Oprah Vs. Faulkner

Oprah Winfrey makes an award presentation during the 76th annual Academy Awards, Los Angeles, 2-29-04
This column was written by David Skinner.
"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.