How Oprah Ruins Classic Literature

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Criticism of Oprah Winfrey's massively influential book club is nothing new. Jonathan Franzen famously dismissed it as "schmaltzy" and Time magazine called it "not so much a club as a ruthlessly influential marketing vehicle." But The New Republic's Hillary Kelly says Oprah's greatest literary damage is not to the contemporary fiction market but to the canon of classic literature she so often raids. By "sentimentalizing" great works and dumbing them down in an attempt to find them mass appeal, Kelly warns, Oprah ends up distorting the public perception and reading of writers such as Charles Dickens and William Faulkner:

Her current choices, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Surely both belong to the realm of classics and should, no must be read--and Oprah's fans will inevitably dive in, not only because Winfrey has told them to but also out of a desire to assuage old guilt about required reading in high school that was left untouched. But what can Oprah really bring to the table with these books?

... She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century--prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to "live your best life" is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence--she is quite clearly a woman of savvy--but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.

Authors like Dickens can be "difficult," Kelly explains, and understanding their greatest books requires historical context, social context, and some level of rigor, none of which Oprah brings. Kelly catalogs how Oprah's "ignorance of Dickens's authorial intentions" leads her, and her millions of viewers, to end up wildly misreading his books.

To treat serious literature as fun is an admirable way to get people reading Dickens, but if Oprah's teaching leaves thousands of readers misinformed or confused, is that really responsible? If she anoints herself as the nation's de facto leading literary scholar -- do all the real scholars combined share her reach? -- doesn't that do real damage to Americans' understanding of great literature?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.