Archive | May, 2011

Why We Love and Hate Oprah’s Book Club

25 May

I was checking out my twitter feed this morning, and one of the folks I follow retweeted John Hodgman (best known for his work as a Daily Show correspondent, and he’s also the PC in all of those Mac commercials with Justin Long).  In his tweets, Hodgman uses the end of Oprah’s long-running talk show to make dark predictions about the publishing industry:

It is too bad that all those Oprah viewers will never read or buy a book again after today.  NOW what are poor book publishers going to do?

and:

It just seems so unfair!  Without Oprah, how are publishers going to continue their cross-fingers/hope-to-win-the-lottery business plan?

Of course, I could use this as an opportunity to talk about why the publishing industry needs to keep up, and perhaps that’s a post I’ll work up at a later date.  However, I find it more interesting to note the assumed impact Oprah has had on reading in the past decade or so, and the debate surrounding her (in)famous book club.

I worked in a chain bookstore while I was in college.  In fact, I worked there during the whole A Million Little Pieces debacle.  This is not a joke – we got all kinds of irate customers, bringing in their beaten and battered copies of this book and demanding a refund because James Frey was a big liar – Oprah said so!  And you know what we did?  We took the book back.  We gave them a refund.  That’s the power of Oprah.

Working in one of those chain bookstores gave me a lot of insight into the Oprah’s Book Club phenomenon.  At the same time that I had customers falling all over themselves to buy a Faulkner box set with the big “O” sticker on the front, I had others quietly asking me if we had a copy of Middlesex without the sticker.

And yet, as I watched copies of Anna Kerenina fly off the shelves, I couldn’t help but think to myself, what’s so bad about this?  I mean, when was the last time Tolstoy had a bestseller (I’ll hazard a guess: never)?  How remarkable that vast amounts of people actually want to read The Sound and the Fury – not that it isn’t a good book, but I can’t think of anything besides Oprah that would get so many people so excited about reading a stream of consciousness novel written a century ago.  And more than that – she took complicated novels by Faulkner and Tolstoy – books that many people are intimidated by – and empowered her viewers to read them and understand them.  That’s fairly groundbreaking, in my humble opinion.  I’ve got no problem with encouraging people to read books that they might have considered too dense or difficult or time-consuming.

And yet, there are so many people who spend a great deal of energy disliking Oprah and her book club – not only people asking for copies of Middlesex sans the “O” sticker, but people who take to the internet and fucking rage! about how awful she is.  Now, why do you think so many people have such a serious problem with a woman who gets people to read?

I think there are a couple of reasons for why there exists such a sharp distaste for Oprah’s Book Club.  The first of these is snobbery.  According to Joseph Epstein in his book (appropriately titled), Snobbery:

… a snob is someone who practices, lives by, exults in the system of distinctions, discriminations, and social distractions that make up the field of play for snobbery.  “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.”  So wrote Virginia Woolf, who allowed that she was herself a snob.  But that definition is not only too slack but much too generous…  The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.  Which is a different, really a much more wicked, little proposition.  (pp. 13-14)

Before Oprah came along and told millions of women that they could read and like William Faulkner, dense novels were hallowed grounds tread upon by those with access to intellectual and/or educational privilege, and that privilege has typically been used to make snobs feel better about themselves.  I would posit that it’s not that book snobs delight in the idea that others are not capable of reading the things they read – instead, book snobs delight in the fact that their tastes are refined enough to read good books.  And good taste is perhaps most easily established by putting it in juxtaposition with other tastes, which are inevitably not as good.

In a New York Times piece examining the hipster, Mark Grief explains, however, that it’s not only about taste, but about authenticity (H/T Sociological Images):

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

So in circumstances where one derives personal pride from reading “good” books, part of that pride can sometimes be rooted in authenticity, novelty, and uniqueness.  It’s not only that you like James Joyce, for example (a notoriously difficult author to read), but that not many other people like Joyce, nobody told you to like Joyce, and your passion for him grew out of your own superior taste, intellectual fortitude, and straight-up awesomeness.  But if everyone started reading Portrait of the Artist, your taste suddenly isn’t all that unique.  Even worse, maybe people will start assuming that you like Joyce because everyone else likes Joyce.

So Oprah’s Book Club made “good” books – books that had been formerly chosen by smaller groups of intellectual elitists and bibliophiles – bestsellers.  And she did pick legitimately excellent books, so suddenly, carrying around a good book wasn’t a sign of taste – it was potentially a sign of your inability to think for yourself.  No one likes to be accused of following the crowd – especially in the U.S., where individualism has always been an ideal held in high regard.

The popularization of “good” books as an assault on the authenticity of taste is part of the problem, but it would be short-sighted if we were to ignore the woman behind it.  It ought to be no secret that powerful women often draw a lot of criticism – arguably more than powerful men.  To be honest, I’m still at a loss for why so many people positively loathe Hillary Clinton – I’ve met many people who don’t like her, and I still have yet to hear a reason why that I can understand.  While millions love her, Oprah is still disparaged again and again.  Not only is she powerful, it’s women who like her – and as we all know, everything that girls like sucks: chick flicks, chick lit, the Volkswagen bug (the “new” one – not the “new new” version), the color pink, and purse dogs.  Even feminists don’t like Oprah.  In a rather mystifying piece featured on the Bitch blogs, Oprah was lampooned for, of all things, being too egotistical.  In response to Oprah receiving a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010, JDTress writes:

It’s not that Oprah’s accomplishments don’t astound. It’s that she seems to get everything, and now in turn seems to believe she deserves it.  “This feels like an official American citizenship in a very exclusive club of artists and contributors to the nation in a very special way,” Oprah said. “It feels like an elevated kind of award and there aren’t many in this category. They look at your work, your life work, who you are as a human being and the spirit of who you are as a human being. Not many honors look at that depth.”

To reiterate, the argument that JDTress makes here is that Oprah has achieved astounding things, has gotten “everything” (whatever that means), but the problem is that she believes she “deserves” it all.  I mean, how dare this successful woman not act humble, modest, and as if she doesn’t deserve any recognition for her admittedly astounding accomplishments.  The nerve!

So, to rehash: people hate Oprah’s Book Club because a) it made reading “good” literature mainstream (an assault on the taste and authenticity of people who care about such things), b) Oprah is a girl thing – walking around with “O” sticker on the cover of your book is akin to carrying around an iPhone in a sparkly case – EWWWWW! and c) it bears the name of a really powerful women – a woman who is disliked often because she is powerful (how dare she act like she deserved a Kennedy Center Honor??!!  I mean REALLY!!!).

But, as Hodgman said in his tweets, it’s hard to deny the impact Oprah has had on reading, and on publishing.  While it’s certainly a little offensive to claim that the only reason people read is because Oprah told them to, it’s no stretch to claim that publishers who managed to get that “O” slapped on the cover of one of their books made a lot of money.  During the tenure of Oprah’s Book Club, the consumption of literature saw a vast change, and it stands to reason that reading culture will change again now that it’s been retired.

I will say this, though: I certainly think it’s pretty fucking cool that millions of people stormed their local bookstores to get their hands on a copy of a book – and that so many people bought and read things like Faulkner and Tolstoy and weren’t afraid to read them.  I, for one, will miss the culture of Oprah’s Book Club, even if I never did care for the stickers.

Women’s Bodies are Obscene

18 May

Sociological Images is one of my favorite blogs.  Today, this piece popped up in my reader, and I found it particularly interesting.  Essentially, a male model with fairly androgynous features, as well as female-coded hair and makeup, appears on the cover of Dossier magazine, bare-chested and posing as if ze is removing zir shirt.  Apparently, Barnes and Noble and Borders both sold the magazine wrapped in plastic, the way Playboy and Hustler are sold, with the masthead visible, but the rest of the cover image obscured.

There’s a lot going on here, as Lisa says:

Explaining why it is legal for men to be shirtless in public but illegal for women to do the same, most Americans would probably refer to the fact that women have breasts and men have chests.  Breasts, after all, are… these things. They incite us, disgust us, send us into grabby fits.  They’re just so there.  They force us to contend with them; they’re bouncy or flat or pointy or pendulous and sometimes they’re plain missing!  They demand their individuality!  Why won’t they obey some sort of law and order!

Much better to contain those babies.

Chests… well they do have those haunting nipples… but they’re just less unruly, right? Not a threat to public order at all.

