I think some clarity about whether or not the book was “good” or “bad” or “bad but criticized for the wrong reasons” could help focus the argument a bit.
Do those two thoughts make sense? I don’t think we need to do a top-to-bottom rewrite, I think both of these problems can be addressed relatively easily and would really strengthen the piece.
Some smaller notes attached to specific lines…
“In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation,” I recognize that people are unlikely to talk on the record about this, but it would be nice to have even an anonymous quote here to give this claim some more heft…
“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?
“Or that a publisher will use whatever it can, whether wild hyperbole about a book’s merits or a marathon of reliable blurbers, to make a novel work given the unpredictable vicissitudes of public taste.” Maybe not the place to fully go into it, but this is an interesting point to me -- should we all just assume that all publishing hype is B.S.? What about readers or writers who are not as savvy about the likely exaggeration of a marketing campaign? What are the consequences of that for the industry and for readers?
“As the story gained traction, the target kept moving.” This metaphor doesn’t really work for me -- it doesn’t seem like the target is moving per se, it’s just that more evidence for the central charge of glibness and exclusion keeps mounting? Maybe would be better to say something like “As the story gained traction, every aspect of the book’s launch became evidence of its problems”
“Would anyone have gotten this upset had Cummins received $50,000 and a few tepid notes of praise from writer friends?” You’re asking this as an open question but based on the preceding few paragraphs it seems clear the answer is “no,” right? I might just drop this question and end on the previous one. Alternately, it might worth taking it a step further and noting that the firestorm was at least in part about authors feeling like attention/marketing are scarce and shrinking resources for authors, which seems like a way to interestingly complicate the central ideas about cultural appropriation, who has the right to tell which stories, etc.
“For future novels they wanted to write that dared traverse the newly reinforced DMZ lines of race, ethnicity, gender and genre.” Not sure this metaphor works for me either… Is “race,” e.g., a “demilitarized zone”? (Surely not? Seems like one of the most charged and active fields of political dispute in the U.S. to me?) Maybe better to just say “border lines” or “boundaries between races, ethnicities,” etc.
“Since publication, I have been told, not a single author in America has asked her to blurb a book.” Hmm, not sure this will really land with readers… is there another example we can use?
“If all it took was throwing its marketing muscle behind a novel and soliciting every over-the-top blurb possible, then publishing wouldn’t be such a low-margin business.” This whole paragraph is very interesting, and I think there’s a thread through the piece worth tugging about publishing hype and marketing. Is marketing worth it? Should writers care about who gets hype and who doesn’t? Earlier in the piece you argue something like (paraphrasing) “of course publishers will use wild hyperbole in their big marketing campaigns, it’s the only way to sell a book” but here you seem to be saying “using wild hyperbole in a big marketing campaign is basically a crapshoot.” Am I misinterpreting? Either way, this question of publishers’ need (or not?) to market in a particular way comes up so frequently that I think it’s worth addressing marketing in publishing in some kind of broader or systemic way…
“The response from other Latino writers and the larger literary world could have been yes to this book and to this author, who made an effort to explore lives other than her own, as well as, yes to a memoir by a Honduran migrant, for example, and yes to a reported border narrative by a Texan journalist and yes to a collection by a Mexican American poet.” I don’t quite follow this line of thought. (I’m sure it’s a me problem, but indulge me.) What does saying “yes” to a book mean in this context? What would it mean for Latino writers to say “yes” to any of these books? Reviewing them, blurbing them, promoting them? Specifics are always welcome! And, again, this is a place where your experience as someone who determined which books would get reviewed in the New York Times would be extremely illuminating
“negative reviews are entirely fair game” I feel like this is worth more than an aside, and it might be worth setting out somewhere what you think constitutes a fair-game negative review… Was Gurba’s review fair game?
“There was no significant outcry outside the American literary world’s cloistered purview. And significantly, the novel was translated into 37 languages, selling well over three million copies worldwide.” Would be nice to get a quote from an industry insider here explaining why they’re still afraid of “Another American Dirt Situation” when the book managed to sell 3 million copies… there’s an interesting point in here probably about how the social pressures of elite publishing houses might run against the commercial interests? But I think you need to draw it out.
“‘In the past two or three years, there’s a lot of commentary about the publishing industry being increasingly eager to appease potential cancelers, to not get into trouble to begin with, to become fearful and conformist,’ says Bernard Schweizer” I might cut this graf? Not hugely specific or illuminating, and not clear from the context why an English professor with a small press would be an expert -- would prefer a quote from someone with more experience in publishing who isn’t just promoting his business.
“‘My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,’ the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall.” Just reiterating my point from above here -- I read Perez’s quote as being about books like American Dirt! I think it’d be an interesting thing for you to explore -- what if American Dirt’s problem wasn’t “cultural appropriation” but that it simply pushed a bunch of buttons that appealed to shallow rich coastal liberals, who couldn’t be bothered to notice its flaws? Put crudely, one way of thinking about it is that Cummins was trying to do the Good Liberal thing, but failed. Maybe the lesson is to stop trying to do the Good Liberal thing. Ending there might even make for a more thought-provoking kicker than what you’ve currently got? Totally up to you.
“Maybe they’re not pulling a book from a classroom, but they’re still shaming people so heavily.” Fine if you want to leave this quote in but I just want to flag it as something Patchett is going to get crucified for -- and I think we can all admit it’s a bit of an over-egged comparison, no?
“Much remains broken in its wake. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at a great emotional, social and reputational cost. She wrote a book filled with empathy. The literary world showed her none.” See above -- not entirely convinced by this ending, feels like well-trod territory? Not that we need to scrap it entirely, just wondering if there’s an additional move or step to take it beyond “empathy.”
Overall, great work, really looking forward to the next draft!