Oprah's "Summer of Faulkner"

Robert W. Hamblin

            On June 3, 2005, on her internationally televised talk show, Oprah Winfrey reached into a huge carton labeled "Big Surprise," pulled out a boxed set of three novels, and announced that William Faulkner would be the featured author for Oprah's Book Club for the next three months.  In June, Winfrey explained, the club would read As I Lay Dying, in July The Sound and the Fury, and in August Light in August. 

            Except for Winfrey's closest friends and business associates, particularly those who direct the OBC activities through the website, I was one of only a few people who knew in advance what Winfrey was going to lift from that surprise box.  Six weeks earlier I had been contacted by Mercedes Carlton of and invited to be one of the three professors who would lead the discussions of the Faulkner novels.  I eagerly accepted the invitation to teach As I Lay Dying, thrilled to be a part of an endeavor that would introduce Faulkner to legions of new readers.

            My excitement was understandable and, I believe, justified.  For example, consider this: if only one of every ten of the 600,000 members of Oprah's Book Club joined me in reading As I Lay Dying, that would still amount to more than seven times the number of students I have taught in my entire forty-year teaching career.  Oprah's "Faulkner 101" would be by far the largest class I had ever taught!

            As the subtitle of Kathleen Rooney's recent Reading with Oprah suggests, Oprah's Book Club is "The Book Club that Changed America."  Since its beginning in 1996 it has grown into the largest book club in the world.  Until 2002, Winfrey focused upon contemporary writers and devoted some of the telecasts of the immensely popular Oprah Winfrey Show to the promotion and discussion of the books.  In 2003, however, Winfrey shifted the focus of the OBC to "classic" authors of the past and moved the discussions from on-air to online, directing the readings primarily through the website.  The first classic work to be selected for the new format was John Steinbeck's East of Eden; and that novel was followed in succeeding months by Gabriel García-Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Carson McCuller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Then, after a hiatus of several months in which considerable curiosity was aroused concerning what Oprah's next choice of title would be, came the announcement that not one, but three Faulkner novels would be the Summer 2005 featured selections.

            No less for classic writers as for contemporary ones, selection as the focus of the OBC typically catapults an author to the top of the best seller lists.  All of the contemporary novels recommended by Winfrey sold more than a million copies, and her first choice of a classic, East of Eden, became a number one best seller.  Within twenty-four hours following Winfrey's announcement of her choice of Faulkner, the boxed set of three Vintage paperbacks climbed to number two on the best seller list, trailing only J. K. Rowling's announced Harry Potter sequel.  Such is the influence of the individual whom Forbes magazine ranks as number one on its 2005 list of the 100 top celebrities in the world.  That influence is the result of producing and hosting the top-ranked talk show for eighteen consecutive years—one that is televised in more than 200 American markets and more than 100 foreign countries.  Little wonder that Joseph Urgo, chairman of the English department at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Faulkner's hometown, called Winfrey's "Summer of Faulkner" "the most noteworthy event in Faulkner circles since his winning of the Nobel Prize."

            Like each of the other professors selected to participate in the project—Thadious Davis of the University of Pennsylvania, who taught The Sound and the Fury; and Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, who taught Light in August—I contracted to videotape a series of short lectures for showing on the website (a new lecture being added to the site each week), as well as to post weekly answers to a select number of questions e-mailed to the staff by readers of the novel.  Choosing the questions for me to answer proved to be quite a chore for the staff, as more than two hundred questions were sent in each week.  Among the most intriguing ones forwarded to me for responses were:

  • Are the Tulls' opinions Faulkner's?

  • Why did Faulkner choose the horse and fish metaphors?

  • How old are the Bundrens?

  • Are Peabody and the Bundrens'neighbors reliable narrators?

  • What do Darl's "is" and "was" passages mean?

  • Why were holes drilled in Addie's coffin?

  • Why do the characters use both vernacular and educated vocabulary?

  • Am I missing something in the road imagery?

