I think my favorite book is considered by many to be straight up chick-lit, with as much cultural relevance as Desperate Housewives, primarily because I was introduced to it by Oprah Winfrey. Well, if the book that I love made me sob piteously and feel closer to a protagonist than I had felt since reading "Good times, Bad times" by James Kirkwood( my number two choice),and moved me as much as "Watership Down" had when I read it the first time, then I am one bona fide chick amongst millions.
I grew up surrounded by books and found my own interest in reading to be a bit limited compared to my family. As a kid, I was voracious. I read all of the "Little House on the Prairie" books and all of the "Chronicles of Narnia" at the urging of my mother, who refused to let me read Judy Blume unless I had tackled the aforementioned successfully. I am grateful now, but then it was a task to get through the endless prairie fires and great battles on the other side of the wardrobe to the part about slam books and girls with scoliosis cutting of their hair. I then read every Judy Blume book except "Wifey", every S.E. Hinton novel,"Clooney" "A Day No Pigs Would Die", every Paul Zindel book- the list is too long to remember. Even with all those books under my pre teen literary belt, I still felt like they were all too main stream to count.I felt I should have been reading more literature.
Admittedly, I never grew to love many of the classics that we were forced to read in school quite as much as I thought I should. The Bible was excruciating."Wuthering Heights" dragged on, " Tess of the D’Urbervilles" was devastating, “The Sun Also Rises" was difficult to identify with the bullfighting, "Lolita" was a bit creepy but brilliant, “Grapes of Wrath" was bleak,"1984" was frightening, “Lord of the Flies" convinced me that I would be Piggy if it ever came to pass. Great books, but not sure I could call them my favorites. "Catcher in the Rye","Sophies Choice","To Kill a Mockingbird"- all amazing books as well, and I remember where I was when I read each one of them. They left a deeper impression than the Bronte sisters or even Shakespeare did, because the experience of reading them was, well, easy. I never had to stop and re-read the text to understand what the author was trying to say. Perhaps it was the mundane task of analysis in English Literature in tenth grade that turned me off the classics, but I always felt that the business of reading was more subjective than anything. To have Mr. Stone, my sixth foot five emaciated and perpetually "ahhhh"ing between ideas English teacher tell me definitively the meaning of the subtext annoyed me. How did he know what the author meant? Did he write it? Is all subtext intentional? I get that it was an exercise for us to try and look for deeper meaning, but I never really enjoyed it. I tend to be a "you either get it or you don't" kind of gal.
Now, as I mentioned, my favorite book is an original Oprah Book Club choice, and while I understand why a lot of people think her selections are not always the greatest books, I don't quite understand why an author would deny her the pleasure of making their book her next selection. Most of you probably remember when Jonathan Franzen said that Oprah had "picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight." He then said that his was a “hard book for that audience." (This according to Wikipedia)
Well, Miss O Thing uninvited him from the show and despite the multiple public and private apologies, he never saw the inside of Harpo Studios. He probably didn’t really care since the book did well without her endorsement, but he did thank her when he accepted the National Book Award that year, which was well after she had already written him off.
He got some overt criticism from his peers:
New York Times Verlyn Klinkenborg said "lurking behind Mr. Franzen's rejection of Ms. Winfrey is an elemental distrust of readers, except for the ones he designates."
Andre Dubus III added, "It is so elitist it offends me deeply. The assumption that high art is not for the masses, that they won't understand it and they don't deserve it – I find that reprehensible. Is that a judgment on the audience? Or on the books in whose company he would be?"
Others accused Franzen of sexism asking "Is it misogyny, do you think, or class prejudice, or worse?"(This too, from Wikipedia).
A lot of people agreed with him, though, but mostly those who consider themselves the literati and probably looked down on Oprah's picks as mass marketed pseudo intellectual female driven nonsense already. I will say, I felt a little exposed when reading the books with her gigantic seal of approval on the cover. It seemed, well, unseemly to have something as profound and prestigious as reading being turned into a vehicle for her latest passion. Again, I love many of the books I have read at her urging, but there is a hesitation to crow about it.Franzen was actually quite compelling in his bravery in not simply appeasing the most powerful woman in America. But I assume he isn't writing a book so he can keep his day job. Isn't it an author's dream to have a best seller? Perhaps the Oprah route felt like a cheat, that maybe he would have been haunted by the fact that he would have never known if it could have made it on its own merits.
Ultimately it is his choice, but I guess it illustrates out how much our cultural perspectives have changed.
A friend of mine had occasion to dine with a famous director, a knighted British actor and their culturally elite posse. She is marvelously adept and talking to everyone and can talk up or talk down depending on the audience. She was a bit nervous to attend because she was certain to be outclassed by the dinner guests.
She had a wonderful time and told me later that the bulk of the conversation was spent discussing the current season of American Idol. I was secretly appalled, almost out of habit, because my family, while certainly not elitist, hadn't yet come around to appreciate much television beyond "Masterpiece Theater". I guess I assumed that culturally relevant people had all sorts of culturally relevant conversations about, well, culturally relevant things. I never would have guessed that American Idol would dominate the conversation at that dinner party.
Now, I would hope it wouldn't be all pretentious and annoyingly relevant either. Those people are the worst. I am reminded of the time an artist friend of mine and I were at party with "artistic types”. It looked like a hooker's funeral with all the ripped fishnets and smudged black eyeliner. I think I was wearing a beret. My friend, who wasn't exactly a social butterfly, attempted to enter a conversation about his favorite architect, a real passion of his, and was promptly and icily corrected on the pronunciation of the architect's name. He was visibly shocked by this and was silenced for the rest of the evening. I am sure that he came across as the brooding angry type to the other guests, but he was simply undone by the smarminess of the remark. His offender was a rumpled, navy blazer wearing, scruffy, over indulged type who was waiting for his moment to pounce. A classless prick.
I do think that true class is being able to hang with anyone and not feel the need to remind them of where you or they stand all the time. Perhaps my friend’s mispronunciation was a result of growing up in a town where no one had ever heard of the architect, where his artistic interests were not only being discouraged, but actively channeled in the direction of vocational school. Perhaps he took his GED and got the hell out of there to find his way as an artist. Does he not deserve to sit at the same table as an insipid Gitane smoking, Rhode Island School of Design graduate who has done nothing but live off his trust fund and hang out with equally insipid famous people?
Snobbery is on the wane. There isn't a place for it in such a multicultural world. Who is to say that one woman's sari isn't as pretty as another woman's Tory Burch tunic?
I, for one, was unable to get through "The Corrections”. I found it reluctant to engage me. Perhaps a result of reading too many Oprah picks that tend to drag their readers by the hair from page one. I was also a lot less cynical and a lot more sentimental back then.After five years of marriage and two children, I can say with certainty that the opposite is true today, so perhaps it will be my new favorite book.
Then I can strut around with it tucked under my arm, pontificating like Mr. Howl and sneering at the sea of James Patterson novels around me, chin forward, an intellectual at last.