I admit, I have some sympathy with Hillary Kelly’s lament about the whole Oprah Does Dickens thing. I don’t share, or like, Kelly’s condescending assumption that Oprah’s readers are incapable of appreciating the novels, that they will have to “scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms” or that “with no real guidance: they will only “mimic their high-school selves with calls of, ‘It’s too hard!'” People have been reading Dickens “with no real guidance” for a pretty long time and lots of them have had great fun with his language, his stories, and, yes, his ideas. Of course, I wouldn’t be in the profession I’m in if I didn’t think “real guidance” could enhance people’s reading experience, especially (though not exclusively) for books that don’t yield as easily as others to the kind of self-revelatory or just lazy reading-for-what’s-relatable that Kelly rightly proposes is one of the main purposes of Oprah’s book club. A case in point actually comes from the putatively ‘high culture’ end of the media spectrum, the New Yorker‘s Book Bench, which this week included in their Year in Reading series the following commentary on George Eliot’s Romola:
Absolutely no one reads “Romola” these days, at least not for fun, and I hate to admit that I can see why: it’s desperately wearying. The heroine is a hopeless prig, unredeemed by anything even slightly compromising in her character, and the villain’s villainy isn’t very interesting: he’s uniformly awful to his father, his wife, and his mistress. Eliot was utterly diligent about ensuring the book was historically accurate: her diaries report that, in preparation for writing, she gathered “particulars, first, about Lorenzo de’Medici’s death; secondly, about the possible retardation of Easter; third, about Corpus Christi Day; fourthly, about Savonarola’s preaching in the Quaresima of 1492.” But as one of Eliot’s early critics, Leslie Stephen, put it: “The question will intrude, What would have become of ‘Ivanhoe’ if Scott had bothered himself about the possible retardation of Easter?”
Actually, this complacently closed-minded and anti-intellectual reading is much more annoying to me than Oprah’s Dickens fest because of its pretense of erudition. Dickens was a great populist, after all; he wrote to reach the hearts of the masses, and there’s a certain logic in an alliance between him and the forces of O. The really annoying thing about Oprah’s announcement, to me, was her gleeful admission that she’d never read any Dickens before and the sheep-like enthusiasm with which her millions of viewers will now rush out and do what the diva says. (But hey, what corner of the book world is free from fads? It seems just a short while ago nearly every bluidy reviewer and blogger and tweeter I follow was talking about the same book … and wait, so was Oprah!) The hot cocoa stuff is silly, too, as if every Dickens novel is a cozy holiday classic. Oprah ought to put on a better display of informed reading. It’s not hard to do–and she could just staff it out without losing a day of her royal tour of Australia. But with her resources, she may in fact bring in some really interesting people to talk about Dickens. Maybe, just maybe, some of the issues raised in this old debate about Dickens’s racism will even come up, though I sort of doubt it, since it would undermine the feel-good ethos of both the show and the book choice. For me, the bottom line is, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities (though, as Kelly and others have rightly noted, oddly mismatched) are books that are worth reading, whether it’s your mom, your grade 10 teacher, me, or Oprah who motivates you to read them. (I did do a double-take when I got my first look at the Penguin cover, though; I was relieved to learn that the back cover reverses the disproportion. Also, I hope Oprah’s web editors will stop putting a random apostrophe after Dickens; I already get endless assignments in about “Dicken’s” and I don’t need any more confusions introduced…)
But, to come back to Romola, if you’re going to set yourself the excellent project of reading through all of George Eliot’s fiction, and learn enough about Romola to know that it was extensively researched, you might also work on the assumption that novels that don’t immediately gratify your taste may be revealing some of your own limits, not just theirs. Sometimes, you’re asking the wrong questions, for instance. Here’s where ‘real guidance’ might come in handy, at least in training you as a reader to stop and think about why the book is as it is, what purposes its aesthetic and formal choices serve, what ideas shape it. You might not like it any better, but you would understand a lot more about it. These comments give the impression of a reader who really didn’t try very hard–in fact, who did just what Kelly worries Oprah’s readers will do. And seriously: any novel with the line in it “children may be strangled, but deeds never” surely deserves our close attention. Some of my ideas about Romola are here, from when we covered it in my recent graduate seminar; these excellent posts from Bookphilia also show how very far from “desperately wearying” the novel can be to a good reader.