Claudia Grinnell, turnrow Assistant Editor, conducted an interview with Kathleen Rooney via e-mail over the course of a couple of weeks at the beginning of October 2006, after having read Reading With Oprah and having a number of questions regarding that book club, book clubs and reading in general. What follows is a conversation with Rooney about what seems to be a passion that she and Grinnell both share: the written word.
Claudia Grinnell: My first question, a bit obvious, of course, but regarding the subtitle: The Book Club That Changed America—in what way has the book club changed America?
Kathleen Rooney: As I answer this question, I can’t help but have the recent remarks of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on my mind. In his address at the UN two days ago, he held up a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and recommended it to the members of the General Assembly, as well as to the American people. As he did so, he suggested that Americans should read Chomsky instead of watching Superman and Batman movies that only “make people stupid.”
Obviously, Chavez is a bit of a loose cannon, and obviously Hegemony or Survival is hardly the kind of book Oprah would recommend to her audience, but I think his outburst is relevant to the impact of Oprah’s Book Club. For one thing, the audience response—a book originally published in 2003 rocketed in less than 24 hours into the top 10 of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com—was similar to the way audiences respond to Oprah’s recommendations.
For another, his comments point up the (fairly well-founded, I think) anxiety about the tension between television and books, between visual culture and print culture. He’s rather bluntly getting at the heart of debate about whether, as we move toward a culture whose primary method of making and consuming meaning is image-based, we are losing some of our ability to be intelligent, thoughtful, and discerning human beings.
I have my own concerns about the influence that television and Hollywood movies—especially patriotic films and the “news,” or infoganda —have on their audiences, and I think that Oprah managed to find a way to bring these two traditionally opposed cultures more in sync. Through her original and—as Toni Morrison called it—revolutionary decision to use television as a vehicle for the promotion of literature, I do believe that Oprah’s Book Club took a step toward changing America for the better, which leads kind of nicely into your next question.
C.G.: And a follow-up to that: Is one of the arguments for the existence of the book club as a good thing that it brought back or newly instituted a culture of reading in the US?
K.R.: In an essay about, among other things, the current Gulf War and the art of fiction, Askold Melnyczyuk writes that “serious readers” who have “developed the empathic capacity fiction helps cultivate” are essentially more capable of making sense of their own places in the world, and of their places in relation to others who may or may not be incredibly different from them. So yes, one of the arguments in favor of the existence of Oprah’s Book Club—or any book club, for that matter—is that these institutions give new life to a culture of reading in the US. With this culture of reading comes a culture of acknowledging and appreciating the value of the lives of others, and of the value of the practices involved in being an avid appreciator of literature. Some of these practices, I would argue, are analysis, empathy, and the apprehension of the gray areas of life, the situations where things cannot be boiled down to Us versus Them, Good versus Evil.
I believe that Oprah’s Book Club, particularly when it was recommending fiction, and even now that she’s shifted to non-fiction, managed to emphasize these values without making them seem like a bitter pill. She made reading beneficial, but also fun.
Part of the way she did this was by making reading a social activity, one that brings people together and asks them to think together about complicated things, which I think is a decidedly good outcome.
C.G.: Is sales volume a good indicator of worth—or are we buying into (literally) the myth of “growth” as a good thing?
K.R.: I don’t believe that’s a myth. Good books get better when they are read by more people.
Is it good to write a good book and have it read? Yes. Is it even better to have your good book read by even more people? Absolutely.
Readership—high or low—is not necessarily any indication of a book’s value, and we all know that the market place does not automatically reward books of true merit (whatever we mean by that) with enormous readerships. But if a book manages—through a recommendation by Oprah or Chavez or whomever—to get more people to read it and therefore think about it, then I feel that’s a win-win situation.
C.G.: I agree that a culture of reading can be beneficial in terms of “analysis, empathy, and the apprehension of the gray areas of life, the situations where things cannot be boiled down to Us versus Them, Good versus Evil.” But do you see evidence of an increase of those values in the common discourse in the US? In other words, it seems that what happens on an individual level because of the impact of reading or being part of the book club doesn’t filter up/down to the public level. Am I mis-reading the public discourse?
K.R.: I’m not sure I understand your question, and I’m hesitant to talk about “the public level” or “public discourse” without knowing who you mean, or sounding as though I somehow stand outside or above that discourse and am in a unique position to comment on it, which I do not necessarily think is the case. But actually, I do think that yes, those values are far more in evidence now, five or so years into our so-called “War on Terror” than they were immediately following 9-11.
Here at PLU, I teach a literature class called “American Writers on War,” which perhaps not surprisingly includes a large number of students who are either in ROTC or who are themselves veterans. Just last week, we were reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. To round out the discussion, we looked at her piece from the New Yorker right after the attacks in which she writes, “‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and
again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”
We talked about how upon publication, her assertions were met with nothing short of outrage. At the time her piece was viewed as, to risk being crude, the turd in the punchbowl. But now—because we are more willing to accept a complex and nuanced response—her piece has emerged as the flower that somehow managed to grow out of the stinking pile of manure that was a lot of the more knee jerk Us versus Them responses.
So I think that a fair portion of the public (if I’m understanding what you mean by that) is fairly on target, empathy-wise. It’s our “leaders” we need to worry about. What is truly terrifying is that we have a president who—though married to a librarian—by his own proud admission does not read.
Still, I suppose I have to admit that public discourse is not in ideal shape. It’s difficult to estimate the degree to which the reading culture—to the extent that one currently exists—has been a tempering influence on reductive thinking. But the fact that we aren’t currently ruled by tribunals of wise philosophers shouldn’t be taken as evidence of reading’s
ineffectuality. Reading has to do its work slowly; if it did its work quickly and decisively, it would be doing very different work.
OBC is great because it constitutes a venue for public discourse that is routed through and rooted in individual contemplation and imagination. It is precisely the opposite of people stuck in traffic, yelling along with their radios. It is not only a more contemplative and imaginative public discourse, it also suggests a new way for individuals to participate in public discourse.
A totally different—and much shorter—way to answer that question would be: the public discourse is pretty much always going to be just shy of idiotic. OBC and venues like it are maybe best regarded as alternatives, rather than antidotes.
C.G.: By public discourse I mean that which takes place on t.v. and radio, and even to some extend on the web—CNN, Fox, CBC, Limbaugh, blogs et al—and what passes for discussion there: essentially lots of people yelling soundbites at each other. So, yes, I think you got my question, but I have a follow-up to your answer: when you say “[the book club] it also suggests a new way for individuals to participate in public discourse”—how and where do you see that happening? One of the more problematic issues with the Oprah Book Club, for example, was that metadiscourse ( i.e. why and how are we reading this and not that) was absent, and most of the discussion of the chosen books centered on an individual reader’s personal “relationship” with the book and not the more public/wider issues surrounding a particular book choice.
K.R.: One of the interesting features about this question—”how and where do I see that happening”—is the way it embodies what I think is an understandable yet not entirely useful way of making sense of the cultural work that is done by reading. The urge to get down in cold, hard numbers what precise proportion of the population is reading, what they are reading, and what else they do as a result (perhaps?) of that reading has been with us at least as long as the NEA study “Reading At Risk.” The most recent of these studies, in fact, warns us that only 46.7 % of us are reading, but that those of us who do read are far more likely to perform volunteer and charity work, to visit art museums, to attend a performing arts event, and to attend a sporting event. So reading makes us kindlier, more social, more well-rounded citizens, and we should say thank you to the NEA for helping us have bar graphs to know that.
That said, at the risk of making reading sound like some magical force, I’d argue that much of the most important cultural work that reading accomplishes isn’t quantifiable. If anything, this cultural work cultivates a mindset that is completely antithetical to the mindset that suggests that if something is to be perceived as significant, it must be something we can measure, count, add up, throw into a PowerPoint, and point at to persuade other people of our rightness.