She goes on to say that it’s not as simple as that.  Some women have small breasts (or no breasts), and some men have breasts that are bigger than some women’s – but even then, dudes with moobs are allowed to be out in public with no shirt on, but women with “mosquito bites” (as my mom used to refer to small breasts when I was younger) aren’t.  I actually learned this lesson the hard way when I was a little squirt of a six-year-old with no breasts.  I used to run around naked at home, so I decided it would be cool to run around with my shirt off during recess at school like some of the other boys were doing.  No go, said the principal, and I got in trouble (and laughed at by all of the girls in my class).

So because the male model, Andrej Pejic, is deliberately photographed to look androgynous, Dossier‘s distributors apparently took the “better safe than sorry” route and wrapped the rag as one would wrap up porn.

One of the things I like best about Sociological Images is that it doesn’t offer a ton of commentary – the legwork is left up to the reader.  Lisa does not answer the most important question that this cover of Dossier brings up: why are women’s chests obscene, and men’s chests aren’t?  Because clearly, as Lisa says, it really doesn’t have much to do with breasts.  Andrej Pejic doesn’t have breasts – it’s the female coding in the image that makes it obscene, not his bare chest.

I think there is no one correct answer to this.  Probably one of the more popular theories is that because women don’t undergo dramatic, visible changes when they become aroused (i.e. they don’t have erections), it’s assumed that they’re always ready and receptive to sex, and therefore, women – and their bodies – are inherently more sexual, and sex, for some reason, is obscene.  But consider the following:

In this video about labiaplasty (a procedure in which women will have their inner labia surgically modified to make their vaginas look “neat”), the trend is linked to obscenity laws in Australia, in which showing the inner lips of a vagina is considered “obscene” but “neat” vaginas are not (video is, obviously, NSFW – which is funny, right?).

I would guess here too that the protrusion of the vaginal lips is perhaps considered more sexual than the “neat” vagina.  Which just means that ladybits are TOO SEXY for us to handle.

Of course, on the flip side, I know of no obscenity hierarchy when it comes to penises – they’re all obscene.

Getting to Know You

15 May

I’ve started a lot of blogs.  I’ve also abandoned a lot of blogs.  I’ve done the “getting to know you” post several times, and each time, it’s kind of different.  Maybe a few months ago, I would have classified the “getting to know you” post as a chore – and a tedious one at that, but now, I think it’s pretty cool that every time I sit down to write something about myself, I have a new perspective, or something big enough has happened that my personal narrative is worth changing.  The thing I like best about people is their dynamism, and I suppose that’s the thing I like best about myself, too.

So hello, there!  I’m Megan.  I write a lot, and it occurred to me that the fancy writers who actually get jobs doing what they love to do have websites.  So this is mine, and I intend to use it to write about whatever I feel like.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I write on the internet a lot, and that I have a few blogs going.  If you’re an internet junkie like I am, you’re probably asking yourself why I’m not linking to them.  This is because formerly, I have used my real name in my online writing, and I decided several months ago that I didn’t feel particularly safe doing so.  So this here is really my attempt to adopt a pen name and make it work for me.  Sorry.  My intent is to create enough content here so that any readers won’t miss the content I’ve posted elsewhere.  I am, as I mention again and again, fairly prolific, so I doubt this will be much of a problem.

Additionally, I wanted a place where I could write about whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it.  Around most of the web, I write about feminism and fat acceptance, so I expect to do the same here, but I also like things like television and books and movies and NPR and science and cats and greasy food… so I expect I’ll do some writing about all of that too.

I can’t imagine from this first “getting to know you” post that anyone is exactly jumping up and down to hire me, or to commission me for an article or blog post, but on the off chance that you are, you ought to email me and let me know, at which point, I will get so excited I’ll pee, and then I’ll work really super hard for you.  That’s how I roll.

Personal information?  Well, if you insist:

I live in Chicago, but I’m not originally from here (so many of us aren’t).  I work in the nonprofit sector.  I identify as queer, I’m sex-positive and pro-kink, I’m a feminist and I spend much of my time being offended, and I like to take pictures when I remember to lug my camera with me.  I sing (in the shower), I journal, and apparently, my taste in home furnishings is abysmal.  I’m also pretty far out of touch with pop culture and I like it that way, and I like novelists who do weird, experimental, daring work.

Additionally, I’m amazing.

And I think that wraps up the “getting to know you” post, which – even though I don’t consider it as tedious as I used to – is still a bit of an awkward thing to write.  I promise I’ll be more interesting next time.