Books and Arts

Bad Expectations

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On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, “Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!” Oprah declared that she has “always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,” and “now [she] can.” Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Billed as “A Date with Dickens,” Oprah’s sentimentalized pitch for consuming the author’s workit’s “cup of hot chocolate” readingis sure to inspire a frightening number of purchases. Just as they have for the past 14 years, cadres of women around the globe will flock to bookstores to nab covers with a small circular “O” sticker on the top right corner. Oprah has proven that she can catapult a contemporary author from obscurity to fame; but, more interestingly, she’s shown she can also revivify the great novels. Dubbed the “Oprah Effect,” Winfrey’s seal of approval and magnanimous praise has bolstered the sales of dozens of novels and, in turn, annoyed bitter English teachers everywhere. After all, Oprah is doing the impossibleshe is convincing the masses to purchase and read classics. 

In recent years, Oprah’s contemporary choices have wavered wildly, between new classics and “one-dimensional” heart-wrenchers (as Jonathan Franzen so aptly put it back in 2001). The Road (also a Pulitzer-Prize winner) introduced the world to the menacingly minimal prose of Cormac McCarthy, but Fall on Your Knees (Anne-Marie MacDonald) left me wishing for … wait, I hardly even remember finishing that one. 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 readand 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.”

 

Now imagine this scenario somewhat differently. Your 16 year old announces that her English class will be reading Great Expectations. Fabulous, you think. A real piece of literature, a break from the Twilight nonsense and the watering down of education. “What will you discuss?” you ask your child. “Oh, we don’t know yet,” she says. “My teacher has never read it before. In fact, she’s never read any Dickens. She just thought it would be fun to read this with a cup of tea in hand!” My guess is that you would be annoyed. 

And yet, Oprah does just that, only it’s worse: She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth centuryprose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to “live your best life” is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligenceshe is quite clearly a woman of savvybut because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional. 

Oprah’s approach to her Book Club is all about herself. Her recent announcement contained not a word of reasoning or insightfulness about Dickens’s work; instead, she explained her reason for picking two of his novels by shouting, in a lame attempt at literary humor, “Cause it’s the best of times!” Just as she deems her “favorite things” worthy of an annual consumer-fest, she happily pushes to her audience of millions whatever books she herself wants to read.

Making the situation all the more appalling, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities could not be more different. Focusing on wildly different themes and set in two distinct historical periods, scholars do not even regard the books as being of the same caliberGreat Expectations is often considered the far superior work.Reading them in conjunction imparts no nutritional value. This whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carolprobably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?

 

Since its inception in 1996, the Book Club has carved its niche among readers by telling them that the novel is a chance to learn more about themselves. It’s not about literature or writing; it’s about looking into a mirror and deciding what type of person you are, and how you can be better. While a generally wrongheaded view of novels, this notion is all the more frustrating when the club delves into the true classics, with their vast knottiness, glorious language, breathtaking characters, and multi-faceted, mind-twisting prose. None of that matters in Oprah’s view of books, since reading is yet another exercise in self-gratification. “If you have read him, what do you think Dickens might have to share and teach those of us who live in this digital age?” the Book Club’s producer, Jill, asks on Oprah’s website. This is the Eat, Pray, Love school of reading. 

Indeed, Oprah’s readers have been left in the dark. They must now scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemismsand the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon. Instead, they can only mimic their high-school selves with calls of, “It’s too hard!” Or, else, they can put aside any notions of reading to become a better reader and instead immerse themselves in the nonsense of “discovering their true selves” in novels. 

A glance at the discussion boards on Oprah’s website confirms my worst fears. “I have read all the print-outs and character materials and the first two pages,” said one reader, referring to supplementary reading guides produced by the Book Club. “The first two pages are laden with political snips and I am trying to grasp what it is saying. I was able to look up cock-lane and figure that out, but where do I go to figure out the innuendos?” And the response: “SparkNotes provides an excellent summary of the context of the book as well as chapter summaries and analysis.”

Despite Oprah’s joyous yelling and shepherding, despite her character guides and suggestions of cups of hot cocoa, despite the gorgeously crafted Penguin edition of two Dickens novels and the soon-to-come chats on Winfrey’s couch about how readers can find themselves in these books, the battle has been fought and the victor already decided: Oprah 1, Literature, 0. 

Hillary Kelly is assistant editor of THE BOOK.

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