Letters to the Editor

Readers debate: Is Oprah good for books? Plus: Stop dissing "chick flicks"; why did A.M. Rosenthal save his scorn for black hatemongers?

By Letters to the Editor

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Reaching to the converted



Silence the snobs!



What, precisely, is Gavin McNett's point? I read two. First, that no matter what you read, you little lowbrow Oprahcites, you won't be as sophisticated as me, because my books are obscure and hard and your books carry the taint of being enjoyed by too many lowbrow proles, especially women (and we all know their intellectual capacities). And second, that even if you do read books that rate on my sophisto-meter, forget it, it doesn't really do you any good, because what book ever made someone wiser or more sophisticated, thus a better person?

What a sad bit of elitist-nihilist nonsense.

-- Dale Keiger

Senior writer, Johns Hopkins Magazine

Visiting associate professor, Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars

The purpose (and joy) of literature is to take the
reader outside of his immediate experience, challenge his opinions and
rouse his curiosity. The sentimental, familiar and "easy" books Oprah chooses do none of
these things. Mary Elizabeth Williams' argument, that pitching books to the afternoon TV
watchers at least gets them reading, seems a facile point. It simply means
that those new readers are ingesting the same sanitized, homogenized worldview in
printed form rather than from the television. Oprah has shrewdly, and perhaps
cynically, cultivated and commodified sentimentality and mediocrity.

Oprah wields a tremendous amount of influence
over a great number of people; people will buy the books she recommends. As this
is the case, why doesn't she use her influence to get people reading books that may
infuriate them, challenge them, force them to look up some words in a
dictionary, think about or form their own opinion on a subject?

By recommending bland, politically correct pieces of fluff, her choices are
virtually unimpeachable. Criticizing what is found within their pages will
instantly brand you a snob, a racist, a misogynist, an elitist. Debate and independent thinking has been
completely shut down.

Were Oprah to suggest a novel with a controversial viewpoint or an ambiguous
moral stance, she would compromise her position of social and moral
authority. Such a choice would acknowledge that the world does not operate in a system of
absolute right and wrong, or good and bad.

-- S.P. Hamlyn

Gavin McNett acknowledges America is reading more because of Oprah
Winfrey, but asserts that, if no challenging ideas exist in the club books,
no mind can be energized. So what if there are more readers? he asks.

So this: Reading -- even reading the trite and banal -- is a good sight better
than the aimless clicking of a remote control. Great ideas are not the only reason to read. So is that engine in every brain that can only be ignited when printed words are the catalyst of
images. The translation of verbal to visual inside the mind is a human's
most important form of exercise, the one that separates us from the beasts,
birds and branches.

So, if it takes a colored-between-the-lines Anna Quindlen novel to get someone to
turn a page instead of a dial, so be it. That's one more person who'll
think a little more and a little more vividly when the Starbucks perks the
next morning. So it won't be one who's willing to question the status quo? Fine. I'll take one who's
simply able.

-- David Jones

Downingtown, Pa.

What really causes me to look down at Oprah and her semi-literate
page-turning millions is their middle-browish misapprehension that Literature exists as a vehicle
for "values" at all. As the great practitioners of the art (Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, James Joyce) couldn't help but demonstrate, a good book is an essentially amoral thing. "Morals" are
proper to unsophisticated literary forms such as folk or fairy tales, which are for children.

While it's probably true that a steady diet of top-drawer fiction can hardly serve to transform a
post-adolescent culture of bumpkin/prigs into a mature society of worldly sophisticates, it is also true that a steady diet of fairy tales and "literary" romance novels has rendered the "educated" classes of this country as juvenile and glitter-struck as any on the face of this earth.

-- Steven Augustine

San Diego

Oprah is the only media figure of her stature to champion reading, and her critics seem to mostly be the sort of folks who complain that their favorite author (or band, or actor) is not as popular as he should be, and then quit reading once he achieves popular success. They want to use taste as evidence of their superiority, rather than as a guide to what's truly worthwhile and fulfilling. And it simply isn't possible to start reading at "Ulysses"; all readers require a period of development, in whatever direction they need, and from whatever point they start.

-- Matt McIver

Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Anywhere But Here"

Mary Elizabeth Williams' buy-in of the whole notion of chick flicks
bothers me. It's bad enough that Nora Ephron was the one to introduce the
term on film, but Willams' review perpetuates the insult and deepens it.
"Chick flick" is the label of doom, the mark of a movie from which all
reasonable people should flee. Why? