Friday, March 30, 2007

Oprah and Cormac, sittin', drinkin' tea,/R-E-A-D-I-N-G

Oprah Winfrey beams at her newest author-choice (but probably wishes he'd at least wear a coat and tie--company's comin', after all)

Below is the first sentence of a Yahoo! News story (that, for some reason I'm having trouble linking to) announcing not only Oprah Winfrey's selection of The Road for her book club but also--gasp!!--an upcoming interview with him . . . on television. (a partial review, and links to some better ones, is here)

NEW YORK - Before Wednesday, few could have imagined the names "Oprah Winfrey" and "Cormac McCarthy" appearing in the same sentence.
--Hillele Italie

No kidding, for all sorts of reasons, some of which I'll get into below.

Two fellow bloggers have asked me, knowing me to be rather immoderate in my admiration for McCarthy's art, what I make of this out-of-far-FAR-left-field announcement if there ever was one. Well, the short answer is: as you can tell, I'm stunned, but I don't begrudge him his choices--or Winfrey's either, for that matter.

There is deeply ingrained in us collectively the suspicion that if a writer's work is popular it's aesthetically suspect. Jonathan Franzen's very public revulsion (what else to call it?) that Winfrey selected his novel The Corrections for her book club was borne of that: Serious Novelist that he is, he wanted assiduously to avoid the taint that Popularity (not to mention, I suspect, the guilt by association of being included on a list of authors including Billie Letts) leaves on the artistic enterprise. But you know? To me, Franzen came off looking arrogant and èlitist as a result of all that.

I can't say as I agree with all of Winfrey's choices for the club. They have tended to be rather same-y in their plots and themes and rather pedestrian in their writing. There's also anecdotal evidence that the Club's clout is such that it has affected the choices publishing houses make regarding what manuscripts to buy from newer writers. That's not an entirely good thing in these days of reduced numbers of readers if certain kinds of writing are crowding out other kinds. Having said that, though, I doubt few can argue with the greater good of the Club--it has gotten people browsing shelves in bookstores and on Amazon. So what if there are a few clunkers among her choices? There in the bookshops, the clunkers are right next to the lunkers.

McCarthy's The Road is a lunker of a novel, right up there with his very best work. But most people, I think, are surprised by this choice because, let's face it: The Road is not exactly the sort of fare that Winfrey has promoted in the past. It has cannibalism in it, after all. But what surprises me more is that this announcement cuts completely against the grain of McCarthy's long-time reputation as Ascetic Writer, as someone far more interested in making Art than in making money.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean, taken from the 1992 New York Times Book Review (free registration required to read the whole thing) that he gave when All the Pretty Horses was published--with the stipulation that he never give another interview:
"We lived in total poverty," says [McCarthy's] second [wife], Annie DeLisle, now a restaurateur in Florida. For nearly eight years they lived in a dairy barn outside Knoxville. "We were bathing in the lake," she says with some nostalgia. "Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week."

Want another one? Here you go:
In 1961 he married Lee Holleman, whom he had met at college; they had a son, Cullen (now an architecture student at Princeton), and quickly divorced, the yet-unpublished writer taking off for Asheville, N.C., and New Orleans. Asked if he had ever paid alimony, McCarthy snorts. "With what?" He recalls his expulsion from a $40-a-month room in the French Quarter for nonpayment of rent. (emphasis added)

The rest of the article is pretty much in that vein. McCarthy comes across as gruffily friendly but close-mouthed about his art (but he says he admires Faulkner and Melville--not that that's any huge revelation to someone who's read all three writers) and fulfilling an agent's request in return for a request that he's made. At any rate, a superficial read of the interview might lead one to think McCarthy had made the choices he'd made, up to that time, for the sake of his art. But no, not really: "The only mystery is that there is no mystery," says Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, and I suspect that that works pretty well as an aesthetic principle for McCarthy as well. So no wonder he turned down the offers of money to talk about his books; no wonder that he also says in the article that teaching writing is "a racket."

Except: All the Pretty Horses' (well-deserved) acclaim and popularity marked what has become a turn away from parts of that former life. He has continued to write very well, so the romantic assumption that there's a correlation between an artist's suffering and his/her art's quality seems not to be true in McCarthy's case. He has proven himself as a consummate writer, on his own terms, and after more than 20 years of writing excellent novels that went all but unread. Why not reap some of the benefits of success--especially when that success is the result of not having compromised his art?

Or as a reviewer of Tom Petty's album Damn the Torpedoes wrote by way of response to fans who said that with that album Petty had sold out, "If that's selling out, then everyone should do it."

As for Oprah Winfrey, quite apart from her good taste I have to admire her willingness to choose a novel that is so very different from her previous choices for the club. It's something like a gauntlet thrown at her audience's feet, yes; but she's also risking a bit of her public image as well. The Road is not the choice of a woman who wants to infantilize her audience or who wants her audience to see her as a very wealthy BFF virtually air-kissing each and every one of them every day. Good for her. Good for McCarthy. Good for her audience. Good for, potentially, other "serious" writers. Good for everyone. Really.

UPDATE: Andy of A Mile from the Beach has another take on this story here.

Technorati tags:
, , ,


R. Sherman said...

I don't wish to come across as the over-zealous new convert, so I'll defer to your guidance. After all, you are the C. McCarthy High Priest. (At Andy's, Ariel said that Oprah was "unworthy" of joining our movement.

Anyway, let's just hope she doesn't squeeze him between segments on breast augmentation and "Window Treatments Are Your Friends."


John B. said...

I understand that fear. I get the sense from that news release you linked to, though, that she is not just cognizant of the fact that this book and author are very different from past choices, she's also respectful of that.

That's my hope, at least. It could also just be that, at age 73, secure in the knowledge that his place in the pantheon of great American writers is set, McCarthy knows this choice can't hurt him if it turns out to be a missttep. He really doesn't have anything to prove--except, perhaps, his appeal to a larger audience . . . some of whom are certain to go see No Country for Old Men this winter.

Andy said...

Excellent take, John. As you undoubtedly noticed in my take on this story, I viewed this with tongue planted quite firmly in cheek. This is writing that will challenge the regular O-club reader, and I applaud her for selecting this.

It's just further proof to me that those of us in this blogging community are the one's on the leading edge of this movement. ;-)

Ariel said...

Insightful commentary, John. I always wince when I see Oprah's seal of approval on a book I like, but that has more to do with her air-head spirituality than the potential benefits for the writer and readers.

Here's hoping that McCarthy comes out of this smelling like Texas dirt and ozone.

Gwynne said...

I must confess not knowing McCarthy as a writer but fully intend to read The Road after reading this. I enjoyed your passionate take on him and the upcoming interview with sounds like one to watch.

Steve said...

I think it's to Oprah's credit that her choices are often unpredictable and that they cause so much of a stir. It shows that she really does care about directing the attention of her viewers to quality literature that they have perhaps not come across because of the overall snottiness of the literary world creates superficial divisions between readers.