Epilogue: Reading Up into the Twenty-first Century
Both Oprah and I want the same thing and believe the same thing, that the distinction between high and low is meaningless.
—JONATHAN FRANZEN, 26 OCTOBER 20011
We have a little history.
—OPRAH WINFREY, 17 SEPTEMBER 20102
While I have structured this study around Hamilton Wright Mabie and his Journal writings—a book historian’s treasure trove that would certainly repay further scholarly attention—it is important to note that although he had the largest bully pulpit, he was not unique among critics and literary popularizers at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Atlantic, for example, had Agnes Repplier, who “led the charge against high realism” during that publication’s flirtation with more popular tastes.3 Mabie himself refers frequently to manuals of “self-culture” that his readers might want to use to supplement his columns, such as James Freeman Clarke’s Self-Culture, Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s Intellectual Life, and Noah Porter’s Books and Reading; or, What Books Shall I Read and How Shall I Read Them? Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy had become a textbook for the self-culture movement, and the Chautauqua movement was flourishing.4 Everyman’s Library, which began production in 1906, was making the “classics” mentioned by Mabie affordable, and it was constructing its own canons along similar lines as Mabie. A particularly salient example of this dynamic is the Harvard Classics series Five-Foot Shelf of Books, published with inspirational synergy by P. F. Collier from 1910 to 1961. The Five-Foot Shelf combined a reading advisor sensibility—these are the texts you should read, and this is what you should get out of them—with an impressively bound edition of the works themselves. Unlike Everyman’s Library, the Five-Foot Shelf was remarkable for its fixity: the contents of the collection did not change at all over its fifty-year publication history. One selling point of the Five-Foot Shelf was its programmatic efficiency—following the daily reading guide in a bound pamphlet with the promising title “Fifteen Minutes a Day,” you could learn all you needed to know to succeed socially or professionally. What better assurance for the beginning reader than to know that, really, the only texts that required attention could fit in fifty bindings?
In her treatment of the Five-Foot Shelf, Joan Shelley Rubin discusses the ways that “the early rhetoric surrounding the Harvard Classics satisfied the need for access to ‘the best’ while simultaneously addressing the desire for information and making it consumable.”5 But why would a reader want to read “the best” books? The conflation of reading and financial success that is nascent and implied in Mabie is fully formed and explicit by Collier’s early 1920s advertising campaign for the Five-Foot Shelf series. On 23 January 1921, the reader of the New York Times was confronted with a picture of a typical daily scene: the interior of a train during the morning commute, seated men in business suits and fedoras (and one well-dressed woman), noses buried in their newspapers. One lone, standing passenger, eschewing the newspaper, is engrossed in a book. The banner caption crows, “Which Wins Out?”6 The book reader, it seems, will have a competitive business advantage over the newspaper readers because he is acquiring “‘the essentials of a liberal education’—the power to think straight and talk well.” The ad promises that such knowledge will “lift men to distinction and success,” and encourages readers to send off for a free reading-plan booklet.
A little over one month later, the reader of the Times Book Review would find a Harvard Classics ad appealing to a different set of aspirations, keyed perhaps to the recently passed Valentine’s holiday. A lovely woman sits at a dinner table, flanked by two men in evening dress. She has turned her back on one concerned-looking gentleman while she lavishes the other (who, by the way, is also the younger and more attractive of the two) with a winning smile. The headline asks, “Which of these two men has learned the secret of 15 minutes a day?”7 The ad continues:
Here are two men, equally good looking, equally well dressed. You see such men at every social gathering. One of them can talk of nothing beyond the mere day’s news. The other brings to every subject a wealth of side light and illustration that makes him listened to eagerly. He talks like a man who had traveled widely, though his only travels are a business man’s trips. He knows something of history and biography, of the work of great scientists, and the writings of philosophers, poets, and dramatists. Yet he is busy, as all men are, in the affairs of every day. How has he found the time to acquire so rich a mental background? When there is such a multitude of books to read, how can any man be well-read?
The Five-Foot Shelf is, of course, the answer to this conundrum, with its helpfully condensed and programmed plan for reading. This project is “the answer to this man’s success”—a success in this case not professional, but personal, if the illustration is any indication. In 1922, Collier’s ad writers tied marital contentment to well-read-ness, with a comparative picture of two couples, one pair staring blankly at the reader over cards, a card table separating them physically and spiritually; the second pair, with legs crossed towards each other, a book in front of each, are smiling as they discuss their respective reading. This couple has “learn[ed] the secret of eternal youth. They are constantly acquiring fresh, new interests. Their evenings are a delight to themselves when they are alone; and their company is eagerly sought by their friends.”8 Marital, social, and professional success—all would presumably result from reading the right books. The center part of the equation is never filled in; it is never quite clear how such results will come from the reading project. And there was no need to fill in that blank; the culture of success had already folded the notion of “reading up” into the general cultural understanding.
