Thursday, June 09, 2005

When I was in the local Barnes & Noble a few days ago, I came across an unexpected site: a storefront display filled with a trilogy of Faulkner novels. Piqued, I looked closer. Turns out, as the world now knows, that Oprah has selected Faulkner as her novelist du mois for June, July, and August.

Although Oprah has since been lambasted by some, I can't help but tip my hat to her on this one. Faulkner is arguably America's most innovative author, one whose effusive style and illicit narratives chronicled the post-bellum South in a way that no historian dared broach until well over a generation later.* If the result is that his prose is often arduous or even inaccessible, I would argue that such difficulty is simply a matter of form following function: Faulkner was delving into a national consciousness that had, to that point, patently refused to confront a set of local mores that were starkly at odds with its national ideals. In that sense, Faulkner anticipated and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement that emerged at the very close of his career, some twenty-five years after he had published his most reputed works.

How anyone can deride Oprah for her choice is beyond me. Yes, many of her readers will be daunted by the difficulty of Faulkner's novels, particularly when it comes to The Sound and the Fury. But at least she's going to get people to try Faulkner, rather than neglect him altogether. And in the meantime, I have to believe that at least a small percentage of her readers will stick it out, and in so doing realize that Faulkner's difficulty only makes him all the more rewarding once you grasp his central concerns.

Summoning the audacity to lead a mass audience headlong into one of America's most well-known but least read authors is no small accomplishment. For that reason -- and believe me, I never thought I would be uttering these words -- I say, God Bless Oprah.
*I'm thinking here specifically of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, but also of the large body of work in general on the both the Reconstruction and Jim Crowe eras that has proliferated since the 1960s.


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