I agree that the lack of “meta-discourse” was one of the aspects of OBC that was frustrating, and I comment on that in my book. Oprah was, and remains, loathe to engage in anything resembling self-analysis of the way that her show and its sub-entities—OBC, O Magazine, etc.—really operate. Thus, we were not able to see club members on the show or in the audience asking those kinds of why-read-this-and-not-that questions. But that does not mean they did not ask such questions on their own time, and in their own space.
The OBC televised segments were, without a doubt, spaces in which Oprah was—though not domineering, and though encouraging of discussion—decidedly in charge. She drew a circle and said this is my club, my space, and these are the behaviors we follow when we are inside this circle. But any time you draw such a circle, the behaviors that there are not room or time for inside squeeze out and manifest themselves elsewhere. Some places I saw club members—who, wonderfully, consisted of anyone who wanted to pick up the book, read it, and call herself a member—asking these more critical questions were in the bookstores where I’ve spent much of my life working and even, as I write in the book, while standing outside Harpo Studios in the Loop waiting to attend a book club segment taping.
If I had a dollar for every time a customer I was ringing up at the bookstore made a remark along the lines of, “I don’t know why Oprah’s gone and picked another depressing book again,” I wouldn’t be a rich woman, but I probably could pay a month’s rent. Same goes for every time I saw a customer with the latest Oprah pick in one hand and another book—anything from David Sedaris to Ernest Hemingway to Annie Proulx to Sue Grafton—in the other. And I realize these examples are strictly anecdotal, but I know that OBC members did—away from Oprah’s TV cameras—engage in personal relationships with the books while at the same time existing as real citizens living in and interacting with the wider, more public real world.
C.G.: The urge to get down in cold, hard numbers what precise proportion of the population is reading, what they are reading, and what else they do as a result (perhaps?) of that reading has been with us at least as long as the NEA study “Reading At Risk.” Actually, that’s probably just my Germanic and therefore objectively-oriented personality coming through...(smile). All kidding aside. I think I understand and agree with where you are coming from: reading and the cognitive work involved in it should help us liberate ourselves from the quantifiable telos—reading just for reading’s sake.
Let me steer the conversation in a slightly different and general direction vis a vis reading. How do you see Helen Vendler’s analysis that “accessibility needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world” in reference to the choices made for Oprah’s Book Club?
K.R.: Vendler made that statement in The New Republic, right? In the context of defending John Ashbery from the criticism that his work was “inaccessible,” or more specifically “with his resolve against statement bearing the burden of a poem.”
I sort of agree with Vendler’s statement. To say accessibility is a value that should be privileged in deciding the artistic worth of a piece of writing is a dangerous thing, since—as the original context indicates—that makes for a sweeping dichotomy by which anything with the misfortune to be deemed “inaccessible” gets kicked off the team.
Accessibility isn’t a criterion for aesthetic judgment. It’s a PRECONDITION of aesthetic judgment. People who find a literary work inaccessible might “recognize” it as a work of art, but they don’t EVALUATE it as a work of art; they evaluate it in terms of its rhetoric—and probably not generously, since they regard it as unintelligible, or simply too dull to bother with.
More so than other forms of art, literature is dependent on the collaborative participation of its audience: that’s what so great about it. Consequently, it has to be intelligible to somebody before it can intersect with the realm of aesthetics. (Analogously, a brilliantly-conceived clarinet concerto can’t be judged an unqualified success if it’s impossible to perform.) The question is: accessible to whom? There’s no single right way to answer that one.
Of course, there’s that whole T.S. Eliot great-art-can-be-appreciated-before-it-is-understood thing, which I also think is true, and to which I can only say that something can be accessible (meter! sound!) before it’s intelligible (“okay, I get what it’s about”) and intelligible before it’s understood (symbolism!).
