Literary claptrap

So, I just read this essay by Hillary Kelly criticizing Oprah’s book club (in response to her recent selection of two Dickens novels) over at TNR, and I was so annoyed I felt the need to blog about it.   Sure Oprah’s book club has its failings and she has a history of choosing some pretty mediocre works in addition to the great ones, but I think commentary like this is just wrong:

The most galling of Oprah’s selections, however, aren’t the terrible new ones; they are magna opera of literary history. Indeed, Winfrey has seen fit to dip into the annals of literary history, pull out ringers like Anna Karenina and As I Lay Dying, and tell us why she, Oprah, thinks we should read them.
Her current choices, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Surely both belong to the realm of classics and should, no must be read—and Oprah’s fans will inevitably dive in, not only because Winfrey has told them to but also out of a desire to assuage old guilt about required reading in high school that was left untouched. But what can Oprah really bring to the table with these books? Oprah has said that, together, the novels will “double your reading pleasure.” But is that even true? And do the novels even complement each other? Can you connect Miss Havisham’s treatment of time to Carton’s misuse of his “youthful promise”? Well, don’t ask Oprah herself, as she “shamefully” admits she has “never read Dickens.”

I’m sorry, but anything or anyone that gets people to read more classic literature is a good thing.  Maybe Oprah does not get the same thing– nor encourage her audience to get that same literary aesthetic out of Anna Karenina as Hillary Kelly does, but how can it possibly be a bad thing to have more people reading Tolstoy, Dickens, Faulkner, McCarthy?!  Seriously!  Kelly suggest that Oprah bends all these works to her own will of self-improvement and maybe she does, but these works of literature are great precisely because they resonate and speak to readers on so many levels, regardless of whatever discussion questions Oprah brings to the table.  Kelly essentially suggests that these works should only be read under the guidance of a literature professor or literary type such as herself.  This is just the worst kind of literary elitism.

I’m sure I would have actually gotten much more out of Anna Karenina or The Road had I read them as part of a literature class, but to suggest that my reading was essentially pointless and one-dimensional because I did not is hugely insulting.  I did not read these books because Oprah recommended them, but for those that did, that’s great, because the more people who read great books like this, the better.  Period.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Literary claptrap

  1. John says:

    Sounds like you’re making the protestants argument against the Catholic church. “Do we really need the church to be the go between God & the lay?” How about political science professors & DeTocqville? As you did with the classics, I did with “Democracy in America” before parts of it were assigned reading in poli sci class. And yes, I think I got more out of it by doing both. (I think it also helped get me an “A!”)

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