            In addition to the professors'lectures and the Q & A posts, the OBC Faulkner website incorporated a number of special features to guide readers through the three novels.  Reading schedules encouraged participants to move through the respective novels at the same pace, thereby enhancing both enjoyment and interactive exchanges (spoiler posts revealing plot details in advance were discouraged).  A biographical sketch by Jay Parini, the latest Faulkner biographer, provided background information on Faulkner's life and career.  A glossary of Faulkner's words and terms assisted readers unfamiliar with Southern vocabulary and dialects.  Professor Donald Kartiganer of the University of Mississippi supplied a geographical guide to Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County, while Professor Philip Weinstein of Swarthmore posted an insightful commentary on Faulkner's paradoxical handling of race.  Along with my other assignments, I was commissioned to write an introductory essay offering advice for first-time Faulkner readers.  Repeating advice I've offered my own students over the years, I recommended that Oprah readers be patient and willing to re-read Faulkner's texts, focus on the characters, place the novels within their historical and mythic contexts, and allow for a considerable degree of ambiguity of meaning (and thus multiple interpretations). The website also included an online discussion forum in which readers could direct comments and questions to one another.  Impressively, there were more than 2,200 such posts from the readers of As I Lay Dying. 

            Although there were some who felt that the website (and even more the printed reader's guide that accompanied the boxed set of three novels) could have been improved, most readers and reviewers found the teaching/reading guides provided by the OBC "Summer of Faulkner" to be attractively and professionally designed, thorough in content, and generally quite helpful in understanding the respective novels.  Moreover, readers who, for whatever reason, did not participate in the initial reading, may still elect to do so, since the lectures and other study materials have been archived on the OBC website and thus may be still be accessed at any time.

            While I certainly hope that my contributions to Oprah's "Summer of Faulkner" assisted participants in understanding and appreciating Faulkner's genius as one of the world's great writers, my involvement in the project proved to be a significant learning experience for me as well.  I want to conclude this essay by noting the two most significant impressions that I gleaned from my summer with Faulkner and Oprah.  One was negative, and the other extremely positive.

            The negative point first.  While I was well aware of the longstanding argument about the questionable quality of some of Winfrey's featured selections (and of the controversy surrounding Jonathan Franzen's highbrow remarks following Oprah's endorsement of his novel The Corrections—comments that led to Winfrey's disinviting Franzen to appear on her show), I was nevertheless surprised by the degree of opposition and even animosity directed at Winfrey for her choice of Faulkner.  If, according to her critics, some of her previous authors had not been good enough to deserve the attention and fame she heaped upon them, Faulkner, those critics now seemed to be saying, was too good.  Numerous commentators, both popular and academic, questioned whether Oprah's collection of readers, presumably more schooled in talk shows, soap operas, and popular fiction than in high modernist texts, could handle the difficult challenge of reading Faulkner.  One internet blogger accused Oprah and her defenders of being "deluded."  He continued:  "With the American cultural landscape defined these days by Paris Hilton, FOX news, celebrity trials, infotainment, 'Who's Your Daddy'and reality TV in general, there's some notion that the average American is going to appreciate Faulkner? . . . Isn't the attention span of the average American about the length of a People magazine article?"  Another blogger called me a "professor/whore" for cooperating with Winfrey in what he thought was a misdirected and futile attempt to package Faulkner for mass consumption.  The same individual ridiculed the invitation by the staff for readers to try their own hand at stream of consciousness narration, noting that such an invitation "assumes a consciousness to stream."

Other observers, however, were less elitist and far more supportive and confident of what Oprah was attempting to do.  These individuals typically commended Winfrey for her noble attempt to raise the reading level of the general public.  The most noteworthy—and balanced—treatment of this side of the issue is J. R. Tyree's article in the August 1, 2005 issue of Nation.  Tyree describes Winfrey's choice of Faulkner as "nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading—and on the intelligentsia's perception of her as the Queen of Midcult."  While acknowledging Faulkner to be "a quantum leap up" from Oprah's previous selections, Tyree notes that the choice also represented "an admirably American assertion about the democracy of reading," as well as "[Oprah's] belief in uplift through education."  Tyree parallels Oprah's promotion of Faulkner to the days when photographs of great writers such as James Joyce, Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf appeared on the covers of national magazines.  Thus, Tyree observes, "Perhaps Oprah's Book Club is making a subtle suggestion that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of anti-intellectualism."   In Tyree's view, even if Oprah fails to convince the masses to love Faulkner, her intention and effort are valorous and consistent with the highest ideals of democratic education.

