by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 31, 2001
NO FAIR: TAKING POTSHOTS AT OPRAH
I find I'm still appalled at Cynthia Crossen's article in the Wall Street Journal (7/13) about Oprah Winfrey's selections for the Oprah Book Club.
Granted, after 43 books (since 9/96), a pattern has developed that should be talked about (but come on, the pattern was obvious around selection #3). And granted, in our celebrity-driven culture, people tend to tear down heroes as soon as we've built 'em up. So this WSJ piece should come as no surprise.
Still, there's something unnecessary and cruel about Crossen's article. She ridicules Winfrey for choosing books with characters she calls "some of the saddest sacks you'll ever meet in fact or fiction." She glibly lists the heroines' problems: "take your pick - abandonment, abuse, persecution, bereavement, addiction, poverty, loneliness, bigotry or mental illness."
She seems to sneer at the violent deaths of many characters: "They drown, crash and hang themselves; they're strangled, smothered and stabbed." Of course these characters are mostly "victims of oppression - social, racial, sexual, economic and, especially, familial."
And finally, Crossen goes for the facile dismissal: "If you believed Oprah's books realistically depicted contemporary life, you would have to kill yourself, especially if you're female."
Of course, Oprah Winfrey hardly needs defending, but for god's sake, let's get our bearings when it comes to a critical conversation about the books she has chosen for her Book Club.
Here is a TV star who has single-handedly raised the bar for women who read commercial fiction. The staff of Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco put it succinctly way back in November of 1998 (see #17). They pointed out that before Oprah, the store's section of romance novels and bodice-rippers was thriving, thanks to secretaries in the financial district who rushed in during their lunch hour to buy Harlequin lookalikes by the ton.
"But because of Oprah's picks, people realize that straight novels can be as romantic, intriguing and better written than the old romance standbys," said the then events coordinator Colleen Lindsay. After Oprah, the section for romance novels actually disappeared and midlist novels of the quality Oprah was going for - from Toni Morrison to Andre Dubus - took over. This was due ENTIRELY to Oprah Winfrey, the staff said.
For some reason, Crossen dispenses with the Oprah picks she concedes are "smart and complex" - books by Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Bernard Schlink, Jane Hamilton and Wally Lamb (Wally Lamb?) - so that she can focus on picks she thinks offer nothing but "steady melodrama and tragedy," from authors like Anna Quindlen, Joyce Carol Oates, Tawni O'Dell, A. Manette Ansay, Lalita Tademy, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Elizabeth Berg.
Of course, extracting scenes of tragedy out of midlist fiction is simplistic as extracting sex scenes out of Phillip Roth or Henry Miller novels - and just as enlightening.
One wishes, just for starters, that within the type of stories to which Oprah is drawn, Crossen would have celebrated an intriguing range and variety of writing style.
But the baffling thing is that Crossen misses the point about Oprah's selections so entirely. These books start out with women as victims, sure, but they show how protagonists trapped in the worst kind of circumstances and facing the most painful adversity can find the resources deep inside to stand up for themselves and somehow meet whatever the world dishes out.
They do this not because they're superheroes or have learned a big secret or develop special courage or enlist God on their side but because they're human - and honey, as Oprah says time after time, if they can do it, you and I can too.
So okay: You can nail Oprah for a certain one-dimensional interest in fiction, for promoting the self-help angle (her mission in life, after all) more than the literary quality of the books she chooses, and (it's true) for loving the melodrama as some viewers love soap opera.
But don't knock her for choosing books that show women in today's world starting out with the stuffing kicked out of them and finding ways - often surprising, intricate and inventive ways - to develop a spine. The fact is, in the "real world" that Crossen thinks is NOT realistically portrayed here, women do find themselves trapped, do find herculean powers inside just to make it through the day and do take on great battles, if only for their kids, to find some way through and out.
