As I Lay Reading
This refusal to look away from pain is both what joins Faulkner and Oprah, and what most strikingly divides them. In Faulkner the world is gone wrong, and everything in it is hopelessly broken, whereas Oprah, who is similarly bold in confronting the cruelties of the past, offers the mild remedy of "inspiration," a perpetual procession of heartwarming or heartbreaking personal stories of overcoming fear. Her show is not likely to shift to a Faulknerian perspective on the unmasterable past anytime soon. But she has gone beyond the intellectual limits of the acceptably middlebrow--and of her own show--in openly embracing a writer who is not only highly experimental in his prose but utterly despairing in outlook. And that is little short of astonishing.
Or perhaps not: Oprah's imagination may simply be more supple than the cultural elite imagined--and perhaps more supple than that of the cultural elite when it comes to the expectations placed on the average reader. One can't help but remember Oprah's flap a few years ago with Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections she had anointed Book of the Month. After Franzen expressed discomfort with having "a logo of corporate ownership" on his book jacket in a newspaper interview, Oprah disinvited him from her show, even though he had already flown to Chicago for a taped interview. Franzen was widely painted as a snob and an ingrate, although his wickedly funny essay "Meet Me in St. Louis" makes clear the experience was miserable for him as well. But now, in an improbable turnabout worthy of one of Henry James's hourglass plots, the characters have changed places. While Oprah's Book Club has turned its back on therapeutic contemporary fiction and sprinted directly toward the highest hurdle in American literature, Franzen has been publishing New Yorker essays plumbing the depths of Charlie Brown and slaying his literary father, William Gaddis, for being too difficult to read. This summer would be a good time to invite him back on the show, since Franzen shares her love of Faulkner, if not her ability to boost the writer's sales.
The Book Club's implicit trust in the power and accessibility of high culture feels almost subversive in the current publishing climate, as if Oprah were harking back to the days when images of Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf graced the cover of Time magazine. At the risk of a certain nostalgia, there was in fact a time when major media outlets assumed that the general public wanted to learn and talk about real ideas, and perhaps Oprah's Book Club is making a subtle suggestion that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of anti-intellectualism. You could read it that way, at any rate.
Everybody agrees that the market for literary fiction has been gradually collapsing over the past few years. Overall net book sales rose by 1.3 percent in 2004, but mainly in nonfiction, and mass-market paperback sales declined by a distressing 8.9 percent, according the Association of American Publishers. Literary editors at the big houses live in fear of these numbers. The temptation to blame the reader must be strong. The Big Five think they merely reflect taste rather than shape it, and pundits add to this bad feedback loop by pandering to a dumber-than-thou audience they help perpetuate, while at the same time lording it over popular culture with snarky reviews.
By reviving the classics, the much-maligned Oprah's Book Club has become a thorn in the side of this blinkered vision of Middle America, holding out the hope that a great many readers are hungry for something more substantial than the usual fare of celebrity and ephemeral sensation. Or maybe they just don't see how their daily dose of daytime television is mutually exclusive with reading the Great American Novel. What publishers have never been able to figure out is how to market the next Faulkner to the same readers who are willing to pick up The Sound and the Fury simply because Oprah thinks it's a great read. That's the publishers' own fault, not Oprah's. What's on offer in "A Summer of Faulkner" isn't just a good excuse to get reacquainted with the classics or try Light in August for the first time; it's the perpetually relevant tonic of faith in ordinary people.