• "I've never read any Dickens." ... Really, Oprah? ...



    Last December I was a little shocked to discover that Oprah Winfrey had selected two Charles Dickens novels for her book club. She chose Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities as "great Christmas reading," or "hot cocoa reading," even though neither book has anything at all to do with Christmas or hot effing cocoa. Ever heard of A Christmas Carol or The Chimes? She also said in the same breath that she's never even read any Dickens. Wait a minute. What? I was immediately put off by this and spoke about it to several people, in real-time and online, and was semi-castigated in both instances. The response I got back from both parties was essentially this:

    "Why are you upset that Oprah would promote Charles Dickens? All it does is bring new readers to great literature. Sounds like Sour grapes to me."

    My response was this:

    "No, it's not sour grapes as I do not ever expect Oprah Winfrey to ever utter my name. But instead of promoting a well-deserving unknown author and giving that person a shot, she selects a writer that most people either have little interest in or should be reading in school. And what does it say to people to promote something that you've admittedly never even read?"


    Again, I don't have any mixed feelings about this because I have no expectation whatsoever about Oprah and anything I've written, and I didn't even bother to send her a copy of Greyhound either, because as is evinced by the news that SHE NEVER EVEN READ ANY DICKENS, I was suspecting this to be the case much of the time with the majority of her suggested reading. And let's be honest, after reading a handful of the titles, most of them are just insipid, lazy and forgettable -- and thus it becomes clear that she was just another marketing tool for the Big 6 publishing houses and I get the feeling that she only chose Great Expectations because she liked the movie version with Gwyenth Paltrow. Groan. As if we didn't already have enough outlets pushing the same 20 books all over the place. Please, people. You folks should be finding better scouts for your reading material. That much is abundantly clear.

    But back to our man Dickens.

    I've read Dickens. I've read almost everything the man every wrote and I love Dickens. And despite what you may have heard: "Oh, Charles Dickens is difficult reading!" That notion is about as far away from reality as is possible. Dickens is actually very easy reading because if you understand that he wrote most of his stories as segments in newspapers, then you can better get through them when reading it. Just about every chapter reads in a very compartmentalized fashion and the work of reading Dickens isn't work at all, it's just something that takes time because he wrote a lot and it's far from tedious. Most of what he wrote still resonates today too, especially Oliver Twist. Twist is a book I read every winter, without fail, and have done so for about the last fifteen of them. Any reader with any wherewithal can quickly grasp that Charles Dickens is:

    1. social commentary above all else.
    2. solid, enjoyable reading.
    3. relevant and educational.
    4. forces you to makes comparisons with his world and yours.
    5. always leaves you with a desire to read more.

    In 2010, I read a total of four Charles Dickens's books and I hope to read an equal or greater number this year, which is much more than I can say for whatever Oprah is reading.  Unfortunately, I get the feeling the bulk of her reading will likely be consisting of material in her own magazine. She should have her reading suggested to her for awhile instead of the other way around.

    And if you're still reading the paperback versions and not the eBook versions, I thoroughly recommend reading the Norton Anthology versions, or a version that has critical essays accompanying in the back of the book. Dickens wrote several different introductions to most of his books through the years and reading some of his essays and what others have had to say over the vasty milieu is equally fascinating.

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    4 comments:

    1. you impress me, Steffan. Not that that is your goal. ;)

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    2. Hmmm...Well, I hope that promoting classics and promoting new authors is not mutually exclusive for Oprah or that her lack of knowledge about a literary master will not mar her ability to get the writerly word out there. I think it's great that Oprah mentions Dickens merely because she is influential and therefore has a responsibility to the public.

      Let's hope the next of her many endorsements is Huckleberry Finn, which has sadly been banned by many high schools for its "course literature." Obviously those who seek to censor lack the ability to recognize the effect Twain had, in his time, on race relations with his human and realistic portrayal of Jim. Also, an endorsement by OW would be a doorway in for Greyhound, since the comparisons (save the course language) are uncanny.

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    3. I think getting the writerly word out is fine. Have these people on the show and do a sit-down or promote them in 'O' with an interview. But trying to promote something that you've never read is just incredibly false and I don't grasp why people are willing to give her a pass on it. Just because they fear calling her out because she might one day choose their book? Don't make me laugh.

      I think someone from the public has a better chance of hitting the lottery than they do of Oprah mentioning their book. The lottery is several times a week, while Oprah maybe mentions one or two books a year. In actuality a total of 70 since she started her book list up in 1996. She used to choose a lot, monthly, but now it's one per.

      It would've been interesting to have seen her promote Twain's Huckleberry Finn before this debacle of the rewrite that's going on because of the 219 uses of the N word. She would've had some splainin' to do. I'm sure she'll have an article on it or talk about it on her show, if it's still on.

      Dickens masterpieces like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, David Copperfield -- are all better books to suggest because of the themes that resonate with Oprah's own life. Without doing any research on Dickens herself, she preformed a disservice to readers by not choosing a story more in-line with her own. The people who watch her, know her and would've appreciated at least that much.

      I think it's more about credibility than anything. You shouldn't 'front game that you aint down with', as they say here in L.A.


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    4. Really? I think the class/race struggle of Huck Finn and the abusive father would resonate more for Oprah--also her being from Mississippi. But hey, you never know.

      Not necessarily trying to defend the O here, but I don't remember Oprah coming out as some kind of literary icon and making promises to new authors. She promotes either what she's interested in or what some executive suggests for ratings. She's powerful enough so that whomever she shines her spotlight on rides a fame wave in her wake. She's done more good than evil, on most fronts.

      As for endorsing what one has never read--not so keen on it. I actually find the conversation about the Twain censorship a bit more stimulating, personally!

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