The buzz on books this summer was all about the non-revelations of a former first lady who stuck by her philandering man and a kid wizard’s new adolescent angst. But after Hillary and just before Harry, there was Oprah.
Much like the candid survivors of various personal traumas who appear on her show, Oprah’s Book Club has risen from the ashes and undergone a makeover. Whereas the old Book Club selected works by contemporary writers (some more obscure than others but none after the fact), the new Oprah’s Book Club will showcase books it deems tried-and-true classics. That means no more launching the careers of would-be Wally Lambs. No more episodes devoted to meeting a book club author in person, now that the lucky writer will most likely be dead. And no more Toni Morrison.
Yes, the newest addition to the Oprah pantheon is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, published in 1952. “Whoo!” said Oprah on the episode in which she announced the book club’s return. “John Steinbeck, wherever he is today in the spirit world, is very happy about this. I tell you all.”
Oprah is no stranger to what happens when the worlds of mass culture and high culture collide. The last time she faced off with a literary snob-type, in the form of author Jonathan Franzen, she won, handily, and even emerged from the fray looking like the classier party. Two years ago, Franzen’s book The Corrections was anointed the next Big Bestselling Oprah Book. Franzen’s delighted publisher began working the presses overtime, pumping out thousands more copies of The Corrections, all with Oprah’s Book Club seal branded directly onto the front cover. But Franzen, who had himself for years been piling on the hype for his book, had other designs about the fate of his novel and its intended clientele: New York Review of Books subscribers rather than, say, the entire cult of Oprah. He made some nasty comments to a reporter, Oprah returned the favor by quietly disinviting him from her show, and even after Franzen tried to apologize, he was left looking like an elitist pig.
Soon after, Oprah retired the Book Club citing that she no longer had time to be reading for new picks. But the Franzen flap had at least something to do with the demise of the club after its astoundingly successful six-year run. It had soured what had until then been a rosy arrangement between writers, publishers, and Oprah; and all because Franzen had drawn a line in the sand between his work, presumably in the class of “literary novels,” and Oprah’s inconsistent picks, the worst of which are vapid emotional vacations that don’t hold up to much scrutiny.
All of which makes her latest decision to spread “classics” completely fascinating. Instead of caving in to naysayers who think she’s not qualified to be, in a sense, teaching literature, she’s now trying to claim a bit of that high art ground for herself. And this time around, the marketing has shifted gears too. One of Franzen’s complaints had been that instead of using, for instance, a removable sticker to indicate that a book is an Oprah selection, the “O” logo is always printed right onto the cover. For the image-conscious reader, carrying a book with an Oprah seal plastered on the front is a major faux pas, especially if it’s a book like The Corrections that can hold its own, with or without Oprah’s endorsement.
But it’s not just about prima donna authors and embarrassed consumers. When the seal is printed directly onto the book, it implies that the book has little stature independent of Oprah. And for many of the books she’s chosen, that’s pretty accurate. But in the case of East of Eden, Oprah’s not shedding too much new light on a book that’s been taught in high schools for years. Hence, the seal is not on the book itself but on a giant red wraparound label that reads: “THE BOOK THAT BROUGHT OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB BACK.” The label comes straight off, and the book turns out to be part of Penguin’s Steinbeck Centennial Edition series, a marketing ploy in and of itself but one that’s unrelated to Oprah. By not printing her seal directly onto the book’s cover, Oprah is giving a nod to the fact that her new book club is all about “classics,” novels that in theory have the kind of lasting power that transcends the book club and bestseller lists.
But then bestseller lists never hurt. This summer, the Oprah touch shot East of Eden up to the number two spot nationwide, edging out Clinton’s Living History and dispelling any doubts that Americans weren’t eager to pack a 601-page book published 51 years ago to the beach. But Oprah isn’t just good for the book business. She’s great for the reading business too. “[East of Eden’s] not like Shakespeare, or even Faulkner; it’s reader-friendly,” Oprah told a Florida paper this summer. “I wanted to lead people down this path without them thinking they’re back in school. When you read something that’s good and juicy and it’s called literature, then you’re not closed to the idea of it.”
All well and good, but that makes it all the more disheartening to report that East of Eden is a complete dud. And not just from the perspective of an academic such as Harold Bloom, who once wrote that nothing by Steinbeck after The Grapes of Wrath, including East of Eden, deserves re-reading. We’re not talking about getting through this book twice, but just once. Oprah promised her readers a rip-roaring plot—“like a movie,” “you just don’t want it to end”—and every one of the juicy Danielle Steele essentials—“[East of Eden] has it all: love and betrayal and greed and murder and sex.” But when the love has no resonance or dimension and the betrayal and murder seem deserved because a character has been written with such dullness, the book doesn’t pass muster as a beach read, let alone a tome to stand the test of time. And the sex? Don’t let Oprah fool you. She’s mostly referring to the decidedly unsexy whorehouse that serves as a set piece in the second half of the book.
