Reading Faulkner with Oprah.

All about fiction.
Sept. 15 2005 9:56 AM

Reading Faulkner With Oprah

It's underrated.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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When Oprah announced last June that her book club would tackle the taxing project of reading three novels by William Faulkner—"A Summer of Faulkner," she called it—I signed up immediately. I was motivated, in part, by genuine curiosity. In 18 years of education, including a college degree in English and an MFA, I had never been asked to read a single book by Faulkner. And I'd never successfully managed to read him on my own. One summer I actually got through most of Light in August. But today all I remember about the experience is feeling under-equipped to make sense of the book's massive complexities and tortuous undercurrents. A recent attempt to breach The Sound and the Fury failed at page 16. It had begun to seem Faulkner wasn't for me. So why not enlist Oprah in my aid? Of course, there was another motive at work: Call it literary rubber-necking. What on earth, I wondered, would the doyenne of self-help and "rapport-talk" make of William Faulkner, the high priest of American modernism—and, according to the New York Review of Books, "the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction"?

It looked like one of the oddest pairings around, and yet Oprah-meets-Faulkner turned out, in a curious way, to be an inspired match. It's easy to forget just how radical a writer Faulkner still is, because he's been so thoroughly absorbed into the canon: a process by which, as one critic once put it, "the idiosyncratic is distorted into the normative." Faulkner is anything but normative. Figuring out what is going on in a book like The Sound and the Fury is so hard—and demands such a leap of faith—that every reader struggles in similar ways. Its demanding textual challenges have a strangely democratizing effect. No matter how many lit-crit terms you can throw around, Faulkner's jagged, wildly original style is hard—and can jar confident readers as well as less confident ones. And I confess: At this point in my life, harried by e-mails, exhausted by obligations, tempted by TiVo, I needed some kind of nudging to get me to sit down and engage as deeply as the book was asking me to.

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The book club structure itself was simple. June was devoted to As I Lay Dying,July to The Sound and the Fury, and August, of course, to Light in August. Each week we were encouraged to get through a set assignment of pages. Throughout the summer, the Web site hosted a dedicated discussion thread for each book and urged readers to participate (and to form our own neighborhood book clubs). The perplexed reader could find aid in the form of a mini-packet of ancillary "materials" such as "Faulkner's Life and Times" ("See how Faulkner's family stories and turbulent times shaped his literary work"), along with maps, family trees, and chronologies. On Monday evenings, we gathered online for streamed video lectures by college professors, including Robert Hamblin, the director of the Center for Faulkner Studies. Each professor took "questions" by e-mail, which had to be submitted in advance. (I was excited by the prospect, until I calculated my chances of being one of the half-dozen chosen.)

And so it happened that around the first of July I picked up The Sound and the Fury for the second time this year, with renewed resolve. There was a plan, and there were lectures to attend. I felt inspired. It was 10:42 p.m.

My boyfriend cocked a skeptical eyebrow at me. "You'll be asleep in five minutes," he said.

"Not at all," I protested. Two pages later, my eyes had grown heavy. Unfamiliar names swam before me, along with fragmented, unconnected sentences. No dent could be made until I was more awake.

Book cover

In the morning I started over. My mind kept wandering—wasn't that a dust ball that needed vacuuming?—but because I had a task that couldn't be shirked, I sat still. Soon, mesmerized by the prose—"Caddy smelled like trees in the rain"—I made headway. But confusion still reigned. Within the first few pages the narrative had moved forward, back, and sideways in time. I hadn't grasped these time shifts last night, and no wonder: Sometimes they were set off by italics, sometimes not. Plus, the early pages described the actions of no fewer than 10 characters whose lives were intricately bound up with one another. Their interrelationships were clearly crucial to understanding the dialogue. But they were never (God forbid!) explained by our author, who, like Valéry, appeared to have an aversion to writing sentences like "The Marquis went out at 10 o'clock." (Valéry, of course, chose to become a poet.) Gradually it dawned on me that the narrator wasn't only a child but also mentally impaired. The difficulties were growing more knowable. And then suddenly Quentin, a hitherto-male character, became a girl: "They sat up in the swing, quick. Quentin had her hands on her hair." I threw my hands up. Had Faulkner himself lost track of his story?

Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it. A typical posting, under the heading "That's Faulkner For Ya," offered encouragement to a struggling fellow member:

I think Benjy's chapter [the first] is the hardest to read through since his is not only subjective but his thought processes are REALLY random. Once you get past this and Quentin's, it shouldn't be that hard. Hang in there, it's a true masterpiece! Oh, and try reading the first 2 chapters again after you've read it through...

To which another reader responded:

Actually, Benjy's jumps aren't random. There is usually a trigger, and looking for the trigger can help you make sense of it. For example, the first transition is triggered by Luster noting Benjy is always "snagging on that nail." This triggers a memory of when Caddy "uncaught" Benjy when he was little.

