Even after years of doing her book club and weathering her share of controversies, Oprah Winfrey clearly wasn’t prepared for the backlash she received after picking “American Dirt” as the first selection for her Apple TV Plus series. Jeanine Cummins’ book about Mexican migrants has both become a bestseller and earned loud backlash, most notably from Latinx writers who have not, unlike Cummins, gotten a seven-figure advance to tell their stories. Despite the growing calls to rescind the selection, Winfrey stood by “American Dirt,” and on March 6, released two episodes about the book and its reception that attempted to “lean into this conversation” rather than ignore it. The result is a tangled knot of good intentions and tense confrontations that, despite her determination to do so, Winfrey doesn’t quite manage to unravel.
The choice to drill down into the mess rather than gloss it over is an admirable and unsurprising instinct from Winfrey, whose groundbreaking talk show thrived on her bringing opposite sides of conflicts together in order to have a discussion out in the light. Winfrey returns to that trusty format for the messy, if undeniably compelling “Book Club” episode that deals with the “American Dirt” dissension head-on as an addendum to a previously planned (and appropriately devastating) chapter featuring Winfrey visiting the border and the stories of real Mexican migrants. It’s clear that Winfrey found this kind of discussion to be a necessity, and not one she wishes to have to engage with again, given her book club’s recent decision to drop Kate Elizabeth Russell’s “My Dark Vanessa” as a selection for fear that, per Winfrey’s books editor Leigh Haber, “the selection process doesn’t create noise around the book that will drown out the discussion of the book itself.”
After an opening monologue detailing her own conflicted feelings, Winfrey brings out Cummins, noticeably nervous and carefully contrite giving her first big interview since the book’s publication. She runs down the checklist of grievances against Cummins, asking her to address everything from her poorly worded author’s note to her drawing a confusing parallel between her Irish husband’s undocumented status and that of the Mexican Americans she describes in “American Dirt.” (Though Cummins talks about being surprised by the critique being “personal,” they do not engage with the fact of the book’s worse reviews based on content alone, as is the case with Parul Seghal’s uncompromising “New York Times” critique.) Oprah is, by her own admission, predisposed to be sympathetic to Cummins, who she hails as a writer who dared to use her imagination in order to tell a story and who could’ve “never been prepared for this backlash,” despite her author’s note explicitly anticipating exactly this kind of backlash. Winfrey — who says from experience that “being attacked in the public eye” is “not easy,” “hurtful” and “stressful” — sympathizes with Cummins in a way that she does not seem to with her next, and more interesting, guests.
After Cummins discusses the lessons she learned in retrospect, Winfrey brings out Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce and Esther Cepeda, Mexican-American writers who have voiced their concerns about the book and its release. (Myriam Gurba, the writer who first blasted “American Dirt” after Ms. Magazine declined to publish her scathing review, is invoked often, but does not appear onstage.) As Arce points out towards the end of the hour, they’re all largely careful to keep from personally criticizing Cummins herself, opting instead to focus their disappointed energy towards the punishingly white publishing industry. Some of the hour’s most tense and valuable moments come when the three women turn to Cummins’ editor Amy Einhorn and Macmillan president Don Weisberg, both sitting with mics on in the front row, to explain the publication and clumsy promotional campaign. While Einhorn and Weisberg do their best to acquit Cummins and their industry from direct blame, it’s clear that the reality of sitting in a room with Mexican American writers stung by their choices is not one they’ve often had to face, nor one that they particularly understand how to navigate.
The same holds true, rather surprisingly, for Winfrey. In a pointed exchange, Arce confronts Winfrey with the fact that she’s never included an author of Mexican descent in over 20 years of Book Club picks, and only a few Latinx authors, period. Winfrey professes to “love this question” and owns up to failing on this front, but her continued response makes for a rare bit of fumbling on her part. She admits to being shortsighted regarding Latinx authors, but insists that her book club selections have just come from recommendations by friends and co-workers, and that she’s always strived for a color-blind approach. She shares that she’s reading Sonia Nazario’s nonfiction book “Enrique’s Way,” and that she’ll “do better” going forward, a fine response that ticks all the right boxes and earns some smatterings of applause for the trouble. But Winfrey shrugging that her hugely influential book club was just a passion project among friends and vague promises to be more aware in future sounds an awful lot like the publishing industry’s nebulous responses to charges of exclusion. How many times have writers like Grande, Arce, and Cepeda heard those exact lines without seeing real follow-through? When they push back to that effect, Winfrey’s creeping exasperation peeks through, speaking louder than her planned statement.
Dissecting and understanding imperfect responses was, however, Winfrey’s explicit goal for the hour. It might not have been an entirely satisfying exchange of perspectives, but it was far more enlightening (for better and for worse) than a blandly gushing one would have been. And yet, the book club rescinding “My Dark Vanessa” implies that Winfrey isn’t necessarily looking to repeat the experience, which is maybe too bad. As awkward as this “American Dirt” episode is, it’s at least an attempt to understand what went wrong and the systemic problems that led to the backlash rather than dismissing all the “haters” as jealous hacks. The approach could use some refinement, but as Winfrey says over and over again, we could also use more of these attempts to meaningfully address informed criticism going forward.