According to BookNet’s annual market overview of Canadian book sales the bestselling work of fiction in Canada in 2020 was Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt: A Novel. American Dirt, and I’m cutting and pasting here because I haven’t read it, is “about the ordeal of a Mexican woman who had to leave behind her life and escape as an undocumented immigrant to the United States with her son.”
American Dirt was Cummins’s fourth book and third novel. Her previous books seem to have been well received, but I don’t think they were that well known. I’d never heard of her. With American Dirt that would change. Or really, and this is worth taking note of, before American Dirt was published that would change. Cummins was paid a seven-figure advance after a bidding war. Blurbs were then acquired from a line-up of all-stars, including Stephen King and John Grisham. There was a massive publicity campaign. Oprah announced its selection for the re-launch of her book club, again before it was published. From Wikipedia: “American Dirt debuted on the New York Times best sellers list as #1 on the list for the week of February 9, 2020. In an unusual decision, the New York Times ran separate reviews of the book both in the daily paper and in the weekly book review section, as well as publishing an excerpt.”
In short, American Dirt was a certified hit before it was even published. And the system wasn’t done yet. One of the earliest negative reviews was spiked . . . for being negative. The whole rollout was typical of the sort of manufactured blockbusterdom that makes one feel more than a little cynical about how the publishing world works. In Revolutions I commented in passing that “the ‘propaganda model’ of the media and intellectual life generally can, and I think should, be extended to cultural matters. Critical consensus and submission to conventional wisdom is manufactured in much the same way: that is, with the carrot and stick of capital.” The manufacture of consent applies just as much to the book review section of the New York Times as it does to their op-ed pages on American foreign policy. For some reason I’ve encountered a lot of passive and not-so-passive resistance to this idea. Because people, even literary types, don’t think that novels matter? Because, as good lefties, they don’t think they’re so easily manipulated? I’m not sure.
Then came a backlash. Cummins was accused of appropriating an ethnic voice not her own. That’s the kind of year 2020 was. A petition was passed around asking Oprah to reconsider her endorsement. Ms. Winfrey declined.
So what lessons can we learn from the BookNet numbers?
(1) Make no mistake: American Dirt won the lottery before the draw was held. Pre-publication hype (bought and paid for) is still real, as is the Oprah effect.
(2) There is such a thing as bad publicity, I’m sure, but for Cummins it was all good. The controversy that blew up over American Dirt was in February, and seems not to have hurt sales.
(3) The bestselling novel in Canada in 2020 is based very much on a story torn from U.S. headlines. Meanwhile, the bestselling work of non-fiction in 2020, and the overall bestselling book in Canada, was Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. For all the cries we hear about the need for Canadians to tell our own stories, just remember where the audience is for that.