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September 24, 2005

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I ♥ Oprah

Chief among the tics of humankind that drive me to distraction is Oprah-bashing. She’s too rich. She doesn’t help the world enough. Her book club popularizes cheap literature.

That last one makes me absolutely insane. Not just because it unforgivably devalues some amazing authors, and not just because it bespeaks an unsufferable elitism, not just because it feels like a deep, indirect insult to the folks I know who got a lot out of the club.

It chafed me most because what Oprah was doing — constructive an alternative, contemporary canon — thrilled me. I’m kind of an inveterate detractor of The Canon, in general. Lists of recommended texts are useful, of course. But anything purporting to be The Authoritative List of Greatest Works is simply a religious artifact, founded entirely on faith. The way I see it, we each have a canon. The task of constructing it, work by work, to form a lens onto the world is part of why we keep reading our entire lives.

Of course, the idea that each person has her own canon subverts the Canon entirely. Of course, I’m all for that, ‘cause I think the idea of the Canon subverts literature entirely. The idea that there’s one complete list of Works To Be Read strikes me as anti-literary. (I understand the Canon is intended to be a basis for further enlightenment or whatever, but I don’t think that’s how most people who are not Harold Bloom treat it. His Western Canon is long enough to occupy most people for the majority of their lives.)

I was disappointed to hear that Oprah was abandoning the initial contemporary focus of her book club for a seemingly safer “classics” approach. It felt like she was retreating from the exciting business of creating her own canon and falling back on this boring old Canon that already exists. So I’m delighted to hear the real Oprah’s Book Club is back.

Yes, there are great books. No, The Celestine Prophecy is pretty inarguably not the literary equal of, say, Remembrance of Things Past. But I can imagine a canon that includes the former and not the latter. And cheers to that.

Posted September 24, 2005 at 1:53 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such


Whenever someone with the clout and influence of Oprah starts changing the dynamics of the market, especially a market as wobbly and usually predictable as the publication of fiction, someone is going to be upset. The books Oprah chooses sell a million copies where others -- even classic, canonical books that get assigned to high schools and colleges across the country -- might sell tens of thousands. This makes Oprah a powerful and bountfiul but often capricious force, like the sea itself.

Mostly, publishers are upset when their books don't get chosen, for obvious financial reasons. They threw a fit when Oprah switched to classics and said that there weren't any contemporary books worth reading. ("You mean, after all that money we've spent on agents and promos and new book stands and reading tours, those yahoos at Harper Perennial are going to sell three million units of Marquez and Carson McCullers?") I think Jon Franzen was the only author who at least publicly resented some of the attention his book received after being chosen for Oprah's book club, and those were unusual circumstances. He was likewise positoning himself for a later career: highbrow National Book Awards and a gig writing for The New Yorker.

Which naturally leads to what you're calling the "elitist" criticism of Oprah. When Oprah's book club got started, it was both thoroughly middlebrow and thoroughly predictable. It was truly more a cult of Oprah's personality than a genuine book club. The books were always essentially re-tellings of Oprah's own story: young women (usually abused, usually from the South) overcoming adversity and coming to personal realizations and eventual triumph. It's the thrice-treaded bones of a Dickens novel, whose melodramatic structure has now thoroughly saturated our culture. And it depended on a very limited view of what kinds of literature were appropriate for Oprah's audience: little to no experimentation or difficulty (Toni Morrison being the exception that proves the rule) and very minimal vision of what kind of characters a reader might identify with.

Now here's where Bloom and other academic types come along. The main criticism Bloom levels -- and I agree with this -- is that it's impossible to justify any book by saying that it's better to be reading anything than reading nothing. Bloom hates the Harry Potter series for this reason: he thinks it's horribly written ("every time someone stands up, they say they're going to 'stretch their legs'") and that children would be better off reading something else.

Now Bloom is coming from the perspective of someone trying to teach difficult texts in the main thrust of the Western canon -- Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Romantic poets -- to undergraduates (and graduates) who have more familiarity with TV shows than old books. So he (surprise, surprise!) wants everybody to read everything that matters for that project before they possibly come into his classroom. Who wouldn't?

