Interest in book clubs as an extracurricular approach to literacy has engaged academics for some time: Janice Radway's study, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire (1997) is evidence of scholarly investigation into popular press reading patterns and literary production. Anne Ruggles Gere, too, has spent much scholarly effort on researching the "schmaltzy," phenomenon of women's literacy clubs. Quality Paperback Book Club has been a mainstay for many mainstream readers. Literary Guild kept my aunt supplied with books for years. In the last six years, we have witnessed the Oprah phenomenon: the rise of Oprah's Book Club and the instant fame her endorsement has brought to both Nobel prize-winning authors and unknown first-time writers. As the previous Oprah chronology details, Oprah's heartfelt desire to "get the country reading" has resulted in much press and many debates. The most recent academic treatment of the Book Club phenomenon is R. Mark Hall's essay in College English, "The `Oprahfication' of Literacy: Reading `Oprah's Book Club'." In this essay, the writer looks closely at the way Oprah constructs herself as a literacy sponsor and examines the way in which "intimacy" is also constructed. According to Hall, "intimacy" on Oprah "takes the form of shared stories. Viewers are drawn in, not just by the cozy sets, the overstuffed chairs, and the warm lighting, but also by the shared narratives" (650). Oprah cultivates this intimacy by turning "confession into an art" and "by sharing the personal details of her life, including her literacy narrative of progress" (651).
Since offering a course based on Oprah's Book Club choices -- a writing intensive general education literature course for undergraduates -- I have been negotiating the problematic territory of "popular fiction" and "confessional novels," both code words for women's fiction. While students may feel the books are "too hard," my colleagues complain that the choices are "too easy." Scholarly and journalistic voices call the books, "sentimental," "schmaltzy," "one-dimensional," "confessional," and the worst criticism, "women's reading." With all the press, is surprising that the debates surrounding Oprah's Book Club only tangentially address the recurring themes gender and literacy.
Not keenly aware of the controversies, students needing to fulfill general education literature requirement signed up for the course, given the key word "Oprah." How was I to tread the territory of Oprah-land? Students in love with the idea of Oprah might find my analytical/feminist approach too hard-driving; those who arrived skeptical of Oprah might think me a cheerleader for her self-improvement regimen. But more to the point, how would I manage to engage students in discussions of language, literacy, and gender, when they expected Oprah's books to comprise "happily ever after stories," stories where the guy got the girl, and lived in heterosexual bliss ever after. This paper will consider the lessons to be learned about gender and literacy as they are presented in Oprah's
Suffice it to say, controversy surrounds the wildly prolific intertextual world that Oprah inhabits, To contrast her book club experiment with Radway's inquiry is to consider the ways in which middle-brow reading is reinscribed as gendered writing. Both speak to reading desire, to gender, and to class, and both speak the continuing narrative of literacy. The first semester I taught Oprah, I called the course: "Oprah's Books and the Culture of TV," and because the course number changed in the interim, I titled the second semester "Reading Gender, Reading Literature." The syllabus announced that the books for the course derive from Oprah's booklist, but that the scope of the course was much broader: "We will read five of the books on Oprah's list, hear small group panels on additional books," look at film adaptations of two of the books, read transcripts of the TV show, view taped segments of the show, and make visits to her website. Students worked in literature circles to research, to gloss, to contextualize the novels; and they wrote papers on elements of the Oprah enterprise -- analyses of the TV show, the magazine, the website, etc. We investigated the power of Oprah, her mystique, and her representation in the media. Whether or not students were fans of Oprah, they worked to demystify the function of media culture; they also investigated the ways in which Oprah's choices represented gender and literacy -- in nearly every instance, women, girls, and gender trouble were central to the narrative. As we read Ellen Foster, we had to consider how Ellen negotiated pre-teen expectations of gender, how she avoided the sexual advances of her father, how she orchestrated her own entrance into literacy. When we read The Bluest Eye, again we had to inhabit the gendered and racial spaces where Pecola lived, we had to vicariously experience the rape by Cholly, and we had to read and process her desire for blue eyes and the attending desire for whiteness. We read the date-rape of Ruth in Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth, and her subsequent marriage to the rapist; we read of the violence done to Trudi Montag in Stones from the River, and of the reading choices and literacy habits of readers in her small German village. Students began to ask what made Oprah choose these books. The narratives seemed to revolve around the brutalization of women, the continuing devaluation of the female half of humankind, and students were not accustomed to a steady reading diet of such brutality to women.