Happily, my being caught up, albeit indirectly, in the culture war debate over Winfrey's celebration of Faulkner was far outweighed by a highly positive benefit I gained from my involvement.  I refer here to my developing awareness of, and education in, the process of collaborative reading.  While her most extreme critics are loath to admit it, Winfrey is onto something approaching genius in her approach to reading.  Part of the success of OBC is undoubtedly due to the admiration and trust Oprah inspires in her followers:  because of her great popularity, Oprah's endorsement clearly sells books, as it does other products.  But one has only to scan the posts of her readers to recognize that the appeal of the collaborative reading experience that is the hallmark of Oprah's Book Club extends far beyond the influence of a charismatic leader.  Even more, in my estimation, it is the interaction of the club members with one another that constitutes the real uniqueness—and the great success—of OBC; and such interaction becomes even more evident and crucial when the author being read is one as difficult as Faulkner.  Even in our classrooms reading remains primarily an individual and private experience—the interaction of a single reader with a particular text.  But with the participants in Oprah's Book Club, reading is done by a community, very nearly a family, of readers.

Consider, for example, the following sampling of posts by OBC readers of As I Lay Dying:

  • "I'm very excited about reading all three of these Faulkner books. I've never read Faulkner before but I thought it would be a great challenge! My best friend and I live in two different states. We thought it would be a great thing to do together."

  • "I am so excited to be involved in such an undertaking. Oprah has created an avid readers heaven here... I swear!! It almost makes me want to go back to school and get a degree in English Lit!! (My husband would kill me!) But I am loving this process, and am so interested by what you all have to say!"

  • "This is my first time reading Faulkner and I am happy I came to him though the book club and am able to read all the posts here to help me through it."

  • "I strongly encourage readers to ask questions of those who are familiar with the book rather than get frustrated and give up. The challenge of this book is definitely worth the effort."

  • "I can't believe I have gone this long without reading Faulkner; I have never been more moved.  I can't wait to talk to people about these books."

  • "It's so nice to see some former book club members back here once more.  We should all have a wonderful time discussing these great books."

  • "I have to say I've always been a little intimidated by Faulkner. I'm really looking forward to the challenge and am equally looking forward to some great discussions."

  • "I am having a little trouble with Dewey Dell and Vardaman so far, so if any of you can explain it to me that would be fantastic. I look forward to reading more and seeing your posts."

  • "Good to know I'm not the only one having difficulty with this book."

  • "Hey, if you post one of those underlined passages that you're struggling with here, we'll help you! Among all of us, I'm sure we'll come up with an array of valid and interesting interpretations!"

  • "You are right that Anse talks in Darl's second chapter. Darl tells us what Anse said to him. Remember that the chapters are meant to plop you down into the character's brain and let you know what is going on there."

  • It may help to just jot down notes to help keep the characters straight. And please do ask if you have a specific question. I think I finally have most of the characters straight after re-reading this book so many times and I'd be happy to help."

  • "I'm so curious to know what you all think of the fact Addie Bundren, at the beginning of the book, is lying in bed watching her son build her coffin. That seemed so grotesque to me when I first read this book."

  • "Ask questions and make use of the many notes available and you CAN get through it! Once the light dawns you'll see how gorgeous his writing truly is. It can take a while but it's so worth it."

  • "What a lovely way of looking at Faulkner's prose. I never connected the thought of his prose being like poetry before but now that you mention it that makes sense. Like poetry his prose is impressionistic and emotional."

  • "Just let the writing flow, don't worry about all the details and ask for help as you need it."

