I am coming to the conclusion that Oprah Winfrey is the future of literature in the United States. And that's a good thing. We talked in my class yesterday with Josh Landy, our guest speaker who's written about ethical criticism (he's against it). Yet he led us to conclude that it's imperative that people read good literature. We defined "good" as having moral complexity, bringing about surprise and the promise of happiness. Reading literature makes us open to becoming happy in unexpected ways, and this (we decided) is what makes "us" better people over time. As compelling as populist arguments for the equality of genre fiction may be--and when we come to power we wouldn't ban people from reading it--genre fiction does not really create surprise. Yes, on the level of plot it can, but not on the level of surprise about people or life or language.
But how to get people reading the good stuff? Academics can't do it, by definition. As soon as we assign it, it becomes a task, a pill, a leafy green vegetable (at best). It has to be done on TV and be administered by a powerful yet non-threatening and fun person. OK, Oprah was threatening to James Frey, and this is a symptom of her current obsession with memoir, which needs to stop. No surprise in memoir, not the kind we're talking about--only the surprise of being lied to. But as Cecilia Konchar Farr says in Reading Oprah, a very interesting book (and very poorly produced, as if on a Xerox machine, by SUNY Press) , Oprah's self-improvement approach to literature is the key. Oprah tells readers, This is difficult, but you can do it. She alternates--or used to alternate--easy books with more difficult ones, building up readers' stamina and confidence. And she did get tons of people to read Faulkner, though they didn't buy his work in as many truckloads as the others. But it doesn't have to be Faulkner; an emotionally difficult text is good enough. She's developing this capacity for literature, which means a capacity for calm and complex reflection. (I'm grabbing the term from Empson, who uses it in a slightly different way in 7 Types of Ambiguity.) I don't think this is the same thing as the "critical thinking" argument, which means literature teaches you how to seize a pen and start marking as soon as a politician or product pitcher opens his mouth. The capacity, as I see it, is for a kind of stillness. Wonder, maybe.