In my home office, I have the sedimented layers of materials from the Oprah classes: in a blue plastic milk crate are the articles, printouts of web searches, transparencies of outlines for lectures, assignment sheets, student evaluation rubrics, copies of "0," the magazine-copies I bought and copies given to me by students. I have the repository of all these materials, in addition to what is archived in Blackboard. The first Oprah course included Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River, and I recall having the opportunity to screen Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will -- a powerful way to present the historical backdrop to the novel, and an opportunity to speak of an important woman film-maker. The novel led us to classroom discussions of WWII Germany, historical topics of Krystal Knockt, Mein Kampf, Aryan race, Brown Shirts, Nuremburg trials, but it also engaged us in discussion of Trudi Montag, the "zwerg" or dwarf young woman whose story is told. The wartime story is also a gendered narrative, a story about a woman who does not typify the idealized tall blonde female. Trudi's father runs a pay-library in their village and the entwining of Trudi's story with the literacy habits of the townspeople is compelling. After Trudi is brutalized by neighborhood boys, she carries that moment with her throughout the novel:
Truidi continues to want to be desired by those boys who have done such violence to her, evidence of the long reach of compulsory heterosexuality, and of her commitment to traditional gender roles. In order to recover or to repress the experience, Trudi throws herself into work at the pay-library, and begins to develop a critique of those books: "The books in the pay-library were predictable, alike, and Trudi was amazed that anyone would keep reading them…." Her father explains "that people found assurance in happy endings, in knowing ahead of time what would happen to their heroes and heroines" (162). Literacy and gender intertwine as Trudi suggests five possible plots for these narratives: "One, true love overcomes all obstacles and becomes eternal love; two, cowboys and Indians smoke peace pipes together after they've fought over territories; three, beautiful nurses and brilliant doctors save incurable patients and then get married; four, war heroes conquer their enemies in spectacular battles, and five, villains are always punished" (168). Her developing literacy leads her to the cynical assessment of plot that reinscribes master narratives for gender roles. Students had to consider their ways of reading, their ways of dealing with similar master narratives, and their desires for happily ever after endings.
Choosing books from the 46 titles included in Oprah's list created some challenges in itself. Once I decided to develop such a course for general education, I studied the Oprah table at our local Barnes and Noble; I visited her website and printed the list of books named to the list. I dutifully checked off those I had read -- and found that I had read only a dozen or so of those titles. What kind of an Oprah wanna-be was I, anyway? I chose books sometimes because I had read them and sometimes because I hadn't, and putting them on my syllabus would be good incentive. In the first semester, I included the following titles on the reading list: Ellen Foster, The Bluest Eye, Where the Heart Is, Stones from the River, The Book of Ruth, and Breath, Eyes, Memory, though not in that order. We started with Ellen Foster, followed that with The Book of Ruth, and students complained that the two books melded together, that they couldn't keep the story lines and characters separate. When we read Morrison's "painfully rendered sorrow, "The Bluest Eye, there was no confusing it with another narrative, and it enabled me to talk not only about the legacies of racism and ideologies of beauty, but also to ask students to think about the social construction of gender. We looked at the history of primers like the Dick and Jane books to explore the enjambments of the opening passages of many of the chapters -- students were surprised at the ways in which early readers, and early literacy, inculcated gender hierarchy and master narratives. Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple function as icons for beauty in The Bluest Eye; while Frieda has love and admiration for the Shirley Temple of movie fame, her sister Claudia has scorn for the little white dance queen. In fact, Claudia claims to have an "unsullied hatred" for Shirley Temple and for white, blue-eyed baby dolls: "What was I supposed to do with it? Pretend I was its mother? …. I learned quickly, however, what I was supposed to do with it: rock it, fabricate storied situations around it, even sleep with it" (20). In Claudia's rejection of white baby dolls, we encounter extreme response to gender expectations, to the socialization of young females into maternal roles. Claudia's rejection of white female beauty is contrasted with Pauline's identification with Jean Harlow. When Pauline is most vulnerable, most lonely for her Alabama origins, when she is pregnant and isolated, she turns to the movies for consolation: "She was never able, after her education at the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen" (122). The ideal for feminine beauty was full identification with white paragons of the screen, constructed in Hollywood film, and literacy of this sort taught Pauline internalized racism, encouraged her to consider her child ugly, not of value.
Second semester, I kept some books, dropped some, and rotated new ones into the syllabus: Ellen Foster remained; The Poisonwood Bible rotated in for Stones from the River; I substituted Paradise for The Bluest Eye; dropped The Book of Ruth; added The Reader for male representation; kept Where the Heart Is, so that student readers could get at least one "happily ever after" book read. The additions were good, though useful in different and unpredictable ways.
