Saturday, February 04, 2006

Type Cast 3

Oprah Winfrey says she feels duped, conned, hoodwinked and bamboozled by memoirist James Frey’s falsified account of his years of drug-addled bad behaviour. I would like to respectfully suggest to La Oprah that the fault is all her own.

I am loathe to pick on the world’s most popular television presenter because I actually enjoy her show –well, most of the time. The hysterical audiences are a bit much to take, and Winfrey’s increasing religiosity strikes me as a vulgar attempt to solidify her position as the Mother Teresa of Talk.

But it’s hard to argue with anyone who can actually coerce North Americans to read. And, like any novelist, I would sell my brother’s kids to get Winfrey to pick one of my under-selling books for her club. (The kids, by the way, range in age from 19 to 12, are well-behaved, healthy, and kind of cute, if anyone’s buying).

My difficulty with the whole Winfrey/Frey uproar is that I doubt Winfrey’s own show would stand the honesty test she’s applied to Frey’s book. Even a casual viewer of the show will realize that the guests – the non-celebrity guests, at least – have been thoroughly coached before they appear on the couch. They cry on cue, reveal their secrets in carefully planned sentences, and know exactly when it’s their time to talk and Winfrey’s time to judge.

When Winfrey’s cameras venture out to the homes of the sad suburbanites she interviews, the subjects re-enact their traumas in front of the lens with concise, well-rehearsed accounts of their troubles. In other words, they perform for the show. They are acting. The stories might be true, but who knows how much the presence of the camera, indeed the chance to appear on international television, affects the way the guests describe their lives? The temptation to inflate, overstate or otherwise colour their accounts to make better television must be enormous.

Can Winfrey swear on a stack of Toni Morrison novels that all of her guests have told the whole truth? Of course not, nor should she even try. News broadcasts are hardly objective retellings of events, so why would a chat show have a higher standard of verisimilitude? And remember, when Bill Clinton’s memoir came out Winfrey gave the former president and renowned liar the full gushing treatment, no questions asked. Pot, meet kettle.

But criticizing the moralizing excesses of a television chat show is too easy – the very format of such shows demands that there be an absolute right and an unquestionable wrong. The core problem with this entire non-debate is that the real and much more complex issue has been wholly overlooked – the issue of how and why we read in the first place.

Winfrey’s book clubbers treat books like medicine. They read the downtrodden memoirs and hard-luck novels Winfrey favours with the expressed intention of looking for the next great “healing” device - as if writing, or any form of art, existed only to make one feel better about oneself. Obviously, art makes the world a better place, but mostly by accident. No artist sets out to create a work specifically to cauterize a social wound – no decent artist at least.

Any societal benefit gained from a piece of art is purely incidental, and highly likely to change over time. For instance, we do not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin today because we wish to abolish slavery, but because the book is a riveting story of oppression and survival. At the time it was published, however, Lincoln himself declared that the book had done no less than start the American Civil War. Similarly, John Herbert’s classic 1965 play Fortune And Men’s Eyes - which when it debuted was read as a scathing expose of the terrible conditions of Canadian prisons - is still performed today, despite all the reforms it prompted, because its poetic depictions of psycho-sexual power dynamics between men still resonate. In another fifty years, the play may be remounted as a camp farce or as an historical romance, or not at all.

But when you treat literature like a cheap psycho-therapeutic tool, as Winfrey’s book club does with an almost pathological neediness, and expect the assembled words to cause reliable psychological effects, you are bound to be disappointed. Using literature to get over, say, your childhood sexual abuse is akin to fixing a leaky sink with a bucket of pudding. Literature is too porous, too slippery, and too full of questions to be turned into an emotional version of the South Beach Diet.

Cultural theorists have been arguing for decades (rather successfully) that no two people ever read the same book in the same way and, even more disconcerting, that every time you read a text you re-invent it – thus making any questions about the reliability of a text abjectly moot.

Furthermore, when the act of reading is so inherently untrustworthy, relying on a book to “heal” you and then feeling cheated when you find out the book is a fabrication and not a prescription is, well, stupid. Every book is a fabrication and you’re the one holding the knitting needles (or, in Winfrey’s case, the entire sweater factory).

If you read for medicinal purposes, you’d be better off eating the pages – they’re just full of cleansing fibre.