Because Oprah Kicks Ass

July 11, 2009

I often end up stuck in conversations where I feel compelled to defend my choices in literature. Case in point: I once had a conversation with a hipster dude (H.D.) who got very upset when I said I didn’t really dig J.D. Salinger. H.D. asked me which of Salinger’s books I had read, no doubt expecting me to say I’d read the Catcher in the Rye, and all excited to school me on Franny and Zooey. When I said I had read all of Salinger’s work, I think his ego was a little bruised. Not only was I unimpressed by the author who represented everything H.D. identified himself with, I actually knew what I was talking about. So H.D. counterattacked. He asked me who my favorite novelists were. I told him I like Morrison, Kingsolver, and Winterson. He smirked and said, “All women. And all part of Oprah’s book of the month club. What do you think about that?”

Mostly I thought I wanted to tell him to take Nine Stories and shove it up his ass. But I decided to take the bait, and talked to H.D. a little bit about how female authors are routinely undervalued, and how I prefer to read books where female characters are treated with seriousness and respect. I love me some John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, but lets be honest: the women in their stories are mothers or whores, they’re completely one-dimensional, they’re usually evil, and they’re completely boring. Toni Morrison’s heartbreakingly complex Sethe in Beloved is just so much more interesting and realistic than any female character I’ve seen in a book written by a man. Though I know Don DeLillo tries really hard.

I like to read about people I can identify with. I think this is a fairly common human trait. In fact, I find it very strange that H.D. and many other men out there refuse to acknowledge that they prefer novels by and about men, and instead pretend that their preferences are solely based on the rational, objective “merit” of the books, and their “universal” human messages (This just in!!! Art is subjective!!! Also: turns out men are not the default setting for humanity!!!).

I also defended Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah is a woman who has survived some serious shit. And man, she has it together. She devotes her life to helping others the best way she knows how. The other day, I heard Oprah say that she has spent her life “talking to women, and any men who would listen, about how to live their best life.”

I thought that was so profound. Here is a person who wants nothing except to help people… She’s got all the money and fame and power she could want. Unlike pretty much everyone else on TV, all Oprah wants to do at this point in her life is make people’s lives better, and most men refuse to listen to what she has to say. In fact, most men ridicule her. So she talks to women. And men don’t learn about self-care, despite the fact that they probably need it more than women. I find that sad.

I also think it’s way fucked up that Oprah, who is quite obviously brilliant, is routinely dismissed as a lightweight who should not be taken seriously. I wonder if this is because she’s a black woman who discusses emotions and relationships in a culture that devalues black people, women, emotions and relationships… Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s completely obvious. I just said “I wonder” as a rhetorical device.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah. Books.

There are obviously many female authors who buy into patriarchal narratives (In fact, I’m farting in Candice Bushnell’s general direction as I write this). But if I’m going to find novelists interested in presenting a non-patriarchal counternarrative, it is likely that most of those novelists will be women, since men in a patriarchy are conditioned to believe that they’re benefiting from women’s subjugation (they aren’t, but that’s a post for another day). I know it’s weird and probably a sign of hysteria of some sort, but I have this strange preference for art that does not present people like me as inherently lacking and inferior, or at best irrelevant. Which means that, given our cultural context, I tend to prefer books by women.

So yeah, I like a lot of the same books Oprah does. And? Anyone who has a problem with that can kiss my best life living ass.