But it's also worth noting that the debates about "the canon" are very different when you're talking about say, graduate students embarking on the professional study of literature and bankers or lawyers or teachers with a more general education, and so on. Heck, you could use some Hamlet if you want to understand jokes on The Simpsons. But whether a graduate student who really knows late-twentieth century African, Afro-Caribbean and Af-Am fiction, poetry, and critical thought should also know Spenser's Faerie Queene backwards and forwards (and there are arguments that they should) is only a debate that people in the academy are having. It has nothing to do with what people read "out there" who, you know, work for a living.

Seriously, who the hell else is going to get no-longer-in-school people to read Faulkner in large numbers? Let them get one person to read Absalom, Absalom before they gripe. Put up or shut up.

In response to Tim, who commented above, about books which are "horribly written." There are more aspects to books and novels than the prose itself. I read all the time, probably about three or four books a week, and most of the books I read don't have good prose. But who cares!? Honestly, I've read some books with great prose, but horribly boring and/or pretentious stories, and characters that are simply impossible to relate to. Sorry, but I'll take the crappy prose with a good plot and interesting characters over perfect prose any day.

Posted by: Metta on September 25, 2005 at 10:08 AM

Tim, my resentment is mostly aimed at non-publishers. I seem to remember publishers of all stripes being thrilled at the dollars OBC was flooding into the industry back in the late '90s. Today, I hear a lot of sniping at Oprah's Book Club from folks who have no professional incentive to bash the OBC.

There is absolutely a cult of personality surrounding Oprah. And she's used that tremendous influence to ... encourage people to read books she enjoys. What gross indecency!

The concept of the "brows" irks me to no end. What is highbrow? What is middlebrow? Shakespeare, depending on your vantage point in time, is ostentatiously lowbrow, isn't he? Robert Burns, whom Harold Bloom rescued from critical disdain? Ernest Hemingway? John Steinbeck?

What I call elitism is the sensibility in today's culture that assigns status to things based on their popularity. Tim, you named some of the chief qualities that determine brow-level -- "little to no experimentation or difficulty." "Experimental" and "difficult" in this context are rough antonyms for "accessible." And popularity sets the standard for accessibility. Once a critical mass of readers have converged upon the book, it cannot, almost by definition, be "experimental" or "difficult" any longer. So the mere fact of having Oprah's imprimatur may cast a book out from its elite, experimental, difficult ghetto and render it middlebrow.

And I hear this argument as well, that Oprah's choices represented, essentially, the same retelling of her own story -- well-encapsulated, Tim, as "young women (usually abused, usually from the South) overcoming adversity and coming to personal realizations and eventual triumph." This actually just amuses me, given that so much of the provenance of contemporary elite American literature concerns the children of suburbia writing and reading exactly what they know (cf. Delillo, Wallace, Franzen). But let's take the argument on its face, and go back through the beginning selections of the OBC:

1996 -
1. The Deep End of the Ocean: A toddler's kidnapping sends a Midwestern family into freefall.
2. Song of Solomon: (incidentally the only Toni Morrison novel on Mr. Bloom's list) A meditation on the legacy of slavery across four generations, centering on a black man from Michigan.
3. The Book of Ruth: An Illinois woman grapples with the neglect of her mother and eking out an existence in a tiny town.

1997 -
1. She's Come Undone: The story of Dolores Price, whose life growing up in Rhode Island in the '60s was a parade of disasters.
2. Stones from the River: A portrait of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a female dwarf.
3. The Rapture of Canaan: Adolescents James and Ninah struggle with their mutual attraction amidst a commune of true believers awaiting the Second Coming.
4. The Heart of a Woman: The fourth part of Maya Angelou's autobiographical series, in which she describes her political activism.
5. Songs in Ordinary Time: A Catholic family in Vermont comes under the influence of a dangerous man.
6. A Lesson Before Dying: Inevitably condemned to death for a murder he did not commit, a young black man in 1940s Louisiana awaits his fate.
7. A Virtuous Woman: After the death of his young, formerly aristocratic wife, a Southern farm worker recalls the lives that led to their unlikely union.
8. Ellen Foster: An 11-year-old orphan in the South takes her life into her own hands.
9. The Little Bill Books: A trilogy of children's books by Bill Cosby.
10. Paradise: An all-black town in Oklahoma fights the ravages of patriarchy and Reconstruction.
11. Here on Earth: A happily-married mother returns to the childhood town where she grew up in New England, and rekindles an old romance, to her detriment.
12. Black and Blue: Domestic abuse tracks a woman and her son from their Brooklyn home to their attempt at a fresh start in Florida.
13. Breath, Eyes, Memory: A series of vignettes paint the life of young Haitian immigrant Sophie as she grows up and encounters her mother in New York.
14. I Know This Much Is True: A middle-aged Connecticut housepainter deals with the schizophrenia of his identical twin.
15. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day: In the '90s, drugs, violence and disease chase a black women from her home in Atlanta back to Michigan where she grew up, and finally to San Francisco.
16. Midwives: A Novel: A woman's death in childbirth turns her midwife into the defendant in a manslaughter lawsuit.
17. Where the Heart Is: Pregnant, seventeen, and alone in Oklahoma, Novalee Nation finds the kindness of strangers and a Wal-Mart for a home.

