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Oprah vs. Faulkner

Taking pleasure in a meeting of opposites.

12:00 AM, Jun 17, 2005 • By DAVID SKINNER
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"DORIS? She's the one who's always reading War and Peace. That's how I know it's the summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace." Like Doris Klugman in Goodbye Columbus, Oprah Winfrey thinks summer is a fine time for heavy reading.

Not long ago, of course, Oprah's name was synonymous with histrionic, male-bashing, self-justifying women's fiction. But after closing her regular book club in the spring of 2002, Oprah complained, "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share." From then on, only books that had earned her "heartfelt recommendation" were to be featured. Go to the Oprah Book Club to see how the members have been whiling away the hours lately, and you'll learn they are so finished with the likes of Wally Lamb, (the author of Oprah Book Club selection She's Come Undone, about a really fat girl who hooks up with a lesbian janitor, but then loses a lot of weight and, well, I don't care enough to remember the rest, except that at the end she communes with other whales, real ones). These days, the club's favored authors range from John Steinbeck to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, an early, sublime example of chicklit).

This summer, Oprah and her occasional book club are heading South and reading William Faulkner. And not just one title, but three (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August) for a whole "Summer of Faulkner." This selection raises some interesting questions, foremost: Could these two people--William Faulkner and Oprah Winfrey--be any more different? Of course, reading books by people who see the world differently from you is generally considered a virtue, a sign of open-mindedness. But in this case, the author sees man's condition in terms that directly contradict the reader's own well-publicized philosophy. A look at a few key points of difference will illustrate that Oprah Winfrey reading William Faulkner is a little like Dr. Pangloss reading Oswald Spengler or Saddam Hussein reading Robert Fulghum.

If Oprah is inspirational, her fellow Mississippian Faulkner is fatalistic. The Big O believes you begin your life anew this very moment. Just decide that it is so. The Sound and Fury author sees the present moment as the net sum of a past that in its vastness, complexity, and power overwhelms the present and is apt to make the individual its pawn, its bitter punch line, its hated plaything.

These differing outlooks lead to differing views of what a person can do about his lot in life. In the happy televised world of Oprah, people are put upon until they decide that they're not going to take it anymore. In Faulkner's South, man is cursed, sinful, and at his best he quietly suffers his undeserved fate. Such stoicism is of course unheard-of on Oprah, where people broadcast their tales of victimization around the world.

History and fate play very different roles in the worlds of Oprah and Faulkner. Take Reverend Hightower from Light in August, who can't keep his dead grandfather, a civil war cavalryman, out of his sermons. The minister's flock doesn't know what to make of their new preacher "with his religion and his grandfather being shot from the galloping horse all mixed up, as though the seed which his grandfather had transmitted to him had been on the horse too that night and had been killed too and time had stopped there and then for the seed and nothing had happened in time since, not even him." For his troubles, Reverend Hightower, D.D., ("Done Damned" the locals say it means) is burdened with a brazen harlot for a wife whose promiscuity and depression lead to her suicide and such scandal that Hightower must descend from his pulpit to become a sort-of in-town exile. In exchange for his banishment, as compensation for the end of life as he knows it, as he hoped for it, and as he worked very hard for it, he receives self-knowledge.

Self-knowledge comes, of course, far more cheaply in the world of Oprah. With the recent 5th Anniversary Special issue of O magazine, readers get it free in a pocket-sized volume collecting Oprah's "What I Know for Sure" essays. Amidst the well-decorated pages, one learns from the many oversized quotations that "our beliefs can move us forward in life--or they can hold us back." (Someone better tell Rev. Hightower.) Also, no reason to suffer the slings and arrows of existence to learn anything, because, very simply, "the truth is that which feels right and good and loving." The burdens of race, mankind, and history need not hold us back, because "it's up to each of us to get very still and say, 'This is who I am.' No one else defines your life. Only you do."

Faulkner being Faulkner, I wanted some interpretive assistance while re-reading Light in August for this article. It turns out that Irving Howe's book-length critical study was not long ago reissued by Ivan R. Dee; even more amazing is that I found it at Borders next to Vintage's special Oprah Book Club set of the three novels chosen for the Summer of Faulkner.

"That men are not free to choose their world and their selves," wrote Howe, and that "the past and present conspire to defeat the eager will is a common notion in Faulkner's books." And, obviously, an uncommon one in the self-help nostrums Oprah sells.

Rather thoughtfully, Oprah's Book Club supplies its members with tips on approaching Faulkner's books. "Be patient," the website advises, and "Be prepared to re-read." But if they're coming straight from the scented-soap world of Winfrey-land, these readers are going to be absolutely lost when they arrive in Yoknapatawpha County. To which I say--lest you thought I'd spend this whole piece complaining about Oprah and her book club--Good!

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.