At which point Crossen again chastises Winfrey: Why, the endings of these Oprah Book Club novels are depressing! They leave the heroine "sadder but wiser . . . resign[ed] to her imperfect fate and, naturally, haunting memories."
This is where one wonders what planet Crossen lives on. Of course there is no easy, happy ending for these protagonists. Women who leave abusive mates (as one example) are often stalked and murdered, often live the rest of their lives in hiding, often find their children kidnapped, often find no help from the police (indeed, in Anna Quindlen's novel, the abusive father IS the police).
>From Oprah's point of view, such abuses not only happen and are "realistically depicted" in the fiction she chooses, they affect increasing numbers of women who appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about how it feels to live under horrendous circumstances every day.
So when Crossen says, "If you believed Oprah's books realistically depicted contemporary life, you would have to kill yourself," the irony is that people in real life do face such tragedies and do kill themselves when no relief is found. Oprah knows this - she grew up as the poster child for it - and right or wrong (who said there are rights and wrongs in literature?) she's drawn to it as the model for her idea of authenticity in fiction,
To me, the joy of watching Oprah choose these books is not that "she knows what her audience wants - tragedy and redemption - and that's what she serves," as Crossen puts it.
(Come on, Cynthia, watch the show. Oprah doesn't manipulate her audience in that way - doesn't care to and doesn't have to - because she's too obsessed by her own motivations. Fortunately for her, a sympathetic and almost too adoring mirror awaits in audiences who simply want her opinion on everything.)
Instead, the joy lies in watching Oprah bring a unique brand of freshness and enthusiasm to her own "predictable and parochial" limits. Each book she chooses is made to sound enthralling and valuable, Each author appears eminently discoverable, a wonderful find.
And since Oprah Winfrey has never taken on literary pretensions, the context in which book and author are presented is never remote or intellectually threatening. Thanks to Oprah's down-home sensibility, even Morrison, who's certainly given her due as a Nobel Prize-winning author - seems like just folks to viewers.
Of course the whole thing is cock-eyed to begin with. No one person (or company) should have so much power in a culture. But if we must depend on the largesse of the one big-time celebrity who expresses some kind of literary consciousness, we're lucky it's Oprah Winfrey.
In fact, one gets the feeling that if Winfrey were to write this piece instead of Crossen, she would find other channels where many voices can be heard rather than attack the one voice currently in vogue.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your remarks on AOL's investment in Amazon.com and the whole commercialization of everything...Here's a solution. Don't go see "The Planet of the Apes." Don't read the latest by Michael Crichton or John Grisham or Danielle Steel. Don't buy the N'Sync album or the Garth Brooks album or the Jennifer Lopez album. Make your own informed choices about what you spend your money on.
Obviously you and I and most of the people to whom this is an issue do just that. The rest of the people in the country don't use their brains enough to realize that they are blindly wandering down the road of commercial conformity, and if they did realize it, they wouldn't care. I mean, come on...wrestling, for God's sake! If these are the people you are trying to save, you need to save them from themselves, not from the McDisney Corporation.
I don't think we can blame the huge conglomerates for the dumbing down of American society and culture. They are merely very good at taking advantage of it.
