Oprah’s Book Club’s Latest Pick Has People Asking: Who Gets to Tell Our Story?

American Dirt book cover.

On January 21, Oprah announced her latest book club pick: American Dirt. In the week since, the novel has garnered incredible amounts of tension and criticism, unveiling a real-life telenovela about the publishing industry. The story centers on Mexican bookstore owner Lydia Quixano Pérez who flees to the U.S. with her son. While it’s timely given the current administration’s ongoing hateful rhetoric and policy targeting the Southern border, the context surrounding the novel reveals many tensions regarding race, ethnicity and the dynamics of storytelling.

The criticism of the book is varied, but much of it centers on the question of why author Jeanine Cummins, who is a white-identified Latina with a Puerto Rican grandmother, wrote a sensationalized story about a Mexican family. Cummins said in a discussion with WBUR reporters Shannon Dooling and Cristela Guerra that she knew she was an “imperfect messenger” for the book. She admitted that she expected the criticism, but it is still “incredibly painful” to find herself in the crosshairs of the conversation. “I think I understand the criticism,” Cummins said during the conversation. “There’s nothing I can do to address that criticism except not write the book, and I already wrote the book. This is a novel at the end of the day.”

Chicana writer Myriam Gurba told Luz Collective is that she feels that Cummins was the “safe” choice. “Her work is shrouded in the white gaze, so it seems to me that is why she was chosen,” Gurba said in a phone interview with Luz Collective. “Her work was centered at the expense of much better writers.” Gurba has been at the forefront of the backlash. She initially brought to light her issues with the book in a now-viral review that she was asked to write for Ms. Magazine. She wrote that Cummins failed to convey any Mexican sensibility as the main character is constantly surprised by her own country. “Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of Mexico, realities that would not shock a Mexican,” Gurba writes in the review.

Ms. Magazine didn’t publish the review. Instead, Gurba received an email from the publication that said that while her review was a “spectacular takedown,” they couldn’t justify publishing a negative review from a “relatively unknown or new writer,” and that the point of the book review section is to “steer readers to books they should read, rather than avoid.” Gurba tweeted that Ms. Magazine reached out to her this weekend saying it was a misunderstanding.

“I was like what the fuck,” said Gurba. “No, that’s not ok. My voice matters and I’ll figure out a way to make it matter.” Gurba instead posted the review on Tropics of Meta in December, a month before the book was released. She heard from some friends in publishing that there was going to be a big marketing campaign behind the book and she wanted to deter people from reading it. “We don’t need some shoot ’em up narco novel where Mexico is evil,” said Gurba. “The U.S. is bad in the context of the terrorism that is being perpetuated against Latinos in the U.S. We don’t need to pour kerosene all over the situation and that’s what this book does.”

Once the publicity began for American Dirt, the criticism snowballed. Gurba’s review was shared all over the internet. The attention on Cummins resurfaced a few photos from her Twitter. Cummins posted photos from a bookseller dinner last year in honor of her book with centerpieces replicating the border wall complete with barbed wire.

“It’s bonkers,” said Gurba. “It makes you wonder like what is happening in that head of hers where it never registers that there might be some sort of backlash.”

Latinos parodied the use of cultural stereotypes with #WritingMyLatinoNovel as a snarky response to Cummins’ book. Some publications, such as the Texas Observer, released their own list of Latinx writers to read instead of American Dirt. McAllen Public Library director Kate Horan tweeted that she declined the offer to partner with Oprah’s Book Club after reading the negative reactions from the Latinx community and talking to her predominantly Latinx staff. She wrote that she’s not endorsing the book, but she is also not censoring it. There are still 12 books and an e-book available to check out at her library.

People aired their grievances by responding to both Cummins’ and Oprah’s social media accounts as well as some of the Latina actresses and writers that endorsed the book online. Salma Hayek deleted her Instagram post and posted an apology for endorsing the book without doing her research. She also admitted that she hadn’t read it.

Gina Rodriguez also deleted her post, but posts from Yalitza Aparicio Martínez and Sandra Cisneros are still online.

Oprah posted a video on the book club’s Instagram saying that she spent the past few days reading the comments and listening to the Latinx community’s concerns over the book. As a result, she will host a conversation with people from both sides of the issue that will stream on Apple TV+ in March. “Now it has become clear to me from the outpouring, may I say, of very passionate opinions, that this selection has struck an emotional cord and created a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion,” Oprah said in the video.

Cummins hasn’t updated her social media accounts since January 21 but has done a few interviews. In an NPR interview, reporter Rachel Martin read to Cummins LA Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez’s criticism that said her book was “hollow, harmful, an adrenaline-packed cartoon.” Cummins took a brief pause before responding and said she didn’t know how to respond to that, but then added, “not everyone has to love my book, you know?”

She also answered a question at the Winter Institute in Baltimore last week. Bookseller Javier Ramirez asked her what gives her the right to tell the story. According to LitHub, she responded that she has thought about that question for a long time, but later added that the question needs to be directed towards publishers.“I think this is an important conversation,” Cummins said at the event. “I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers. I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.” Hollywood Reporter announced that Cummins also received a seven-figure advance from Flatiron Books through a bidding war as well as a movie deal with Imperative Entertainment.

Cummins has shown a reluctance to engage with her critics. She’s blocked some of those who are the most vocal against her novel on Twitter, including Gurba and Bermudez. But Cummins’ book tour is scheduled for this week, and Gurba had planned to attend one at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena, California until it was cancelled ahead of her appearance.

Two other events werecancelled over the weekend, but Gurba is encouraging people to show up and protest and let people know that this isn’t about the book. “This is about people who live as a minority in the United States who have been suppressed,” said Gurba. “The dam has broken, and our frustration is pouring forth. We ought to publicize that rage and frustration. We ought to do it in the streets and we ought to do it in the bookstores and wherever it is that we see fit.”

an image of a man in a business suit with a robe on top of it and his right hand raised

The Case of the Medical Medium

Have you ever wondered how people can get so popular promoting things that aren't backed by any evidence whatsoever?

Have you ever wanted to become known for having special health and nutrition information that is unknown to anyone else?

If so, then you are going to want to read this blog post.

I am going to discuss the step-by-step formula for how people position themselves as nutrition and health gurus. We will outline the tactics that are used, how to gather compelling testimonials, and more!

The reason that I decided to write this blog post is because last week, Vanity Fair released the story of Stephanie Tisone, a woman who lost her life to breast cancer after delaying conventional medical care in favor of alternative health remedies.

In the article, Stephanie is described to have been a devoted believer, client, and employee of “The Medical Medium,” and her friends and family believe that this connection that she had with the Medical Medium was partially responsible for her decision to delay conventional medical care.

If you don’t know, Medical Medium is a man named Anthony William who claims to have been “born with the unique ability to converse with the Spirit of Compassion, who provides him with extraordinarily advanced healing medical information that’s far ahead of its time” (this is directly from his site).

Now you might be thinking, “How can anyone believe this?"

Well, Anthony has published 8 New York Times best-selling books and operates a very popular brand with a cult-like following he has been known to work with many celebrities, including being featured on an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

He has done quite a good job getting people to believe his story, and he is not the only one. Dozens and dozens of similar nutrition and alternative health gurus have convinced large groups of people to believe ideas that are lacking any type of evidence.

And I want to discuss how they do so in this article. What I am going to share now is the blueprint for persuading people that you have some specialized health/nutrition knowledge which is how someone can become very popular (and make a lot of money) as an alternative health/nutrition guru.

This formula is also the foundation of nearly every course that promises to teach you “How to Build a 6-Figure Coaching Business” and is a method that you will see employed throughout the health/fitness space as a marketing tactic.

I hope that this article helps you to be better equipped to identify when these tactics are being used and helps you understand how some people can build very large platforms promoting special protocols or dietary approaches that often lack evidence and are not special at all.

Step 1: Identify a vulnerable population

The first step is to start with a problem that a lot of people struggle with and are looking for answers for. It could be losing weight, hormonal issues, digestive problems, autoimmune conditions, etc. Any problem people struggle with and are desperate for a solution will work. These people are often vulnerable and desperate and willing to try anything.

Step 2: Come Up With a Solution and a Story

Second, you come up with a magical plan that is going to be the answer to those problems, and you pair that with a good story about why this works. When you talk about the plan or tell the story, it’s important to make bold claims with 100% confidence that what you are saying is true to give the perception that you have THE ANSWER to the problem.

For example, people who promote a keto diet say that the answer to people’s weight loss struggles is cutting carbohydrates. Often, they say that it works because cutting carbohydrates lowers insulin levels and insulin is our body’s “fat storage hormone.”

Step 3: Get People to Try What You Are Promoting 

Beyond speaking with 100% confidence, it is important to repeat this claim as much as possible to as many people as possible. Even if what you are saying sounds fishy, if you keep repeating it with confidence and telling people it is THE ANSWER, many people who are desperate for a solution will try what you are promoting.

Another thing that you can do here is say something along the lines of “Don’t believe me, then try it yourself.” This is a great way to get people to start trying whatever you are promoting.

