South African literary scholar Rita Barnard reflects on her time working for the Oprah Winfrey Show.
South African literary scholar Rita Barnard, now based in the United States, reflects on her time working for the Oprah Winfrey Show in Oprah’s Paton, or South Africa and the Globalisation of Suffering, a chapter in Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, edited by Andrew van der Vlies (Wits University Press). This is an edited extract.
It is often said that the United States’s reception of South African literature and culture is ahistorical. In his account of Hollywood anti-apartheid films of the 1980s (Cry Freedom, A World Apart and Dry White Season), Rob Nixon notes how little effort was made to give these films any period specificity, even though they refer to very different moments in the struggle: US and British anti-apartheid movements needed to “mobilise around an image of apartheid as a stable, almost timeless referent for iniquity”.
Loren Kruger has suggested that the US reception has pretty much relied on a single image, which is made to signify “South Africa”. In the 1980s, when audiences seemed to value anti-apartheid literature for a sense of vicarious political urgency, “South Africa” seemed to be frozen on June 16 1976 and is captured in the image of Hector Pieterson being carried off by his lamenting companions. Now foreign observers seem stuck in 1994, with the image of Mandela being sworn in as leader of what Jeremy Cronin has sardonically called the “winning nation”.
Oprah Winfrey’s own comments on Cry, The Beloved Country (as “a timeless story of love, home, courage and endurance”) are intended to claim for the novel the permanent and transcendent status of the classic, but her reading of the novel as a work about the overcoming of adversity is strictly a post-apartheid one and is hugely revealing of the ways in which the South African mediascape is constructed and consumed at the present time.
The questions I received from Winfrey’s readers, however, seemed to reveal at least some effort to understand Paton in a historical way. One reader wanted to know about the origins and history of Afrikaans, another about current sociopolitical conditions in South Africa — a question that suggests an awareness that history has moved on since Cry, The Beloved Country was published and that the novel may no longer provide an adequate social optic. Yet another wanted to know about the relationship between apartheid and Aids, a question that has no bearing on the novel, but does reveal a desire to achieve a causal and chronological perspective on matters that Winfrey’s TV programme featuring the novel signally fails to provide.
Several readers sought comparative perspectives: one asked about the connections and differences between South African and US race relations; another wanted to know how the novel’s perspective on migration compared to other stories of immigrants elsewhere in the world (a useful question, because it enabled me to make some points about the novel’s sentimental urbophobia).
Critics of the first run of Oprah’s Book Club often point out how seldom the terminology of literary criticism was deployed in the televised book discussion sessions with invited readers. But the question-and-answer sessions elicited questions about the novel’s symbolism and even one (probably from a teacher) asking me whether the “pedagogy of the oppressed” could be applied to the novel. But I could detect ways in which the emotional and woman-centred hermeneutic fostered by Winfrey’s earlier book club may have shaped readers’ responses.
A number of questions revealed a frustration with the novel’s lack of interest in women and rightly underscored Paton’s patriarchal and paternalistic inclinations. Cry, The Beloved Country, after all, is a novel about fathers and sons: the female characters are indeed quite peripheral to its central concerns. I was able to concur with these perceptions.
There were also several questions that literary academics might fault for assuming that fiction and reality are seamlessly connected: an approach that is encouraged by Winfrey’s own practice of discovering biographical resonances among readers, authors and characters.
Several readers, presuming that figures in books are legible as psyches, wanted to understand the characters’ motivations: Why do Kumalo and Jarvis not share their grief with their wives? Why does Gertrude suddenly change her mind about leaving Johannesburg? At first I tried to field these questions, but in the end I suggested that the recurrence of these difficulties told us something about the novel; that, as JM Coetzee has observed, we are dealing here with ethical rather than psychological beings. I also suggested, as gently as I could, that characters were not people, that one should perhaps not ask why Kumalo holds back his power, but rather why Paton presents him as holding back: a formulation more likely to produce a critical probing of Paton’s suspicious treatment of black militancy in the novel.
Perhaps the most interesting questions were the ones that revealed a self-consciousness about different communities of reception — this despite the fact that Oprah, with her rags-to-riches biography, does much to mitigate sensitivities about class-based discriminations. “Do you think,” one reader asked, “that educated readers find this novel profound or naive? I feel its very simplicity and directness are responsible for its unique beauty, but it seems rare in literature.” This question seemed to me to require some delicacy. I did not want to destroy the reader’s pleasure in the novel, but I wanted to be honest about Cry, The Beloved Country’s academic reputation. This reputation has often hinged on critics’ response to the novel’s emotionality: on the fact that the novel, as Coetzee put it, escapes sentimentality solely “by the sheer power of its sentiment”, by the very force of the emotion by which Paton himself was overmastered in the process of writing. I tried to suggest that there are reasons why some academic critics should criticise the novel’s overwhelming affect of grief and sorrow, which prevents any adequate treatment of the sociopolitical issues that give rise to the tragedy.
But any critique of Cry, The Beloved Country’s emotionalism is rapidly lost in the welter of voices that constitute Winfrey’s megatext. It is not surprising that the single comment from the members-only chat room to be featured in the open-access “your guide” feature should be one that casts any reservations about the novel’s sentimentality right out the window: “Use more empathy and less intellect to read,” the contributor advises, “and you’ll understand why this book is an eye-opener.” The project of the Oprah Winfrey Show over the years has not only been to teach the audience “that emotions are to be embraced” but, more ambitiously, as Eva Illouz has argued, also to devise a cultural form through which to process and manage suffering in the contemporary world: a world where psychic pain is pervasive and the prevailing ideology treats happiness as dependent on “successful self-management”.
The vehicle for such a processing is narrative (it is no wonder that books should come to feature so centrally in Harpo Inc’s concerns) and, most characteristically, the “therapeutic biography” of which Winfrey’s own is the prime example.
Join these book discussions
Book cultures and the power and politics of the book in South Africa will be discussed at two public events, to which admission is free.
Andrew van der Vlies, editor of Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, and professors Isabel Hofmeyr and Archie Dick will take part in a panel discussion chaired by writer Ashlee Neser. The discussion will take place on September 12 at 6.30pm at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. For more information, phone 011 717 4232.
Van der Vlies, author Patrick Flanery and academics Hedley Twidle and Deborah Seddon will form a panel at the Open Book Festival on September 21 from 10am to 11am. The venue is Fugard Studio, Caledon Street, District 6, Cape Town. For more information, visit Openbookfestival.co.za or phone 021 462 2425.