The Crime Lady: Publicity Machinery

Dear TCL Readers,

My custom is to stop wishing people a Happy New Year after MLK Weekend, but in truth, we could use all of the extra happiness in 2020. What an exhausting start to the year. And that’s strictly from a book world standpoint.

I have — despite making legitimate progress on the new book, and work on some freelance features in various stages of development — spent an awful lot of brainpower over the last few days on the controversy swirling around Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt. Though the book only published this past Tuesday, but arrived trailing an astonishing plethora of advance hype dating back to Book Expo last May. Here’s a good recap of why people are upset, and why the book is going to sell astonishingly well anyway, at least for a little while. (Thanks, Oprah?)

I keep thinking about the cogs in this particular version of the book publicity machine. How everything that an author dreams of happening with their book did happen — but that it became some dystopian nightmare version of successful book marketing. There is a fine line between good branding and bad taste and barbed wire centerpieces crash through that line.

But where did it all start to go right for American Dirt, which is to say, where did it all start to go wrong, first in stealth mode, and then for the public to witness? Perhaps it was the original book auction in the spring of 2018, at a time when publishers were certainly looking for a “novel of the moment” to help readers (actually: them) understand the border crisis. Perhaps it was when the book picked up more in-house readers at Flatiron, then across all of Macmillan, then to the various bookseller, indie & corporate, accounts they needed to pitch.

Or perhaps it was with a particular endorsement by Don Winslow that described American Dirt as the “Grapes of Wrath of our time.” Certainly, that blurb caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention, as she told the AP on Friday, January 17:

I have read American Dirt a lot more recently than I have read The Grapes of Wrath, so I’ve no idea if that comparison is truly apt. But what American Dirt most reminded me of was Don Winslow’s trilogy: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border. Winslow’s novels — widely critically acclaimed, including by me — have never, and likely will never, receive the same scrutiny as has American Dirt. But perhaps they should, as novels, and as examples of the publicity machine.

As novels, Winslow’s trilogy had a similar aim as American Dirt: to show, in fiction, what was happening in Mexico, what the drug war had wrought, and the violent horrors that resulted. They are also thrillers, and as such, the end result is entertainment. Beautiful language would get in the way of propulsive pacing. The books, especially the later ones, lean heavily on short sentences and paragraphs. The characters’ moral complexities really aren’t that complex; whatever good behavior eventually gets corrupted. Women, in particular, have the appearance of strength and shade, but fall more into behavior and motivations befitting of melodrama, not reality.

Each book, despite the total word count, got progressively leaner and swifter. Winslow switched publishers for The Border and the advance marketing was impossible to ignore, especially if you were taking the subway at the West 4th Station and the turnstiles and walls were plastered with the cover. The book was successful, but William Morrow (as well as Winslow’s agent/amanuensis, Shane Salerno) also spent a great deal of money on advertising, bookseller co-op, and publicity to ensure that success.

But there was no pre-publication party with border wire-adorned centerpieces. Winslow did not tweet out a manicure of his book cover, since that cover wasn’t meant to be pretty, but “tough” and “stark”. The marketing for The Border was supposed to reach predominantly male readers. The marketing for American Dirt was, well, supposed to pander to white women, especially those who might only read one or two books a year. Earlier examples of this: Where The Crawdads Sing, The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, The Help.

This strikes me as ironic. The publishing gaze, in the form of a seven-figure auction and corporate-wide marketing spend, cast its eye on one woman, expected to sell to and speak to other women. As Marlon James, the Booker Prize winner, said in 2015, publishers too often sought fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.” (James was responding to Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering”, and how women were expected to write to the white male gaze. It’s worth revisiting, all these years later.)

So I think of the whatifs: American Dirt, marketed more like The Border, and written in a more overtly entertaining way, leaning into the broader-stroke stereotypes and plot twists. Or The Border, marketed like American Dirt, emphasizing its apparent bona fides as fiction that would change the reader’s thinking and promote empathy (or, rather, “empathy”.) Winslow’s next book, a collection of novellas, will be published in a few months. There is no way it will get the marketing spend of The Border, let alone American Dirt. Public scrutiny will be far less probing, too.

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • Most of what I’ve been reading and watching lately is book-related or for the freelance pieces I’m working on. But I also tried to make time for some older fiction, including Jane Austen’s Emma (rereading after many years, and reminding me of how much went over my head when I first read it as a teen); Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (brilliant, also get The Corner That Held Them); and Nothing But The Night by John Williams (of Stoner fame), a taut, novella-length existential noir that he disavowed but shouldn’t have.

  • ARCs for Unspeakable Acts are starting to make the rounds, and receiving very kind bookseller feedback. Should you wish to obtain a copy, please contact my wonderful publicist, Martin Wilson.

  • The Edgar Awards were announced and, well, I thought Best First Novel was particularly strong. Fact Crime was also good, though some omissions definitely puzzled me. Awards giveth and taketh away, that’s how it always goes!

  • Three weeks after the death of Sonny Mehta, Knopf has a new publisher, and I’m so glad it is Reagan Arthur.

  • Podcasts have given me great pleasure of late. There’s Moby Dick Energy, Talia Lavin’s new chapter-by-chapter discussion of the classic novel; The Maris Review has been particularly terrific (I really enjoyed the most recent episode with Garth Greenwell); the DC Sniper episode of You’re Wrong About really does have a jaw-dropping twist; and The Rialto Report’s latest missive made my actual hair stand on end. I’m also excited to listen to Make Me Over, the spinoff of You Must Remember This that is devoted to the intersection of Hollywood and beauty.

More in early February. It will be less book-trade focused and more crime-y, mostly for my own peace of mind.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady