It’s a little weird to push a debut novel that’s already won rave reviews, comparisons to Phillip Roth, a nomination for the National Book Award and was subject of a 10 producer bidding war for limited series rights (won last fall by FX).
But I absolutely loved this novel.
Fleishman is in Trouble is mostly about the divorce of Toby and Rachel Fleishman, he a hepotologist and she a high powered talent agent who helped turn an off Broadway one woman show into the Fleishmaniverse’s Hamilton. They have two children, an awkward and introverted son and a daughter on the verge of adolescence. It’s a book about privilege and rich people problems, yes, but there’s so much more going on.
The story is told, The Great Gatsby style by Libby, a former writer for a men’s magazine who reconnects with Toby and then with Rachel, during a crack-up August as the two finalize their divorce. Like Nick Carroway, she’s an interested observer, though not objective. Unlike Nick, she has her own issues to work out that parallel and add to the story. Since Taffy Brodesser-Akner is also a magazine writer, readers will assume Libby is a stand-in for the author, but all of these characters are so fully imagined that I would not make that leap.
It’s amazing how every character gets their due in this book, with the notable exception of Miriam, who just can’t seem to be fleshed out towards redemption because she’s so… well, you’ll see. She’s really ugh.
It’s poignant, it’s funny, it’s a little sexy and if you have time to pick up and read a copy before the mini-series comes out, it’s more than worth the trouble.
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.
A decade ago, I remember the excitement around the impending publication of Hapworth, 16, 1924, a lost Glass-family novella that had been published in The New Yorker but never released as a book. The publisher was Orchises Press, a boutique outfit that had scrappily approached Salinger and obtained the author’s permission. This created some anxiety for avid readers as it would not be a large release and there would not be stacks of the new Salinger at the front tables of big box booksellers, or even at The Strand, where they could be easily obtained. I pre-ordered, I think, from Amazon and Powells and Tattered Cover.
Well, the book never happened. Our friend at Electric Literature report today that Salinger had wanted a limited, small press release which was thwarted by the concurrent ages of celebrity and Amazon.
In the meantime, those of us who cared were able to read the story in The New Yorker‘s digital archive. Nothing is truly lost anymore, except for the chance to own a beautifully designed and published physical Hapworth.
Meanwhile, reminds Electric Literature, we’ve been promised far more than this novella since Salinger’s death. Salinger’s later life biographers and contemporaries all say he continued to write long after he stopped publishing and went into seclusion.
J.D.’s son Matthew confirms a trove of unpublished materials, but not some of the specific novels that others have promised. He says we’ll get to see it, but he’s not promising anything soon.
Yesterday, Flatiron cancelled the remaining 35 appearances of a 40 city book tour for American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins. Cummins will return to the road later to conduct a series of town halls. What I find worrisome is that Flatiron cites threats made against the author and booksellers for motivating its decision. Publishers Weekly also reports that critics of the novel have received threats and been harassed as well.
It seems there are thugs and extremists on all sides of the issue and while I will not give them moral equivalence, I think that any threat of violence around the publication or sale of a book is just a short step away from the fanaticism that motivated the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015.
We should be having heated, passionate and sometimes even impolite fights over fiction, but violence should never enter into it.