From Mabie forward, the idea that a particular type of reading—reading “the best books”—was desirable, and would produce material results, was unquestioned, self-evident, “natural.” Founded soon after Mabie’s tenure at the Journal were the Modern Library (1916), the Book-of-the-Month Club (1926), and the Reader’s Subscription (1951), to name just three of the myriad taste-making ventures of the early twentieth century.9 Cultural capital became big business—but this was only possible because at some point, the idea became general that reading “good” books would somehow be good for you, both socially and financially. Mabie was an agent of the production of that “reading up” ideology, but the traces of his influence have been obscured, his presence effaced.
Oprah v. Franzen, 2001–10
Fast-forward to September 2001, as Oprah Winfrey announces that her forty-second Oprah’s Book Club selection will be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Franzen’s book had just been published to considerable critical fanfare, Franzen’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, having produced a glossy promotional package to prep book reviewers for “the most important book of the last fifteen years.”10 It was already on its way to best-sellerdom; Oprah’s selection promised to catapult it into mega-best-sellerdom, putting it, in Franzen’s words, “into Wal-Mart and Costco and places like that.”11 Oprah celebrated the novel, and her faithful book club followers on the message boards at Oprah.com were ready to agree after reading the opening lines, which several quoted in posts from 2 October 2001. “I completely agree with you about the beginning of the book,” writes “Jonanna.” “I read reviews when it came out a month or so ago, and had planned to read [it] in the future. When Oprah made it her book this month, I was overjoyed. It is superb. I look forward to participating in a discussion.”12 It is important to note, in light of what follows, that this reader and many others on the discussion boards report that they had already planned to read the novel. This reader had seen the novel’s generally positive reviews, perhaps like Francine Prose’s in the September 2001 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine (an issue devoted to “Success!”): “These complex, marvelously drawn characters—and their closely interwoven stories—are enough to keep us reading attentively, and with pleasure. [ . . . ] But what makes the novel so truly electric are the multiple jolts of recognition it delivers as Franzen gets so many different scenes eerily right.”13 The subtitle for Prose’s review trumpets the novel as “a literary masterpiece”; Oprah was delivering for her readers the “best book,” the superb work of an author who self-identified as “solidly in the high-art literary tradition.”14
In a series of interviews in October 2001, Franzen repeatedly made comments that indicated his discomfort with his book being selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Being in the “high-art literary tradition,” he expressed uneasiness about the mass-marketing of his book, its presence in big-box retail establishments (as opposed to independent or boutique bookstores), and he lamented in an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air that Oprah’s imprimatur would lead to the book being read, and consequently disliked, by people for whom the book was never intended: “First and foremost, it’s a literary book. And I think it’s an accessible literary book. It’s an open question how big the audience is to which it will be accessible, and I think beyond the limits of that audience, there’s going to be a lot of, ‘What was Oprah thinking?’ kind of responses.”15 On 22 October, after having heard multiple disparagements of her program and audience from her chosen author, Oprah had had enough; she released a statement disinviting Franzen from her show and canceling the book group discussion. Franzen frantically began to backpedal and apologize, but Oprah stood her ground, advising her readers to move on to the next book. The nuances of the Franzen-Oprah feud as it played out among the principals and the critical media have been discussed with much greater detail elsewhere; Kathleen Rooney thoroughly and sensitively parses the class and aesthetic orientations of the two principals, as well as the gender biases of Franzen’s statements. Trysh Travis has argued that Oprah’s Book Club’s New Thought theology is at the root of Franzen’s discomfort, and she gracefully summarizes the dustup and the critical fallout.16 Scholarly consensus seems to be that Franzen was at best clueless, at worst unrepentantly and idiotically snobbish, and that Oprah got the best of the disagreement by asserting her right of refusal and withdrawing her allegiance and the allegiance of her vast and ostensibly loyal audience.
A somewhat different dynamic played out on the Oprah.com message boards that were dedicated to the novel and which were open and fully engaged at the time of the conflict. Between the beginning of October and 15 October, while a vast majority of the posters were primarily concerned with board technicalities such as how to display icons before their usernames, how to make them animated, and how to customize their viewing preferences, some readers did address the novel in preliminary fashion. Posters expressing hesitation about the book quickly asserted their intentions to “stick with it,” despite distaste for either the characters or Franzen’s style. The 7 October post of “mlnurk” is typical: “As many of you said and a lot of you haven’t had trouble with . . . but I sure am having a problem getting into this book. I can’t get past chip!! I keep putting it down and wishing I was reading something else. I’m enjoying reading the posts much better than the actual book . . . but I’m not giving up!” (ellipses in original).17 Posters struggled gamely in the days before Wikipedia to identify Michel Foucault, whose philosophies are espoused by one character. They debate another character’s dedication to her family and wonder about the significance of the title.