  • "I want to thank you all for all of your posts. You have been very helpful to me because I was getting very discouraged because I was not understanding this book at all"

  • "I think you have something here. Thanks for the insight."

  • "I grew up in the country just like Faulkner speaks about. It is not as rare as you think for the community to pitch in and help a neighbor."

  • I'm glad that I wasn't the only one either.  Maybe the two of us and the help of the others and the 'summer school'can get us through this.  Anyway, I look forward to future posts, especially yours since we're in the same boat."

  • "Leave it to Oprah to force me to face Faulkner, finally. This is a push I've needed for a long time, and this time, I'm ready."

What strikes me as highly significant and even quite remarkable in such comments is the understanding, encouragement, and support that these readers are giving one another.  These are not college students fussing about having to read required texts and competing with one another for grades and advancement.  On the contrary, these are enthusiastic, committed lifelong learners engaged in partnership with one another.

I do not mean to imply, of course, that all of those who participated in the "Summer of Faulkner" found the readings to be worthwhile, or even advisable.  The posts on the discussion board also included ones like the following:

  • "I finished As I Lay Dying last night, and with all due respect to Mr. Faulkner and to Oprah's book club too, I have to say I didn't get anything out of the book. I found it disturbing and just plain weird. It didn't leave me with any good feelings at all, only emptiness. And at times I could feel my eyes getting bigger and also shaking my head 'no'at some of the grizzly things he wrote about.  I am not trying to be callous here, but I felt a lot of negative emotions running over me as I read this book. I guess we are all entitled to our opinion. I can't understand why anyone would want to read this book."
  • "I have been a reader for 40 plus years and I can honestly say that this is the first time that I have ever hated a book. Trying to read this book became such a chore that I couldn't find any enjoyment in the story. I didn't care about these characters even after having read the same page three times to try to figure out what was happening. Tell me, just what is so wrong with using punctuation? I had to force myself to finish this book and I am glad that I did because at least I can say that I tried Faulkner and we just didn't get along. The title of the book suited my mood because most of the time I spent reading it did feel like I was dying."

I think it should be noted, however, that the percentage of Oprah's readers who rejected Faulkner was probably no greater than that we professors find among our students in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms.  And it should be noted as well that some who started out with negative feelings changed their minds later on.

  •  "I just finished the book and have to say it was one of the most frustrating reading experiences I've ever had. At first it was almost like reading in a foreign language, but I forced myself to just get through it. It did get easier as it went along and as I became (sort of) familiar with the characters and interested in the story. I also watched all the videos and read all the info on the website AFTER reading it, because I had a million questions. Now I plan to re-read it, hoping it will be less painful this time. Just hang in there, it's worth it."
  • "I have always loved reading but I have never taken my reading to 'the next level.'I usually read novels that are easy to follow and understand. As I Lay Dying, the first Faulkner book I have read so far, has pushed me above and beyond my comfort level. It has pushed me to explore plot, narration, and style like I've never explored it before. I had my difficulties getting started with the book, but after getting the gist of it I couldn't put it down. I was easily captivated by the complexity in the narration, and fascinated with the love and devotion within the odd Bundren family members. This book is deserving of all its praise. Faulkner is a literary genius and this piece is a great read for anyone!"

It is probably much too soon to draw any final conclusions about the success or failure of Oprah's "Summer of Faulkner."  Skeptics can point out that there did seem to be some falling away of readers over the course of the three books:  whereas there were 2,230 readers'posts on As I Lay Dying, there were 792 on The Sound and the Fury and only 554 on Light in August.  Moreover, Oprah's decision to return to her original focus on contemporary authors, following Faulkner with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, might be viewed as a concession that the emphasis on Faulkner—and perhaps the other classics as well—had disappointed too many of her readers and viewers.  At the same time, there can be no question that her "Summer of Faulkner" brought Faulkner back to the forefront of the literary consciousness—and in the process enlisted a multitude of first-time Faulkner readers.  And for that, all lovers of Faulkner's works should be grateful.


Copyright (c)2006 Robert W. Hamblin