I would argue that all of the books that Oprah has picked have been in some sense “accessible,” but that she does not dwell—nor does she encourage her readers to dwell—merely in the realm of intelligibility. There is, as I’ve written, a great deal of emphasis on what actually happens in the texts, but so too is there discussion of—for lack of a better way to categorize them—sort of higher order elements such as symbolism and theme.
C.G.: One of the more interesting audience reactions I observed was during the Bernhard Schlink The Reader discussion.
(The Reader according to the Oprah site: “The story takes place in Germany during the years after World War II and revolves around the love affair between 15-year-old Michael and 36-year-old Hanna, a woman who cannot read. Hanna suddenly disappears, but years later she and Michael meet again when Hanna is prosecuted for war crimes and Michael is a law student observing her case.”)
One way to get “into” the story, to access it, so to speak, was for US readers to focus on the question of whether this relationship was abuse or a love affair, and Schlink made the comment that this focus on the age differential in terms of possible abuse was something that was discussed only in the US. The intended “reading” of the metaphor, according to
Schlink, was to focus attention on the relationship of first-generation and second-generation Germans (post WWII). There was a visible disconnect (I actually watched the episode) between Schlink and Oprah/audience. Did you get a sense of that, too?
K.R.: In my introductory creative writing courses, as well as my literature ones, I make a point to discuss the difference between an author’s intention and a reader’s interpretation. In doing so, I emphasize the importance of writing generously and ambitiously with the goal of conveying your meaning to the best of your ability, and also of reading generously and ambitiously, with the goal of discerning the author’s meaning to the best of your ability. And yet I also point out that even if you write and read in the best possible faith, there will inevitably be times when a reader’s interpretation differs from a writer’s intention. And this is okay. In fact this is more than okay. Because aside from fun and edifying yet wholly artificial situations such as writing workshops and Oprah’s Book Club, authors very rarely get the benefit of being in a room full of readers with the opportunity to tell said readers what something in the text “really means.”
It reminds me of that scene in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in line at the cinema, listening to some guy behind them rattle on about the work of Marshall McLuhan. Annoyed with what he feels is the guy’s incorrect interpretation, Woody first complains directly to the camera, then—after the guy has also come to the camera to defend himself—whips out none other than Marshall McLuhan himself to resolve the dispute. (Spoiler alert: McLuhan sides with Woody.)
So it’s nice that Schlink got to step in and sort of have his Marshall McLuhan moment, but that is a luxury most authors do not have, nor am I convinced that they should necessarily have it.
Put another way: the presence of the author is not the book. Even if the author is not dead and could, theoretically, explain every last one of his or her intentions to us, we still don’t have to listen to him or her.
I think part of the thrill of writing a book, and having it read, is that some of those readings will surprise you. Some of them might even bug or offend you, but to an extent it’s really not your business anymore. You put the book out there, and odds are good—especially if you’ve written a complex and thought-provoking piece—that it will end up resonating with audience members in ways you could never have predicted.
If Oprah hadn’t discussed The Reader, then the book wouldn’t really have been discussed—in terms of abuse or otherwise—in America much at all. So while I certainly understood Schlink’s point, I’d hesitate to label the situation in question a “disconnect,” per se. It was more of an unexpected “connect” or a “different connect,” for while it might not have been what Schlink had in mind, I feel the American reaction was an understandable and inevitable one, and not necessarily one which automatically precluded Americans’ “getting” Schlink’s meaning.
C.G.: And of course, it might also be the case that the writer him/herself does not know his/her intentions. Speaking of movies—remember the scene in Back to School? Diane gives Thornton Melon an ‘F’ for his report on Kurt Vonnegut, which was actually written by Kurt Vonnegut, and says “Whoever did write this doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!” Or, looking at this from another angle, it could be the battle over authority...?
K.R.: Yes, I think it is highly possible for the writer not to fully understand his or her intentions, or perhaps to know them at the outset of a project, but to have them evolve organically as they progress through the creation of the piece. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” The appeal of discovery is a big part of the attraction to both writing and reading.