The book certainly has ambition to spare. Steinbeck wrote it as a partly autobiographical retelling of the Book of Genesis, and the book’s central concern is with the pitting of good versus evil, both between individuals and within the human heart. After inheriting a fortune from his father, Adam Trask leaves behind an awkward relationship with his brother and heads west to the Salinas Valley in northern California to set up a farm. Adam’s an upstanding type, if a little obtuse, particularly as a judge of character. His new bride Cathy is a wicked ex-prostitute but no one sent Adam the memo. “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents,” Steinbeck writes in the novel. “Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places…And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?” That’s Cathy, and according to some accounts, Steinbeck based the character on an ex-wife. Yow.
Cathy gives birth to a pair of twin boys but she’s not one for domesticity, and she abandons her newborns and her home to go work at a whorehouse again, but not before shooting Adam in the shoulder. Adam survives, but he’s still entranced by his wife and for the rest of the novel, he and his sons try to come to terms with Cathy’s raw evil.
If Cathy seems like a bit of a cardboard cutout, she is. But the story is written in mythic proportions so it’s forgivable. What’s not is that every single character has that feeling of stiffness, as if they’re only puppets for Steinbeck’s big, yet very little, ideas on the meaning of life. One sideline figure, Lee, is a Chinese immigrant working as a servant for Adam and his sons. When Lee first enters the book, he delivers lines like, “Me talkee Chinese talk.” But soon enough, we learn that he’s more literate in his English than anyone in the family, and he starts spouting pseudo-Confucian platitudes on every page.
In fact, throughout the entire book, there’s a strange background noise, as if you can hear the gears in Steinbeck’s head turning and straining, trying to indoctrinate you into his world view, which he waits until page 411 to throttle you with. But by then, you’ve already seen this coming and it feels less like revelation than an uninteresting journal entry copied and pasted into a novel:
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. … There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
And that’s the Oprah moment. The payoff. Suddenly, Steinbeck is the spiritual guru who shows up for a few episodes and soon has a spin-off show of his own. And his lesson to us today is that we always have a choice to do good or evil, and that it’s up to us to take responsibility for those decisions. It’s a tidy enough statement, and it could have been its own article in the Oprah magazine (which is sprinkled this month with other wise one-liners from big names like Emily Dickinson, Emerson, and Oprah’s “new friend Salma Hayak”).
East of Eden, interestingly enough, was panned by critics when it was published more than 50 years ago, but loved by the public which bought it in droves and made it a number-one bestseller. And even though Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, his reputation is still under dispute among those who debate these things (Slate’s Chris Suellentrop wrote an instructive piece this summer on the topic). But don’t think Oprah doesn’t know all of this. “There are some who would argue that this is not really a `classic,’” she said in an interview this summer. “And I realized that that was a conversation that would come up over and over again. I just want to read great books without it becoming controversial.”
But East of Eden isn’t a great read, and that’s a shame because there is no shortage of classics that have been better-received and that can consume your every waking (and usually sleeping) minute they’re so good. And you certainly don’t need a special pass, like a degree in English, to appreciate them. The trouble with rubber-stamping a mediocre novel a “classic,” particularly when the audience is the uninitiated sort, is that it doesn’t leave much room for readers to make independent critical judgments. To Oprah’s credit, she finds room in the new book club section of her website to acknowledge East of Eden’s uneasy status among critics. But there’s also an area online called “Write a book review,” a kind of glorified online discussion board, in which a brave few have admitted to not liking the novel as much as they had hoped, only to be berated by other readers who instruct them to be more patient if they want to “get” the book and uncover all its hidden layers.
Along with the Oprah seal that’s printed on the book’s wraparound label, there should be a disclaimer that says it’s okay to not find some deeper meaning in the text or to not fill your copy with marginalia on all the biblical allusions. If widespread smarter reading is the goal, we don’t want a mass of people trying to draw blood from stones. Oprah’s on the right track: she’s sensitive to people’s apprehension of heavy books you only read in school, and she’s pitching her voice at all the right soothing tones. She might want to give her fans a little more credit, though, and next time feed them something that really cracks the world of literature open for them, not because it’s “like a movie” or has sex in it, but because it’s too masterful to do anything else.
Now that, to borrow a word from the Oprah parlance, would be empowering.