As I Lay Reading

As I Lay Reading

William Faulkner makes Oprah’s Book Club this summer.


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.

At first glance, Faulkner, a writer who offers few consolations of any kind, seems a far cry from the feel-good, self-help issues that all but define Oprah’s talk show. He earned a reputation for misogyny, especially among feminist critics, largely because of Sanctuary. That said, it’s also possible to discern in As I Lay Dying a vast empathy for the plight of women trapped in brutal relationships and suffocating social worlds. The novel tells the story of the long funeral journey of Addie Bundren, whose husband, Anse, “wore her out at last.” The women in the book spend their time “clinging to some trifling animal to whom they never were more than pack-horses.” One character’s opinion–“It’s a hard life on women, for a fact”–is strikingly contemporary, and certainly amenable to the Oprah ethos. Faulkner does not merely depict strong women like Caddy Compson and Dilsey Gibson; he breathes their words and thinks their thoughts more convincingly than most contemporary male writers.

Faulkner’s often-misunderstood approach to race also suggests the boldness of Oprah’s decision. Like Mark Twain, Faulkner has long faced charges of racism, both for his frequent use of the word “nigger” (although he has nothing on Quentin Tarantino), and–with more justice–for his politics. After a visit to Faulkner’s house, Alice Walker wrote that she felt the place “crushing me.” (Winfrey, of course, herself appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film of Walker’s The Color Purple.) In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin admired Faulkner’s work, but he later lambasted his “gradualist” stance on change in the South during desegregation. In 1956 Faulkner gave an outrageous (and drunken) interview in which he said he would, like Robert E. Lee, fight against the United States on behalf of his state even if it meant leaving “the middle road” and “going out into the street and shooting negroes.” Although Faulkner later repudiated these remarks, Baldwin’s Partisan Review essay “Faulkner and Desegregation” presented a powerful case for the prosecution.

In the wake of the controversy, Faulkner published an article in Ebony magazine, “If I Were a Negro,” in which he urged leaders in the black community to “go slow” on desegregation and to adopt the nonviolent tactics of Gandhian “flexibility” instead of–as he saw it–forcing recalcitrant Southerners into a fight. “Decency, quietness, courtesy” and “dignity” would prevail, while confrontation would only lead to violence. This was, of course, the line of Booker T. Washington, whom Faulkner cited approvingly. Still, it’s worth remembering not only that Faulkner was a white Mississippian born in 1897 but that he was ostracized by many Southern whites for making even these small overtures to the civil rights movement.

What’s more, in his art Faulkner transcended his own limitations, as Ralph Ellison argued in his 1953 essay “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity.” Readers of the Ellison blurb printed on many Faulkner paperbacks–“For all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man”–may not realize that this is half of a sentence clipped from an essay that is often harshly critical and profoundly ambivalent. Ellison felt the early Faulkner “distorted Negro humanity to fit his personal versions of Southern myth,” but that he ultimately “explored perhaps more successfully than anyone else, either white or black, certain forms of Negro humanity.” Like Twain, Faulkner considered racism an inescapable fact of American life and therefore a proper subject for an American writer. In waging a relentless battle against prejudices that sometimes seduced him, Ellison explained, “he has been more willing perhaps than any other artist to start with the stereotype, accept it as true and then seek out the human truth which it hides.”

Today, Ellison’s views, and even more generous ones, have largely prevailed. Stanley Crouch, for example, chose Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942) for his list of “eight great books that get race right.” Toni Morrison, whose work would have been very different without Faulkner and whose friendship with Oprah may have influenced this summer’s syllabus, praises what she calls his “refusal-to-look-away approach.”

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.

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