The Oprah Effect on Morrison’s Fiction

My paper will explore the relationship between Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison, especially her Book Club endorsement of four of Morrison’s novels, more than any other author. I will argue that Oprah’s repeated and sustained endorsements of Morrison in her Book Club subvert the usual “prices of admission” into conversations about high, or serious, literature, creating a vast subgenre of Morrison readers who oppose the characteristics of the perceived Morrison reader as studied, academic and critical. We might further break out these reading audiences into “readers who read Morrison” and “readers who read Winfrey.” That is, Winfrey’s status as a “human brand” translates directly into the material book object of the Book Club editions of Morrison’s novels, creating an artifact that cuts across social stratums, a “high” novel clothed in mass media glitz. 

Causes and Consumerism: The Social Currency of Counterpublic Spaces

          Reading “Marketing British Modernism,” I was struck by Morrison’s explicit discussion of the tactics used to spread awareness of the “counterpublic space” of sufferagism. There was a sense of disillusionment or wrongful exposure in divulging the tinsely sandwich boards and cynical goods marketing schemes undergirding a movement many consider to be infallible, a benchmark of social change towards gender equality that ultimately gave way to feminism. Perhaps what is most relevant about what Morrison reveals here is not the intrinsic relationship between social movements, marketing and economies of prestige, but that we, the “consumers” of such movements, tend to chafe against the notion that social causes can be subject to the same burdens of exposure and appeal that we associate with the mass media marketing of a product. Because submitting to the credo of a counterspace is often attended by particular social and political ramifications, it might be interesting to think of these movements as vehicles of social “consecration.” 

The growth of social media and the emergence of “on-demand” marketplaces now allow individuals to produce and propagate movements without the aid of advertising partners. While this might appear to have had the effect of de-economizing such movements, it could also be argued that they have accelerated the commodification of social justice by emblematizing such movements into succinct, easily digestible slogans. An individual may still be able to lend their support by retweeting or hashtagging applicable phrases, but how does this form of social signalling compare to spending one’s own capital to purchase a bumper sticker or a t-shirt? Whereas we might find a “Votes for Women” cigarette brand or a “Common Cause” fountain pen distasteful, we must admit that these efforts remain in popular use today as methods of charging counterpublic spaces. With this in mind, how might we extend the notion of “consecration” to encompass social movements? How is social currency produced within these movements, especially between monetarily contributing members and purely symbolic participants? What kind of hierarchies do we see emerging?

Ulysses as “highbrow” and “lowbrow”

     Larbaud assures us that the complex structure of Ulysses has been traced by Joyce “for himself.” This claim is justified, in part, by gesturing to Joyce’s complex notes on his seminal novel, their highly subjective, varicolored annotations arranged in a state of “mosaic” decipherable only by the author himself. Still, when taking into consideration the substantial efforts and difficulties endured by Joyce in publishing this work, a certain tension arises. Without wading into the opacity of authorial intent, I think it safe to assume that Ulysses was, from the beginning, intended to be circulated, pondered over, subjected to interpretation and interrogation-a notion that implicitly presses against a vision of Ulysses as having been constructed in a kind of Woolfian hermetic chamber. 

     Further, Larbaud insists that reading Ulysses necessarily involves playing Joyce’s game, as it were, working to untangle his “web,” and if done “with attention,” one “cannot fail to discover this plan in time.”  “With attention,” here, refers to Larbaud’s “cultivated readers,” who are separated from those “uncultivated” readers who so lack the contextual background that the novel will from, the first “three pages,” be thrown into a state of inextricable confusion as to setting, character, circumstance, etc. Still, for Laurbaud, the effect of Ulysses rests not in its complicated allusions to the Odyssey, but in its ability to manifest  a “living and moving” work out of such rigid scaffolding. The cultivated reader, then, is able to fully understand Ulysses by way of seeing through its structure in order to experience its affect. Yet if the symbol of Irish art is, as Joyce tells us in Ulysses, the cracked looking glass of a servant, how can we parse the novel as both “highbrow” and “lowbrow”? Is this a possible, efficacious, or meaningful endeavor?

Reimagining the Field

     In Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, Woolf opens her argument concerning the crisis of character in the novel with Arnold Bennet’s claim that “we have no young novelists of first-rate importance at the present moment, because they are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing.” For Woolf, the formation of “convincing” and “real” characters, ironically, unlike those offered up by Bennet, is the chief endeavor of novel writing. Yet, in closing her piece, Woolf also calls upon readers to insist that authors “truthfully” render Mrs. Brown. In cleaving a space for the audience, she invokes the irony of using Bennet to couch her argument against Edwardian materialism by offering that readers reject their distance from authors. Authors, she insists, know no more about Mrs. Brown than they do, no more about the machinations and exigencies of “real” life as it is lived than they do. 

     I am reminded of the authorial duplicity to which Bennet constantly refers in his “Truth About an Author,” a piece that humorously gestures towards Bourdieu’s rather seriously rendered theory of the field. Bourdieu offers the social space as operating within but distinctly separate from the field of power, which exerts itself onto all planes of cultural production, no matter how obscure. Bennet is exhaustive in his address to the field of power (in that he addresses the transactional realities of literary production), but unlike Woolf, he fails to acknowledge the exertions of the social space aside from his circle of “literary friends.” Woolf seems to suggest that the public-not necessarily readers-are both that which constitutes characterization-Mrs. Brown-and that which complicates the truthful execution of these characterizations, leading to “sleek novels,” “milk and watery criticism,” etc. If, as Woolf suggests, the public at large is equally acquainted with the ingredients for truthful characterization,  how then might the critics’ role be morphed, diminished or elevated? Further, does her perspective of “truthful” characterization signal absolutism, and if so, how might the formal critic be repositioned within the field?