June 4, 2007


Cormac joins Oprah's club: McCarthy is giving Winfrey a rare interview, but what surprises some is that she picked up his bleak book 'The Road.' (Eric Miles Williamson, June 4, 2007, LA Times)

The literary establishment was surprised at Winfrey's choice because it views her selections as lowbrow and repeating a familiar formula: Victim overcomes adversity, dignity prevails over evil, the underdog overcomes overwhelming odds and triumphs in a small but morally significant way. Oprah books have become a cliché, at least among the folks who think themselves her betters. The literary establishment believes that if Winfrey likes a book by a living writer, that writer must be awful. That's why Jonathan Franzen didn't want to appear on Oprah's show when she chose his novel "The Corrections."

The problem with this attitude is the misguided presumption that Winfrey is predisposed toward "happy" books at the expense of "literature." This is not necessarily the case. What she seems to prefer are moral books, and this is why she tends to overlook so many "literary" authors. American literary authors have all but abandoned the general reading public, noses upturned. To Winfrey, though, an author's literary style, erudition or linguistic experimentation is of secondary importance: She's primarily concerned with the social aspects of literature, how literature can help our culture. If the work doesn't have a useful moral foundation that has the potential to make the world a more civil and pleasant place, it's not going to be one of her selections.

What often passes for high "literature" today is writing that is impenetrable and onanistic: self-enclosed systems of game-playing that only the author and a small band of professors and masochistic devotees understand (or claim to understand). Of course Winfrey would never pick William Gass' "masterpiece" doorstop of a novel "The Tunnel." Why should she? Who can read it? And Thomas Pynchon? He might be smarter than the rest of us mortals, but that doesn't mean he's communicating anything to us other than the unpleasant reality that he can't seem to stop writing volumes of brilliant gibberish, and the world will be none the worse when John Barth's books are all out of print.

Readers of the Times this morning are fortunate--Mr. Williamson just explained in a nutshell why modern art sucks and why the Puritan Nation has largely ignored it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2007 6:41 AM
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