¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This last factor begins to sound a good bit more self-helpy and a good deal less literary than one might wish to associate with an author as evidently “serious” as Wallace. While such “seriousness” has been almost exclusively encoded as masculine, at least on the US literary scene, as indicated by the September 2010 outburst of “Franzenfreude,”1 the seriousness of Wallace’s fiction is not just a matter of the work’s narratological experimentalism or linguistic difficulty, or of its rigorous insights into contemporary culture. It is also, I would argue, driven by the work’s recognition of the life-and-death stakes of the personal, emotional terrain that it explores, and the radical intimacy of the questions with which it asks the reader to grapple. And it’s in his willingness to allow these texts to be the work of what Wallace described as an “anti-rebel,” one who has “the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values”: [to] treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (E Unibus 192-93), that Wallace’s writing achieves a kind of relevance to its readers’ lives, leading finally to the outpouring of grief upon the news of his death.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Building this kind of intimate relationship between reader and text has long been the motivating force of popular reading groups, perhaps most famously among them, Oprah’s Book Club. As Ted Striphas has argued in his exploration of the unlikely relationship between the television empire and the publishing world, the success of Oprah’s Book Club derived in no small degree from its practice of tailoring the reading experience to the actual audience which the show hoped to reach, a pragmatic approach that “engages actual and potential readers at the level of the everyday” (Striphas 138). In order to reach its audience, to engage them in the discussions about books that the show’s producers wished to have, Oprah’s Book Club was required not just to select good books, but to find the right books for their readers — and, even more, to find clear, compelling ways to communicate to those readers that the book selected was the right book for them. This mode of fulfilling the audience’s desire, Wallace has noted, is something “TV is extremely good at”: discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it” (McCaffrey 128).2 And yet the explicitly educational goals of the book club resulted in a far more complex sense of “what large numbers of people think they want” than we might ordinarily be willing to give television credit for. What the book club’s audience thought they wanted, by and large, was a compelling reading experience within which they felt some personal involvement; these readers were not demanding entertainment so much as they were connection. Only in forging those personal connections between the book and its readership — again, in finding the right book for these readers, and in communicating that rightness — could the program succeed.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 The rightness of these books, as Striphas demonstrates, has in the case of Oprah’s Book Club less to do with any literary-critical means of assessing a text’s “quality” than it does with the ability of the reader to achieve some form of imaginative identification with a novel’s characters and their dilemmas. Inevitably, descriptions of such processes of identification will sound unsophisticated to scholars, evoking a mode of reading that falls back into naive assumptions about the relationships between representations and the real world. Perhaps this is so. Certainly Oprah’s Book Club, existing as part of the show’s larger focus on often treacly notions of personal redemption and obstacle-overcoming — a focus that, let it be said, sells — has a deep investment in cultivating that kind of reading, in encouraging its audience to understand the narratives of others as object lessons for themselves. But for all its questionable motives and uncritical assumptions, Oprah’s Book Club was in a key regard an unmitigated triumph: it got people to buy books, and to read them, and to care deeply about them.
- ¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0
- See Katha Pollitt: “We have different expectations of male and female writers; we put them in different categories and different frames–and Great American Novelist is a frame that is coded male.” ↩
- Wallace in this interview misjudges the television audience’s desire for pleasure; while it’s undoubtedly true that some television programming has historically fed a very unchallenging sense of pleasure, not all of it has catered to the “couch potato,” not even in the early 1990s. In fact, that much of the audience craves the more challenging pleasures of a text that requires interpretive work might account for the success of the recent, post-Sopranos HBO series, as well as of complex network series such as Lost. What undoubtedly is true is that this more “sophisticated” sense of pleasure is produced in no small part through education; the genius of Oprah’s Book Club was in encouraging a part of its audience that hadn’t benefitted from such an education to learn along with others. For his part, Wallace goes on to indicate that the distance between television and fiction may not be all that great, when it comes to giving the people what they want: “TV’s real agenda is to be liked, because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison” (McCaffrey 130). ↩
Footnote on “self-helpy” that you probably have seen but others might not have: Maria’ Bustillos’s piece for the Awl on Wallace’s collection of self-help books.