This was helpful. I was hooked. From then on, whenever I got disgruntled and confused, I'd scan the message boards quickly and find a wise soul counseling that those of us in the early pages just "relax" and listen to the language. Nor was this an overly simplistic method: Faulkner, after all, was interested in the materiality of language, and my focus on understanding, on processing on a thematic level, was, in some sense, drawing me away from the intensities of the book, the fractured repetitions, the short, propulsive declarations that are cosmic in scope. (It was an English teacher, I couldn't help noticing, who posted the first annoyed response I saw: "Although I love some of the modernists, especially T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, Faulkner so far is leaving me cold.")

Meanwhile, the lectures made a useful antidote to the message boards and their focus on the experience of reading. This weekly virtual gathering underscored for me just how different Oprah's book club is—in a positive sense—from the traditional "book club" community. Rather than reading the book on our own and then getting together to gab about its themes and what we "liked," we were online solving textual puzzles and then sitting down for a dose of synthesized information. The professor selected by Oprah to guide us through The Sound and the Fury was a woman named Thadious Davis from the University of Pennsylvania. In striving for a menu that would appeal to everyone, Davis might easily have fed us intellectual popcorn. Instead, we got a thoughtful grounding in basic literary history, in lectures that ranged from belle-lettristic commentary on Faulkner's life to characterological assessments of the Compsons—all from a professor as likely to allude to Pound ("make it new") as to Desperate Housewives (where "Faulknerian" flashback technique thrives). In describing the "modernist practice of representing consciousness" Davis invoked the usual suspects—Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Lawrence—but she also included Dorothy Richardson, the inventor of stream-of-consciousness, whose name I'd never heard or had long since forgotten. A tap on the keyboard and I'd learned that Richardson was the author of Pilgrimage, a four-volume modernist tome not read much today. (Our next book, Oprah?)

William Faulkner 
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William Faulkner

Every now and then I bristled—at the cutesiness of the packaging, and at one pandering stream-of-consciousness exercise, which promised we, too, could "Write just like Faulkner." The idea was for us all to sit down for 10 minutes and put our thoughts on the page. Let's just say my results were nothing like Faulkner's. But when I thought about it, even that bit of Oprah-style audience participation was revelatory in a useful way. Nobody writes like Faulkner, and he had no interest in being a writer merely for explicators. Nor did he himself submit to doctrinaire guidance. He may have been a member of the avant-garde, but he wasn't a member of the establishment. He dropped out of high school in Oxford, Miss., and spent little time in college at the University of Mississippi, where, according to Jay Parini's biography, One Matchless Time, he was a lackluster student, and performed disastrously in the one English class he took. ("It was noticed by other students that Faulkner never took quizzes in French or Spanish classes, and he never appeared for examinations of any kind," Parini writes.) It was reading James Joyce and T.S. Eliot on his own that led him to his inimitable style—one that puzzled even his admirers.

And Faulkner's ideology is as sui generis as his methodology, which makes Oprah's decision to read him at once bold and old-fashioned. During his lifetime, he advocated greater freedom for blacks, a position that put him at odds with his fellow white Southerners. (They labeled him a Communist sympathizer.) Yet his later positions were far too moderate for liberals and northerners who advocated desegregation, and he has come in for censure from Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and others, because he cautioned civil rights activists to "go slow" lest they unbalance an "emotional people" (i.e., white Southerners). Unfazed, Oprah was plainly drawn by currents in Faulkner that transcend race—his portraits of Southern family psychodrama, the rebellious, pre-verbal sexuality of his women, the hothouse tragedy of it all. These are matters that on some level aren't too far from those that preoccupy Oprah and her devotees.

In fact, reading Faulkner in the land of Oprah drives home a point likely to get obscured in our difficulty-obsessed, postmodernist culture: that as radical as Faulkner's experiments with the representation of consciousness are—and they're far more radical than any contemporary novel I've read over the past five years—they are ultimately undertaken in the service of telling a story of great immediacy. For all his brilliant obscurity, Faulkner was obsessed with speaking in a language of mythic essentialism. His religious vision was an austere version of relic-worship, attached to place and to objects. In writing about the South he knew, he was trying to articulate a story of doomed consciousness, of pain, of being hyper-cognizant of the demise of not only family but of an entire culture established in bad moral faith. Out of these pressures are forged the self-made flaws of characters who collide with their families (and their culture) as violently as wrecking balls. Pound was a guide, but so was his longtime friend Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, who counseled him: Write what you know.

Faulkner believed in a notion of truth that sounds a little out-of-date, or outright naive, today. Consider this passage from his address upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949:

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing. … He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. … He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Most modernism aspired to difficulty, to the rarefied condition of being university taught. But Faulkner's modernism, especially refracted through the experience of reading it with Oprah, is curiously democratic. Those of us reading all struggled with the same mechanical issues, with the materiality of language—its obsessive, repetitive self-questioning imaginative gains—that Faulkner cared about. His idea of "universal truth" may not seem sophisticated today. But his pursuit of it had a curiously unifying effect on many readers this summer. Turning the pages in the invisible company of Oprah's other readers, I suspected I wasn't alone as I became more convinced that not all of the supposed divisions in our culture are as insurmountable as they sometimes seem.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.