Among the archived materials, I have lecture notes and the modeling I did with Ellen Foster to acquaint students with the roles for literature circles. I highlighted passages and explained why the passages were important, worth discussing. I made transparencies of these sections of the book, with text in italics and my reasons in standard print. For research, I found images on the web -- images of characters from The Canterbury Tales because Ellen's reading experiences describe "the laughing Middle Ages lady that wore red boots. She was on a trip with a group of people swapping stories, carrying on, slapping each other on the back…" (10). Ellen reads the Brontes and anything else the Bookmobile brings; she can hardly "tolerate the stories we read for school," since they teach lessons about "good children" (9). Her rough description of her body is juxtaposed to her desire for her dead mother: "I have a odd shape. But I am not ill formed. My head is too big for the rest of me…. When I get a chest and hips I will be weighted down. I have been waiting for them for some time now…. I enjoyed wearing my mama's clothes…. The stockings even the ones she wore were bent at the knee and ankle and laid flat in the drawer" (24). Ellen's literacy is interwoven with her desire for her mother and with her conception of her body and its future shape. When her father returns to the home on New Year's Eve, he comes with a group of black men, and Ellen knows they are up to no good: "Who said they could come in my house and have a free-for-all?" (37). The reader and Ellen know that Ellen is the gendered subject of their conversation as they consider the "right" age for sexual initiation of young women: "My daddy says he has a girl running around loose somewhere. That same colored man asked him how old is his girl. He says I am nine or ten. I married Delphi when she was thirteen, he tells my daddy. Yours is just about ripe. You gots to get em when they is still soff when you mash um" (37). Ellen knows what "soff when you mash em" means, and she resists her father's drunken attack, calling "I am Ellen, I am Ellen" to give her time to run.
When I taught Paradise, it was time to bring in ideas from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, to ask students to think about "Africanist Presence" in our literature, to consider "romanticizing blackness," to locate "master narratives" in our texts. It was occasion to research factual accounts of violence done to people of color, such as the Tulsa, OK race riots of 1921, as a context for the violence done to the women living in the Convent and those in the town of Ruby. In Paradise, we read of the gendering and racing of the women in the convent; we learned that the more "cultivated" population of Ruby regarded the colony of women as suspect -- that their sexuality defined them, that they might corrupt the otherwise compliant women of Ruby, that they might practice demon worship or all manner of disgrace. The women -- Mavis, Seneca, Gigi, Divine, and Pallas -- converge on the Convent, which is strangely marked by both religious icons and hedonistic symbols, and they find a gendered space inhabited solely by females, uncomplicated by male hierarchy. They cook for each other, they garden, and they dress carelessly, forgetting or spurning constricting undergarments. The novel is built upon the comparison of the women of Ruby to the women in the convent, women who have had hardship and pain: Mavis has been the focus of media attention for the accidental death of her twins; others at the convent have been abandoned by their parents, brutalized by prostitution, and otherwise injured. The townswomen, by comparison, have had the leisure to grow flower gardens, steady income to provide the niceties: "They bought soft toilet paper, used washcloths instead of rags, soap for the face alone or diapers only. In every Ruby household appliances pumped, hummed, sucked, purred whispered and flowed…. The humming, throbbing and softly purring gave the women time" (89). Ultimately, the men of Ruby gave their women these luxuries, which in turn kept the women in line. The women of the Convent, however, define themselves in other ways: they develop "templates" of themselves, their bodies, and their stories on the basement floor of the Convent. In order to work toward healing from their various wounds, the women "scrub the cellar floor until its stones were as clean as rocks on a shore. Then they ringed the place with candles. Consolata told each to undress and lie down…. When each found the position she could tolerate on the cold, uncompromising floor, Consolata walked around her and painted the body's silhouette" (263). While this is unusual even for the Convent, the women keep returning to the templates in the cellar; when Seneca "had the hunger to slice her inner thigh, she chose instead to mark the open body lying on the cellar floor" (264-265). The templates become the sites for marking gender, for telling their histories of pain and loss: "Gigi drew a heart locket around her body's throat …. Pallas had put a baby in her template's stomach"; they added "yellow barrettes, red peonies, a green cross on a field of white. A majestic penis pierced with a Cupid's bow. Rose of Sharon petals, Lorna Doones. A bright orange couple making steady love under a childish sun" (265). All these images combine to evoke their past realities, symbols of their gendered place in the world, icons of their valueless existences up to this point.
