As I Lay Reading
While bookstores and literary supplements were studiously dumbing down their lists of summer book picks, Oprah Winfrey announced that her Book Club would be embarking on an ambitious program called "A Summer of Faulkner." Faulkner? Oprah? Really? The announcement amounted to nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading--and on the intelligentsia's perception of her as the Queen of Midcult. Not that we should have been that surprised: For some time now, Oprah has been ignoring pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, instead sending the likes of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and García Márquez up the charts. Still, as a sheer challenge, Faulkner is a quantum leap up from other classics.
By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience's attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people--that is, anybody besides her millions of fans--reckoned. The woman Forbes magazine recently dubbed the most powerful celebrity in America seems intent on using some of her cultural capital for the brave if improbable purpose of a Faulkner revival--a project that reflects her belief in uplift through education.
The pace of "A Summer of Faulkner" is reasonable enough: As I Lay Dying (1930) for June, The Sound and the Fury (1929) in July, and Light in August (1932) in, yes, August. The choice of titles is another indication that the enterprise is for real, even if the Book Club website might wistfully imagine its readers lounging poolside with the Bundrens and the Compsons. When Oprah introduced her audience to John Steinbeck, it was with the potboiler East of Eden. Faulkner, too, had his crowd-pleasing side: He spent a number of drunken years in Hollywood churning out screenplays (with credits on To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep); and he published some pulp of his own, such as the notorious 1931 novel Sanctuary, about a Southern debutante kidnapped and raped--with a corncob--by a bootlegger named Popeye. (Faulkner later disowned the book, which he wrote when he was hard up for cash.) Yet Oprah has assigned some of the greatest and most difficult of Faulkner's work. Beach reading this is not.
Published between 1929 and 1932, these novels represent the early masterpieces of the pre-Hollywood, pre-Nobel Faulkner, when he was pounding out, at a ferocious, almost inconceivable clip, uncompromising modern art whose distinguishing features were stream of consciousness, the juxtaposition of rarified language and Southern dialect, and multiple narrative perspectives. Now recognized as classics of American literature, these novels initially reached few readers beyond a small circle of intellectuals. As is often the case with American writers, the French were ahead of the curve in appreciating Faulkner's work. When Sartre wrote his 1938 essay on The Sound and the Fury, he compared its use of time with Proust's, and later said that young people in France considered Faulkner "a god"--this, at a time when most Americans remained baffled by Faulkner if they even knew his name. According to Jay Parini in his recent biography One Matchless Time, Faulkner's own publisher, Horace Liveright, confronted by the early manuscript Flags in the Dust, despaired completely. "If the book had plot and structure," Liveright said, "we might suggest shortening and revisions but it is so diffuse that I don't think this would be any use."
Perhaps in an effort to soften the blow that Faulkner's most experimental work has on almost every reader, even today, Oprah has shuffled the chronological order and started with As I Lay Dying, the most accessible of the trio. The Book Club encourages readers to form local groups among friends, but those who might feel daunted by, or downright lost in, Faulkner's syntactical backcountry are provided with helpful maps, including a reading calendar, to help structure the experience; character guides; and weekly online video lectures and web Q&As. Faulkner authority Robert Hamblin covers a range of subjects from stream of consciousness to Monet's influence on Faulkner's use of multiple perspectives, while Thadious Davis of the University of Pennsylvania relates him not only to Pound, Joyce and Woolf, but also to Desperate Housewives.
These books are difficult, Oprah seems to be saying to her followers, but you can do this, I will help you, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't. One hopes she's right, because by mid-July there might be more than a few frustrated readers struggling to keep up with the narrator of the opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury, and wondering why on earth he has two different names. Scanning the message boards on the Book Club website, one finds promising signs. Sure, there are skeptics and sourpusses, but there are also exclamation marks and all-caps cheerleading by readers preparing to march out on their lunch breaks and buy Vintage's Faulkner boxed set, embellished with the Oprah seal. Her vision of a bootstrap literary education for the masses might be something of a leap of faith. But it's also an admirably American assertion about the democracy of reading, and it appears to be paying off.