After Franzen’s Fresh Air interview, the discussion, unsurprisingly, became focused on his statements, with posters finding varying degrees of justification in what he says. “Stolafgirl” posts that Franzen had “dirty, ungrateful things to say about Oprah and the book club. I found him to be quite egotistical and am looking forward to his appearance on the show at the end of the month to see how he acts with readers as well as Oprah.”18 “Esty105” answers that “[h]e sounds insufferable just like his book. Maybe he should have put a label on it FOR MEN ONLY. Then I wouldn’t have wasted my time reading it.”19 “Rborja76” weighs in that “I didn’t come away with the notion that he said anything ‘harsh’ about Oprah, at least nothing that I felt was an unfair complaint about the show. Then again, I’m a man.”20 And “sabine12” offers, “In reading the reactions of many of the posters to this board: He is dead-on right. This book is different. It is NOT plot-driven; it is more ‘literary’ than some of the other picks. And, let’s be honest, many of the folks on this board have NOT liked this book.”21 Posting on the boards required registration, and most of these respondents were repeat—and therefore dedicated—posters; while the righteous indignation of many of the responses is perhaps expected, there is also a generous representation of readers who take seriously Franzen’s critiques of the book club offerings and suggest that the negative responses to the book might well be a function of its “high-art literary” profile.
Vituperation and celebration intermingled on the board for the next week, followed by more of the same, leavened with confusion, after Oprah announced the cancellation of the show and discussion with Franzen. While many readers made public statements of renunciation (“I’m returning my book!” exclaims “martster” on 24 October),22 others lamented the loss of an opportunity to talk about the book and criticized both Franzen and Oprah for posturing that does a disservice to the readers, and to literature in general. Sabine12 again offers a cogent analysis: “To put it bluntly, I think this stinks.”
I’m disappointed in both sides—the author for making such elitist and ill-considered comments and, honestly, I’m a little disappointed in the show for not taking this opportunity to engage in a very interesting discussion about what seems to be a recurring issue. I would love to have a chance to talk to Mr. Franzen and show him that women who watch daytime television CAN appreciate “literature.”23
Enough readers wrote in to disagree with Oprah’s move that the board, which had previously been a place of gentle agree-to-disagree rhetoric, became tense, with moderators needing to remind posters to discuss the book, not one another. “Instead of condemning Oprah,” one reader writes, “I want to thank her for practicing what she preaches to her audience, the importance of demanding to be treated respectfully. Also by canceling the show Oprah has sent a message that no one is allowed to insult the viewers of her show.”24 But readers also argued that Oprah “has an obligation to us her readers and book club participants. Even I did not like the current selection of the month, I always watched the show and enjoy it [sic]. I end up usually getting something out of reading a book I did not care for just from the book club dinner.”25 Many readers were livid because the show was going to be cancelled after they had made a significant financial commitment to the book, which was only available in hardcover and cost up to $40.00 for Canadian readers. As Siouxj writes, “Once I bought the book, it sat there for almost a week. I would pick it up, only to put it back down after the searing burning guilt had fully stained my hand—I had such shame for spending 40 bucks on a book.”26
Gradually, with no reversal forthcoming from Oprah or her board moderators, a core group of the board members decided to refocus their energies on having the discussion they were clearly going to be denied by the show. By 14 November, they were debating not only the application of the term “Great American Novel” to Franzen’s novel in particular, drawing comparisons (both positive and negative) to The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy, and The World according to Garp. They were likewise debating the concept of the Great American Novel and questioning what they saw as the profit-driven attempts to apply that term to a new novel (by a white male!) every five years or so. Returning to the loss of the dinner show, “zurilaw” comments (with scare quotes around “Great American Novel” to indicate the deepening of the term that resulted from their prior discussion):
I sigh at the show-discussion that might have been, but then I contemplate the discussion that probably would have been, and I count myself lucky to be spared a trivialization of a “Great American Novel.” If the discussion were to have been limited to the most concrete of connections . . . a la What The Corrections Taught Me About Living with a Parkinson’s Patient . . . or My Sibling is Sooo Like Chip (or Denise or Gary) . . . or My Mother-in Law Cooks with Grease and Gives Tacky Gifts . . . then I might have been unbearably demoralized, indeed beyond correction. I am enormously grateful to have been spared that particular fate . . . and to have been left instead to ponder the irony of a literary phenomenon that alternately catapults sales and cancels discussion, and a media icon who blithely proclaims a “Great American Novel” yet feels (apparently) uncompelled to sponsor (on air) the recap, reflection and debate that the work that prompted so weighty an appellation demands.27
Ironizing both the impulse to hierarchize texts and ham-fisted, literalizing attempts to render a “high-art literary” novel “accessible,” this poster identifies and exposes strains of cultural arbitration that stretches all the way back to Mabie, and expresses and enacts her independence from arbiters on either side of the cultural divide.
