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Oprah taps Dickens for her book club. Yawn.

December 6, 2010

Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

Wow, Oprah’s really gone out on a limb with the latest selection for her televised book club, a double helping of Dickens: Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. What’s next, a food show featuring mayonnaise and Wonder Bread, marshmallows and angel food cake?

No offense to Mr. Dickens, who was sort of the Jonathan Franzen of the 19th century, and a damned fine social observer. But talk about your dead white males! Dickens’ calcified bust sits smack in the middle of the literary canon, wreathed in all the glory freshman English teachers can lavish upon it.

Yeah, yeah, I know A Tale of Two Cities has all that “best of times, worst of times” foorah at the beginning, and all that noble Ronald Coleman “tis a fah, fah bettah thing I do” blah blah as he mounts the steps to the guillotine at the end.

And of course Great Expectations, the closest thing to a Dickens masterpiece, is half of a really, really good novel. That would be the first half, when Pip, a poor boy, meets an escaped convict who scares him into stealing food. There’s the crazy Miss Havisham stuff, and lovely cruel Estelle — all nicely turned in tight language.

But Dickens, like Twain, lacked the conviction of his talent, preferring to be popular rather than great, and indulges the second half of the novel in the sentimentality that mars so much of his work. It’s the kind of thing that had me rooting for Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist.

Oh, all right, obviously that unpleasant whine you hear is the sound of a peeve being petted or an ax grinding with an unseemly intensity. I’m sure scholars are lining up at the Modern Language Association to pummel me into a gritty paste (you should have seen what happened a few years ago when I dared to call John Steinbeck a “hack”–I barely escaped with my life!).

The (de)merits of Dickens notwithstanding, don’t you wish Oprah would be a little more daring? Dickens is doubtless already familiar to the kind of middle-brow reader who follows Oprah. He doesn’t need a latter-day press agent.

If Oprah wanted to travel to Victorian times, scads of underappreciated authors are waiting balefully to be noticed, like dogs at the pound. I’m talking about writers just as accessible and satisfying as Dickens. Here are a few suggestions:

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone. Georges Du Maurier: Trilby. Benjamin Disraeli: Sybil. Frances Trollope: The Vicar of Wrexhill. Joseph Conrad: An Outcast of the Islands. Stendhal:  The Charterhouse of Parma. Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South. Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped. Honore de Balzac: Pere Goriot. Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men in a Boat. Helen Hunt Jackson: Ramona.

I’ve tried to keep this list to writers who are somewhat obscure. So: No Hardy, no James, no Tolstoy, no Austen, no Trollope (at least not Anthony), no Bronte, no Twain, no Alcott, no Flaubert, no Dumas, no George Eliot. You might criticize me for the Stevenson (really now: who among you has actually read Kidnapped?), but I’ve left off two of my absolute faves: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and Thackaray’s Vanity Fair on the grounds they’re too well known.

The books on my list are often provocative, too. Trilby, great entertainment though it may be, features an ugly strain of what used to be thought benign anti-Semitism. Indeed, Trilby‘s Svengali is, after Shylock and Fagin, the most important anti-Semitic character in fiction. What do we do when such a book lives on? We read and talk about it, that’s what.

On the other hand, though, Ramona depicts hardship and oppression of Indians and Mexicans with a multiculturalism several generations ahead of its time. The Vicar of Wrexhill is adamantly anti-Evangelical (from an Anglican point of view). An Outcast of the Islands, like much of Conrad’s work, presents a fine-grained view of colonialism (without completely repudiating it).

And Three Men in a Boat is simply the funniest book ever written, and I never miss an opportunity to mention it.

Any of the books on my list would incite more profitable discussion than the predictable topics suggested by Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities, overhandled as they are.

Oh, well, I suppose I should be less churlish and more grateful that a figure of Oprah’s stature (and that’s a population of one) is talking about literature on TV at all. What beloved but neglected classics do you wish she’d chosen?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 6, 2010 2:39 pm

    Forget obscure. How can you talk about Victorian literature without mentioning Jane Austen or Thacaray’s “Vanity Fair.” Or John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2010 9:32 am

      Uh, I said in the blog I was skipping things everyone knew from school…

  2. Sean Piccoli permalink
    December 7, 2010 8:00 am

    Next week on Oprah, the odious, fetid corpses of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Don’t miss it!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2010 9:33 am

      Founding in a death clench on an ice floe off Antarctica!

  3. December 8, 2010 8:48 am

    She chose Dickens? How very (yawn) exciting.

    I’ve read my copy of Three Men in a Boat (and not forgetting the dog Montmorency) so many times the covers are off and I find it just as funny and relevant each time. I had no idea it was obscure. Three Men in the Bummel isn’t bad either.

    Can’t think of a beloved but neglected Victorian classic right now but a Caribbean classic would certainly perk me up. I see she’s had one of Danticat’s, but it’s about time for a Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, Andrew Salkey, Samuel Selvon, Maryse Conde, Earl Lovelace or some such, methinks.

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