Students wrote one-page reading responses weekly and three longer papers during the course of the semester, all of which explored gender and literacy. In the one-page responses, often not limited to one typed page, students revealed their reading biases and preferences, and sometimes their confusions. In her reading of Ellen Foster, one student admits: "It wasn't until the middle of the book that I realized what color Ellen was. I figured it out when she talked about her stay at her `mama's mama's house' and she talked about the colored cook and maid." And the same student tells of her reading of the overbearing father in The Poisonwood Bible in the following way: "I think that for a preacher… [he] has little knowledge of how to treat his family, like a Christian family should be taught… he should go back to his bible before he tries to force it on others." It may be that the allure of the book was the stereotyped way in which the father oppressed the five females in the family. Another student, in her response writing to Poisonwood, characterizes Leah and Rachel and attributes more change to Rachel than I can see, but her appraisal of Leah is worth noting: "Leah also turns into being different than I could have thought. Being that she is converted to Africa is an amazing twist to that of her youth [when she is] following Nathan and always trying to please him in a Lordly fashion…. It works that she and Anatole are together. It makes me smile and I am content."
Overall, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible seemed to be one of the semester's favorite reads. One student who chose to write on this novel, titled her paper: "The Poisonwood Bible: The Fifth Price Daughter," because she so identified with the women in the novel. The student writer answered the assignment by including publishing information about the novel, noting the effect that being an Oprah's book had on sales. Even though she felt daunted by the heft of the novel, she says that she "became a fifth child who experienced my own perspective of the Congo." She gives time in the paper to each of the daughters and their sometimes stereotypical responses to their years in the Congo with their tyrannical evangelical father -- who is easy to dismiss, given his gender tyranny, but it is when this student describes the tragic death of the youngest Price child, Ruth May, that important analysis takes place. The child dies as a result of a snakebite from the dreaded Green Mamba, an event that even though foreshadowed, is as quick as the snake's bite. In Briael's words: "Leah [the sister who narrates the scene] even turns Ruth May's death into a sonnet about grammar: `I could only see Ruth May's shoulder, where two red puncture wounds stood out like red beads on her flesh. Two dots an inch apart, as small and tidy as punctuation marks at the end of a sentence none of us could read"' (Kingsolver 364). While it was exciting to read the way that this student had processed the metaphor of the puncture wounds, seeing them as poetry, or punctuation turned to the use of poetry, there is also the suggestion that the colon is a mark of colonization, a comment on European imperialism in the Congo and a commentary on gender hierarchy as well. This insight also teaches me that the puncture wounds, the "colon," prefaces the story to come, the one none of us could predict.
Everything considered -- the worries over "too difficult" or "too easy" or "too feminine," the worries over being Oprah's cheerleader or her curmudgeonly critic, the worries over institutional questions about such a course for general education purposes -- the course was worth teaching and worth teaching again, I think. It put us on the ground with current and historical themes; it demanded that students and I think hard about the ways in which Oprah's books bring gender into focus, the ways in which gender impacts literacy -- that of the character's and our own conception of gender and literacy. Oprah's titles put us squarely in the contact zone of what Alan Purves would call the story of teaching literature. Reading books from Oprah's booklist brings students "to read stories, poems, plays, and novels that they [might] not choose on their own, but that readers over the years have found of value as being good, serious, and well-written and as allowing young people to learn something of the complex heritage that is our hybrid culture" (211). I think Purves might agree that teaching literature through the culture of Oprah and her books might entice students "to acquire those habits of mind that we think important, that have marked the educated reader since the Middle Ages" (214). The Book Club functions as a catalyst for those conversations that might otherwise not be enjoined: contact zone considerations of master narratives and counter narratives, interrogations of self and other, dialogues on race and gender, and investigations of subjectivity and ideology.