On 17 September 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that the first book club offering for her last season on The Oprah Winfrey Show would be Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nine years, the follow-up to The Corrections. She declared the new book “exquisite . . . a masterpiece.” Noting that she and Franzen “have a little history,” Oprah explained that she had cleared the selection with him in advance, and she encouraged her audience to join the virtual discussion on Oprah.com. Unsurprisingly, the first posts are largely preoccupied with the Oprah-Franzen drama rather than with the book itself. While some readers felt that Oprah was affording Franzen publicity and sales that might be more helpful to a less well-established author, more agreed with the sentiments expressed by “sandra194,” who was “not surprised that Oprah ‘forgave’ or moved on with her relationship with Franzen—this is what she talks about all the time—not holding grudges against folks. Go Oprah!”28 Excited about the possibilities for a redemption arc, posters anticipated an eventful book club telecast.
When discussion turns to the text itself, the responses quickly segregate themselves into fans and defenders of the book and the irritated, bored, and angry haters of the book. Many from the latter group comment that they are typically library-goers who made an exception this time around and purchased the book; like Siouxj in 2001, their irritation is amplified by the thought that they “wasted” such money on a purchase, and now they will not be able to recoup the cost in recreation or pleasure. As “6dinnersid” comments on 15 October:
I have been an avid reader for years . . . and read all types of novels. After 200 pages of Freedom, I could not stand to read another page. It just seemed like filler to me. And the sentences go on and on and on. I am extremely disappointed in this Oprah book selection and even more so that I spent $28 on this book. Love Oprah and her show!29
Like this reader, Oprah’s readers generally take care to specify that their criticism of the text or the choice did not extend to a personal critique of Oprah herself (by mid-November, there was even a theory afloat that Oprah did not read or choose the book herself, but was coerced into doing so by corporate interests!). But these posters, like Mabie’s readers, clearly expected to get a good return on the investment of their time and money. “Filler” in a book, as in a sausage, is unforgiveable.
Readers who liked Freedom also expressed their approbation in the language of “value,” turning even to address the relative “value” of participating in an online discussion of the text. “Kiki5026” writes, “[I find] the comments that have been posted to be either very positive or extremely negative and I wonder about those who posted all of the negative comments. Sure, we all enjoy reading upbeat books that are interesting and hopeful. But how much more do we get out of a book that makes us think and feel, like Freedom does?”30 Other defenders write testier responses, frustrated by their philistine fellow-readers who lament the unrelatability of Franzen’s characters. One frequent participant, “jgluz,” has reached the limit of patience by 29 October: “I’m sorry that this wasn’t the usual escapist, empty-calorie, sentimental drivel that keeps the industry afloat. I’m sorry that anybody had to work at it to squeeze out an iota of empathy for this coterie of completely human, fully-voiced, flawed and beautiful characters. I’m sorry that Franzen would be proven right in having worried about exposing this lot to his work the first time around.”31 Jgluz values empathy but anathematizes “sentimental” and “escapist” literature. In language that directly echoes the concerns of high realism’s early century defenders, jgluz denigrates a grasping and commercialized publishing industry, interested only in “keeping [itself] afloat,” while turning immediately to an assessment of the mass of readers (Oprah readers—“this lot”) as constitutionally incapable of appreciating good literature. It is an efficient, thorough, and passionate, if highly conventional, post.
Unlike the 2001 discussion, the 2010 boards were visibly controlled by the guiding voice of Oprah’s book club producer, Jill (“producerji”), who offered prompts for discussion every week and who replied to selected posts. As in the case of the reader letters that Mabie “answers” in his columns, we cannot know the extent to which responses on the Oprah discussion boards were selected, edited, or even scripted. Even if we were to assume that all of these responses had actually been written by discrete, individual readers, the degree to which each response was mediated by culturally constructed expectations of readerly attitudes is unknowable. But at the very least, one may read this discussion as a representation of discussions of a book like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a book celebrated by the New York Times and publicly embraced by the nation’s highly educated, and self-consciously cerebral, president.32 And in reading this representation of readership, we can note several things about the ways reading is supposed to work. Some readers will be dissenters who complain of boredom or of lack of identification; many of these readers will insist that they entered into the reading project in good faith, because they were told by a trusted adviser that this book would be good for them. Such responses necessitate the rallying of defenders who rail against the lowbrow tastes of the others and who find “value” in a book’s “difficulty.” But there are no voices that question reading per se; reading’s value has been secured. Even if you do not like Freedom, you might like another book; turning away from literature altogether is simply not an option. This presumption of reading’s essential value—aesthetic, emotional, social, material—is the enduring legacy of Mabie, the internalization of reading up.