Those were the first two years of the Book Club, and yeah, sounds like the same protagonist going through the same boring thing, over and over. How can those OBC readers even stand it?

Mary Elizabeth Williams also said this pretty well back in 1999, by the way.

As for Harold Bloom, in his discipline, talking about the works he loves, he can be inspiring. Outside that rather narrow framework, Bloom suffers from an appalling failure of empathy. I mean, feel free to dislike Harry Potter -- I just finished Book 6, and I'm not so convinced of its all-encompassing wonder -- but to dismiss out-of-hand the legitimate joy millions of children and others get from those books is just arrogant. It may not be better to be reading anything than to be reading nothing, but it is certainly better to be pursuing harmless joys than to be pursuing nothing. Bloom just doesn't understand the world outside his ink-stained, ivory head:

I used to believe, until fairly recently, that the greatest threat was both visual over-stimulation --television, films, computers, virtual reality, and so on -- and also auditory over-stimulation, you know, what I call rock religion, MTV, rap, all of these mindless burstings of the eardrums. And, of course, I think what has happened to education on every level, from grade school through graduate school throughout the English speaking world, is an increasing menace to disinterested and passionate reading, reading not governed by ideological and other social considerations.

But more recently, I have reached the very sad conclusion that what most threatens the future of reading is the, I will not say probability -- I would become very wretched indeed -- but the real possibility of the disappearance of the book. I begin to fear that what it means to be alone with a book -- the various ways in which you can hold a book in your own hands and turn the pages and write in the margins when you are moved to do so, underline or emphasize when you are moved to do so -- might almost vanish, that the technological overkill of the latest developments we are moving towards, the e-book sort of thing which Mr. Gates and others are proclaiming might perhaps put the book in jeopardy. And I really don't think that without the book we are going to survive. You can have a technological elite without the book, but you cannot finally have a humanely educated portion of the public that is able to teach to others. As a matter of fact, I think what you will really have is the death of humane teaching, as such.

Yes, folks, you just heard Harold Bloom proclaim that the e-book has replaced rock music as the biggest threat to humanity. Carry on.

I would really like to see Harold Bloom and Ray Kurzweil in a room together. Talk about utterly opposite approaches to the world & to the future.

Let me put it this way: something can be good, or have a good effect, and still be highly problematic. The politics of Uncle Tom's Cabin can be very troubling even if it was probably the most politically successful of all time. It's always fair to ask why someone is choosing A instead of B, especially when that choice means effectively that millions more are choosing A instead of B. In the flip side of the 1999 Salon article you referenced, Gavin McNett puts it this way:

Most of the books chosen for the Book Club come with an easy issue and a correct opinion already attached, such as the domestic violence of Quindlen's "Black and Blue" (you're against it), the womanliness of Chris Bohjalian's "Midwives" (you're for it) and the blunt racio-sexual politics of Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, Breena Clarke and others (you identify with brave Little Topsy in a world of Simon Legrees). Ralph Ellison's historic, compelling "Juneteenth" came and went, unrecommended by Oprah. But Clarke's "River, Cross My Heart," a poorly written, sentimental novel from a diversity bureaucrat at Time Inc., was launched into the rosters last month. You're for it.