Finally, while reading The Reader, Bernard Schlink's examination of ethics, gender, and literacy in pre and post-Nazi Germany, the class and I had to come to grips with the ways in which we valued literacy and the ways in which literacy itself functions to open doors or close them, the ways in which literacy contains its own hegemony. One particular sunny-faced student was very interested in her own desire to read this novel of desire; at once, she was alternately repelled by what she viewed as sexual abuse of the teen-aged boy in the novel and equally compelled to read the novel. She recognized the power relationship between Hanna and Michael, "the Kid," and recognized something more, something that transcended conventional morality. Michael's realization that Hanna cannot read comes later than we as readers discover her deficit, and the title of the book becomes all the more ambiguous: who is the reader here? Does the title refer to those of us holding the book in our hands? Does it refer to Michael? Does it refer to the many women in Hanna's prison whom she engaged to read to her? Does it refer to a category that we would like to identify with? Are we reading gender as we read the narrative of print literacy? Michael's father's study is emblematic of the world of reading and print literacy that was so alien to Hanna: "My father's study was a capsule in which books, papers, thoughts, and pipe and cigar smoke had created their own force field, different from that of the outside world" (140-141). Embedded within the description of his father's library, Michael unwittingly describes the gendered spaces of literacy -- the papers, books, pipe and cigar smoke mark the space as particularly male, consistent with hierarchies of gender where the intellectual is the province of men and the domestic is the province of women. Finally, though, in prison, Hanna becomes literate to a certain extent and Michael feels heady when reading her first handwritten note: "Illiteracy is dependence. By finding the courage to read and write, Hanna had advanced from dependence to independence, a step toward liberation" (188). Ironically, she gives more of herself in her note than Michael has given in years of recording books for her. If there is a common thread in Oprah's book choices, it seems to be this examination of literacy, and the impact of gender on literacy. In Ellen Foster, we learn about what Ellen reads; in The Book of Ruth, Ruth carries taped books to a neighbor woman and revises them in her imagination; in The Poisonwood Bible, the sisters learn one form of literacy from their father and another from Mama Tataba, a study in cultural difference; in Where the Heart Is, Novalee is the recipient of stacks of books from her admirer, Forney, and in Paradise, the women of the Convent subscribe to "other" literacies, literacies of the templates as they tell the narratives of their lives.
So what do I have to say to those who tell me that the books are too easy? I say "not necessarily." And what do I say to students who say the books are too hard? "Stay with the reading -- things will be clarified." How do I answer those who call me a cheerleader? "Oprah may be media and popular, and her book club may have been gimmicky, but it is a place where non-curricular reading happened -- Oprah's announcements, her pronouncements, got people reading, and got them reading selections they might not have otherwise made." And how do I answer the criticisms that the stories are "schmaltzy," that they are lightweight, that they are merely "women's stories"? I say that that position echoes the ways in which sexism and gender discrimination have functioned in literature for too many centuries. Reading Oprah's choices ensures that students, and other readers, will confront and consider the gender inequalities that have functioned to maintain a closed canon, that they will read alternative and transgressive stories that provide other narratives for women and girls, that they will begin to consider the ways in which gender and literacy are intimately entwined. Our stories and our reading habits combine to produce our views of gender, and our gendered existences at the same time create the ways in which we read. If Oprah's books produce these kinds of reading experiences for students, if the stories cause readers to reconsider the relationship between gender and literacy, and their own complicities and responsibilities to literacy and gender, then I would call that a productive semester.
"A Novelist, a Talk-Show Host, and Literature High and Low." The Chronicle of Higher Education 30 November 2001: B4.
Feldman, Gayle. "Making Book on Oprah." The New York Times Book Review 2 February 1997: 31.
Hall, R. Mark. "The 'Oprahfication' of Literacy: Reading `Oprah's Book Club. College English 65.6 (July 2003): 646-667.
Halter, Belinda. "Oprah Overload?" 14 April 2000 http://talkshows.about.com/tvradio/talkshows/library/weekly/aa04I400a.htm Accessed 28 April 2001.
Anne Ruggles. Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U. S. Women's Clubs, 1880-1920, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Italie, Hillel. "Oprah Revives Book Club." Associated Press. The Saginaw News 1 March 2003: B6.
McHenry, Robert. "All Hail Oprah's Book Club." The Chronicle of Higher Education 10 May 2002: B17.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Newsweek, January 8, 2001, Cover.
Purves, Alan. "Telling Our Story about Teaching Literature." In Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. 2nd Edition. Ed. David Richter. New York: Bedford, 2000.
Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Stross, Randall E. "Oprah's Bare Nightstand." U.S. News and World Report 29 April 2002: 36.
Travis, Trysh. "Heathcliff and Cathy, the Dysfunctional Couple." The Chronicle of Higher Education 11 May 2001: B 13.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Gibbons, Kaye. Ellen Foster. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Hamilton, Jane. The Book of Ruth. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.
Hegi, Ursula. Stones from the River. New York: Scribner, 1994.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
Letts, Billie. Where the Heart Is. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
Mitchard, Jacquelyn. The Deep End of the Ocean. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1994.
__________. Paradise. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Schlink, Bernard. The Reader, New York: Vintage, 1998.
Reference Citation:Wolff, Janice M. (2003). "Reading Oprah: Gender and Literacy in Book Club Culture." WILLA, Volume XII, p. 27-37.