Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.
— Oscar Wilde
Oprah Winfrey is a phenomenon. Or so claims Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson in an edited book by that name, recently out from University of Kentucky Press. Both are authors of such riveting reads as Turbo Chicks (Harris) and ‘There She is, Miss America’ (Watson). So, the scene is set: we are going to read about the activity of watching Oprah and the phenomenon of ‘self-actualization’. The term (theirs) sounds somewhat more cumbersome than the rather pleasant idea of enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. But no matter: we read, they watch, which is ironic, because Harris, by her own confession, doesn’t watch television, or at least can’t receive it.
The editors are good enough to tell us that the central message of Oprah is ‘that anyone can be a success regardless of background and upbringing.’
And so can Forest Gump but then again, that makes the reality no less tangible. But of course, saving soldiers in Vietnam from rampant napalming friendly fire, shaking LBJ’s hand and running a shrimp business are ‘self-actualizing’ measures. Both have television to thank for that and that perhaps is the core message.
Presume every saint a sinner, writes George Orwell. But Winfrey, while she may have or may not have read Orwell (was he ever featured on her reading list?), was aware of the business she was collaring with speed and precision. She is ahead of the game. Sensing the claws of investigative journalists and televangelist vultures, she confessed she was no saint and let the words cleanse her. Child abuse was revealed. A child was born, and lost, to her when she was fourteen. The lifestyle show is dirty, especially one where lifestyles are promoted the way Smith and Wollensky promotes their pea soup specialty.
The pitfalls of sainthood are thus avoided by confessing the sin. The truth set her, and her purse, free. What might have been alms turned into donations, which in turn turned into huge gate and studio receipts. The crowds came in to hear a woman who makes Benny Hinn look like a street preacher. In so doing, one is then free to pander to every whim: I am guilty, so sin strongly with me. I lost weight to enter the glossy columns of Vogue; then put it on again. (Oh Winfrey, you are so naughty.) Sinning with the grinner has been perfected. Admit the crinkles and the flaws, and let celluloid media do the rest.
The audience helps. Oprah’s show is not a feat of zoo-keeping in the way Jerry Springer’s is: let in the gun-toting tranny in please and we will do the rest. No, Winfrey prefers a measured approach before people with cash and time to spend on a weekday afternoon, lubricated with tears and reflection. To those who argue that her show has the intellectual weight of a duvet, she has one retort: the book club. We think here on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Such thinking comes at a price. The Oprah book club narrows the activity of reading to a Winfrey fetish and we are all delighted by it. If the book does not materialise in the club’s promotions lists, is it worth anything less? Probably not. It is beside the point that East of Eden should be a classic and a bestseller, irrespective of Oprah’s prodding interventions to her readers that drive up the number of purchases in Borders. The difference between a classic and a best seller still remains in Oprah-land: one just gathers dust, and the other might actually be sold because she told you that it should.
Ah, says a review in Business Weekly (Oct 10, 2005), she fills a void in instruction to the average reader on what to buy. What that is, is not entirely clear. The inane, bile-spinning, carrion-feasting, chilly blogosphere, retching with reviews and commentary, might suggest alternatives, but the readers are left to make their own choices. Now that can be a mistake, and Oprah’s demesne of happy-clapping readers suggests that it could be.
What Winfrey gives is saccharine commentary, praise and the starry recommendation: ‘read this book’. And the creation of ‘communities’ of enthusiastic readers. Like a Pentecostal charge to heaven in a service, we can face the tribulations of a classic with Winfrey’s consoling hand in one and the book in the other. Whether this will include this edited book remains to be seen. Having marketed her past, Winfrey the sinner now has a fine future.
BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com