If what you are promoting is some version of a restricted diet, such as avoiding carbohydrates completely, completely cutting out processed foods, or cutting out long lists of foods, this is likely going to lead to improved health outcomes. This is because when you force people to cut out a bunch of foods from their diet this often causes people to 1) reduce their energy intake, and 2) improve the nutritional quality of their diet.

When people try your method, they experience weight loss/improvement in their health, and this serves as the most effective method of persuasion. Even if you were skeptical of the information at first, that skepticism will be put to rest when it “works” for you.

If you develop a large enough platform you can get hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people to try what you are recommending. If what you recommend is a nutritious dietary approach, this is likely going to be helpful for a percentage of people.

In the case of the medical medium, he recommends following a mostly raw vegan diet and doing extremely restrictive cleanses while following rigorous supplement protocols. In most cases, this is going to be a much more nutritious diet than people were eating before, it is going to lead to weight loss for most people, and it is going to remove the top food allergies and food sensitivities that can exacerbate symptoms in individuals with chronic illnesses.

Not only that, but this diet incorporates lots of juices and smoothies, which can be helpful for many people with digestive issues who don’t tolerate whole foods very well and increase nutrient availability and absorption.

This combination of attributes will cause most people to feel better if they follow this type of plan in the short term. It can even produce what seem like transformational health effects for a percentage of people with chronic illnesses.

Step 4: Share the Positive Results (While Downplaying or Ignoring Anything Negative)

So, let’s pretend you get 1,000 people to follow the protocol, and 40% felt a little bit better, 40% of them felt no difference, 10% felt terrible, and 10% experienced transformational health benefits. The 10% who experienced transformation would think that they have found “the answer,” and they will likely rave about the program.

It is important to highlight these positive testimonials EVERYWHERE and as much as possible. This is how you create the perception that the claims that you are making are “true”. Endlessly sharing these stories helps build the perception that what you are saying really is a magical solution, and it sets many people up to believe that it will have similar benefits, which can perpetuate a placebo effect.

A placebo effect is when you experience a positive change from doing something because you expected to experience a positive change. So, if I start drinking celery juice and I believe it has magical healing properties, I will look for every reason why it has a positive effect on my health. This can lead to a perception that whatever you are trying is having a larger positive effect than it is.

In the case of the 1,000 people above that tried the method, some of the 40% who felt a little better might also think that they feel better than they do after they hear the stories, the 40% who no better may think they need to try whatever method is being promoted for longer, or in a different way to get the benefits, and the 10% who feel terrible are often told they are detoxing and can also be made to feel like they are not doing something right or need to keep doing it for longer…

And you rinse and repeat this process repeatedly to build up the testimonials and convert as many people as possible towards believing in your methodology. Because of the way you set it up, “I have this special answer that the government is hiding from you and you won’t find elsewhere,” the people that believe in you will usually tell lots of other people about it.

This helps grow your reach and build a larger and larger following of people who believe that you have specialized answers.

Occasionally you will have people from that 10% who are harmed by the protocols that you are recommending who will speak out about their experiences. But it can be easy to block and silence these people from reaching the audiences that you are trying to persuade.

Additionally, if you do a good enough job at positioning yourself as a guru you will likely have built a strong cult-like following of people who will also step up and defend you from any criticism because “it worked for them.”

And there you have it, this is how you position yourself as a health and nutrition guru.

But this is not without consequences.

The Harm That This Does

Let’s say that you are living with a chronic health problem. You are desperate for an answer, and you come across one of these gurus who claim to have the answer to your problems.

You buy into the belief, and you give it a try. You feel a little bit better at first, so you stick with it and continue to double down on these methods expecting them to produce the magical healing results that are being promoted.

But they never come…

And you have been led to believe that this is THE ANSWER.

Often paired with marketing that also causes you to distrust the medical system and believe that no one else can help you because that is how these GURUs often position themselves.

And this is how we have cases like Stephanie’s that were covered in the Vanity Fair article outlined above…

Or one of my clients, Emma, was led to believe that one of these restrictive diets was going to heal her Crohn’s disease, which led her to become malnourished and hospitalized on the verge of death.

Or a mother who I spoke to who put her child on a \Medical Medium protocol for Eczema which caused her condition to worsen and left her feeling lost and scared.

Or the 100s and probably 1,000s of people who have experienced negative health consequences buying into the idea of a carnivore diet.

These cases are not uncommon. People just don’t like to talk about them. They are often embarrassed that they fell for it and are often afraid of the backlash that comes with speaking out.

I, and several others, have received letters directly from Anthony William’s lawyer threatening litigation.

These exploitive tactics can have grave consequences, and the gurus that promote them are often willing to do anything in their power to keep the truth from being exposed.

Curious to learn more? Listen to the in-depth discussion on how self-proclaimed gurus exploit the public at the Nutrition Science Podcast.