That said, I’d be hesitant to suggest that a reader’s first responsibility is to correctly guess the intentions of the author; rather, I’d hope that it’s to engage imaginatively with the book.
C.G.: And, to stir the pot a bit more: perhaps this warring state of affairs suits the writer just fine. To wit: James Frey and A Million Little Pieces which seems to have garnered a million little lawsuits, or at least one large class action suit. What do you make of that?
K.R.: My feelings on the James Frey scandal are complicated, and I treat the subject quite extensively in a new chapter of my revised edition of Reading With Oprah, which will be coming out next year in paperback. As for the specific matter of the lawsuit, I find it absurd.
What Frey did was in many ways reprehensible, but the idea that readers should be able to recoup money for a book that disappoints in some way sets a preposterous precedent. I think the only real repercussion we’ll see from this particular suit is that the disclaimer will gain even greater prominence in memoir, if only to preclude people from demanding financial compensation because an author deceived them.
C.G.: So you don’t think that the class action suit will open the gates to more suits by disgruntled readers who for one reason or another were disappointed by a book? But that can’t possibly “incentivise” (to use corporate lingo) writers’ creativity...?! And who’s to say the precedent that was set here is limited to books? Why not go on to music, painting, photography... Anyhow, in a way this brings book as product back into the “marketplace” and as such into a litigious arena. Maybe one of the new/old ways to judge the marketability of a book/author is to count the number of lawsuits it/he/she spawned?
K.R.: No, fortunately, I don’t think any kind of litigious floodgates have been opened, mostly because I don’t think there was much of a true legal precedent set here at all. The case didn’t go before a jury and was considered incredibly weak from the outset. Frey’s own lawyer, Derek Meyer, said, “We worked with Random House on whether to resolve these lawsuits and the desire to move on became a powerful incentive to resolve what are otherwise very weak cases.” The procedures by which consumers are required to collect their refunds are in and of themselves so silly—readers who bought a copy of the book on or before Jan. 26 must submit proof of purchase including a receipt, of course, and then hardcover buyers must submit page 163 to claim their $23.95, while paperback buyers (entitled to $14.95) must send in the front cover of the book; audio book purchasers (entitled to $34.95) must send in a piece of the packaging, etc.—that I think it’s fairly clear that this particular settlement is more of a fluky footnote rather than a burgeoning new trend in lawsuits over creative works.
C.G.: Let’s end this conversation on a less silly note: imagine you are ruler of the world, and you have the power to institute a Reading Club of some sort. Who’d you put “in charge” (you can put yourself in charge!), what would be a few must-reads on your list, and what, if anything, would you do differently than Oprah?
K.R.: What makes a good book club leader is not just tremendous skill as a communicator and as a reader, but also a certain cultural position. I suppose that the premise of this question—that I am suddenly, to my delight, “Ruler of the World”—would provide that position.
When you’re deciding on books to compel everyone to read, you have to decide whether you want them to read something the common knowledge of which will make the world a better place, or if you just want them to cater to and have fun with your intellectual and aesthetic whims. Since I’m already the Ruler of the World, presumably I’ve already made said world a better place. So, I would make everyone read The Naomi Poems by Bill Knott, The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, and Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett.
C.G.: I’m a big fan of Bill Knott’s work as well. But I got to ask, why The Naomi Poems (assuming, of course, it’s still permissible to ask the Ruler of the World a question
K.R.: The Naomi Poems are his consistently strongest poems, and work best for me as a book (though I love many of his others, including Laugh at the End of the World and The Unsubscriber, as well as his blog where he’s essentially posted his entire oeuvre). Also, I’m a sucker for anything resembling literary trickery or playfulness, and the Saint Geraud pseudonym under which he published The Naomi Poems was a stroke of pure genius.
C.G.: Kathleen, I appreciate your time! Thank you for the interview!
K.R.: Thank you for such a thought-provoking conversation!