One thing Harold Bloom decries -- a point on which I absolutely agree with him -- is people's tendency to reduce works of literature to their simplest social or political connotations. This is exactly what Gavin McNett does in that article. After reading a novel about how a relationship descends into violence, all he can take away from it is that domestic violence is bad? If we're going to be that reductive about books, why not do the same for Harold Bloom's Canon? Wealth in Sister Carrie (you're against it). Blackness in Native Son (you're for it). Alcohol in The Iceman Cometh (you're against it).

Most of McNett's argument with Oprah seems to be not that her Book Club readers follow her choices, but that they don't follow his choices. He's basically saying, "Why did she choose this stupid contemporary book when she could have chosen this book I like better from 1853?" It's a wonderful example of elitism. All McNett thinks is that Oprah should challenge her readers to be more like him. Rubbish.

Matt, I think that your charge of elitism or at least (depending on how you're using the term) the assumption that elitism is the sole motivation for (and thus the primary reason to discount) the criticism of Oprah's book club are unwarranted. Let's assume for a moment that, as A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists argued, that all aesthetic and value judgments are fundamentally subjective and really boil down to "boo!" or "hooray!" Even if this were the case, it's absurd to villainize professional literary critics or even ordinary readers for saying "boo!" to Oprah's book club. You argue that McNett has a problem with Oprah's choices and wants to replace them with his own. That's his job! He's supposed to do the same thing with publishers' choices, with authors', and with other critics' -- including Oprah.

A great many people at every end of the literary apparatus (publishers, editors, writers, critics, readers) don't like some or all of the books Oprah promoted, especially in the early days of the book club, and wish she had chosen other ones. (I bet a great many people in the Oprah book club didn't like some of the books -- they're just allowed to say so without accusations of elitism.) Other people in principle don't like the idea of anyone having so much power over the literary market. (They also often don't like media mergers, big publishing houses, or The New York Times.) Neither of these positions suggests or implies that these critics think that Oprah's incapable of choosing books they like or that her readers are incapable of reading and enjoying them.

Something like this is what a genuinely elitist dismissal of Oprah's book club would look like. I'm sure it's out there -- the image of the book club readers slavishly buying any book Oprah recommends probably draws on this to some degree. My own impression is that Oprah's chosen her books more carefully as the book club's grown and that the plots and literary styles have become more varied over time and as her sense of both her own effect on the literary market and her readers' tastes and interests have grown. You can see it as a capitulation to elitist literary critics if you want to, but I don't see how this trend could be bad.

Just to clarify (my last rantlet, I promise), McNett's elitism isn't his disagreement with Oprah's choices. It's his refusal to even imagine her in a critical role. He gives himself away in his conclusion:

And once you start down that path, you quickly discover that you don't have much time to waste on TV talk shows anymore, or any great incentive to pay attention when celebrities try to dictate your opinions about the world.

Oprah's not a critic, she's a celebrity, he sniffs. I'll shine your way to enlightenment.

McNett does a good job of simultaneously describing the feeling of opening oneself to literature and hinting towards the reason why critics exist:

[Literature] makes you feel not bigger, but incalculably smaller, because you're forced to realize that there are entire worlds -- locked up in distorted bits and fragments -- in more books than you'll ever have time to open.

Literary critics exist partially to help guide us through that awesome thicket. To enrich our understanding of books, for one thing. But also to narrow our choices. To recommend and refer. To create a canon or, if you will, a book club.

McNett's fine casting himself in that role. But Oprah? Oh no, she's not a critic, she's a celebrity. The books she recommends are no longer Toni Morrison books, or Anna Quindlen, or Ernest Gaines, or Wally Lamb, they're "Oprah books." And McNett's disdain for Oprah the self-proclaimed critic is at heart a disdain for her audience, the incurious rabble:

But while Oprah's club members are reading a lot of Oprah books, there's no sign that they're branching off to read anything else in any great profusion -- no fiction, nonfiction or magazines. Apparently, all they're curious to read is what Oprah suggests to them.

As I began by saying, though, I don't think Oprah's Book Club selections have gotten more interesting or varied as the club has gone on. I think they've gotten much less interesting, especially with her swerve into Canonical literature. I hope to see her return to recommending the books that she enjoys the most, regardless of what the elite have to say.

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