Holt responds: I'm not sure how much this letter is tongue-in-cheek but I should have said up front that I certainly haven't stopped reading Grisham or listening to Garth Brooks, and I even buy People magazine to see if Tom is dating (and whom) and of course I'm a fan of Jennifer Lopez. (Goodness, what irony: Here's a wonderfully watchable movie star of Puerto Rican descent who's clearly got huge box office appeal as the country becomes increasingly entranced with Hispanic (pardon the term) protagonists in movies. And how does Hollywood portray her character in "The Wedding Planner"? As a person of ITALIAN descent! You know, Europe is okay but south of the border - Puerto Rico, Mexico and like that - no, no, please, we don't mention. At least they didn't change her name to Lowell or Hepburn or something crazy like that), so I think we have to pick our fights where we find them. For me, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders are verboten (OK to visit but no buying), but the others, well . . . Wal-Mart is certainly out, and Starbucks too (except maybe when nothing else around) but as to other chains and conglomerates, the point that reader Stuart makes is right on. It's almost impossible to edit out every conglomerate-bred product or experience in modern life. Maybe we've learned to adjust to big mergers so quickly in publishing because we've grown up adjusting to all the big mergers everywhere else.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It is no surprise about Amazon.com and AOL. Years ago my boss at an indie book store in Washington D.C. expressed his belief that Amazon.com was in business not to sell books (that's all they were doing at the time) but to generate a huge mailing list. "Hey these 400 customers bought books on nutrition. Maybe they would like to buy vitamins," etc.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the story about the gay history exhibit that was banned from - and now restored to - the library in Anchorage, Alaska: It is my feeling that the library is not "presenting all points of view on current and historical issues," as Jim Mitulski of the San Francisco Public Library wrote, but in this case is presenting only one point of view. Where is the historical "other view" also being presented without "partisan or doctrinal disapproval"?
My guess is it isn't there. Just as some (probably most) libraries won't present Christian Art but, rather than offend anybody, present Religious Art.There is censorship, but now it's called PC and it's OK.
Jim Mitulski responds: I haven't seen the exhibit in Anchorage up close - though I did see pictures on the web. It is small, and sponsored by groups I know to be fair-minded. It is the kind of exhibit I am certain we would welcome at the San Francisco Public Library. If I were in charge of exhibitions there, I would probably find a way for anti-gay material to be exhibited, too; I know that we contain anti-gay materials in our library, and I am sure it would not be difficult to find them. I would also do tie-in programs where gay people and their supporters and anti-gay people could come together in dialogue. I would do educational programs on the history of homophobia, and on gay contributions to literature, film, culture. I hope that this incident in Anchorage prompts a whole new conversation there that leads to acceptance and celebration of human diversity.
It is also not true that libraries do not have Christian programs, or programs where Christians speak. In June, I had a prominent African American minister, Rev. Yvette Flunder, speak at our Juneteenth Observance, and I just scheduled an Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Spong, to speak here in October about his new book "A New Christianity for A New World," to be published next month by HarperCollins, and I haven't had any complaints.
Arden Olson responds:
Let me try and be clear about my position. It is that public libraries by and large support only liberal causes under the flag of diversity. Diversity means showing all or at least many sides. They don't, they only show one side. Example, you will see exhibits of single parent families or gay families without nuclear families but not nuclear families without single parent families or gay families.
There is a large group of people in this county who own guns and are not right-wing nuts. They are citizens like you and me, male and female, gay and straight, black and white and everything in between. They are farmers, teachers, accountants and auto mechanics and everything in between. They use guns for target practice and hunting. Gun ownership in this country is not illegal. When is the last time you saw a firearms safety or hunting safety display in a library and supporting the value of firearm ownership and or hunting? Perhaps libraries are no longer buying these books.
Since I am an Episcopalian I am aware of Bishop Spong. There is no one further to the left or more liberal than Bishop Spong. Where's the other voice? That was my issue in the first place. Spong gives one view, no virgin birth and doubts the divinity of Christ, that is a little to the left don't you think? If Bishop Spong is the "other voice", the 'well, we heard from Christians, Bishop Spong', then there is no diversity at all, it's a sham. When was the last time Thomas Sowell was invited to the San Francisco Public Library in the name of hearing a different or diverse voice?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your Hierarchy of Newspapers amused me. And it seems about right to me... to which I might add:
11. The National Enquirer, whose readers know the real truth--that the people who run the country, and who write for the Wall Street Journal, are controlled by an intergallactic alliance that is taking over the planet by encouraging corporatization and greed, which these wiser, big-eyed, huggable ETs long ago figured out was the most effective way to destroy western civilization.
And maybe that's as good an illusion as any to go by!
Hal Zina Bennett
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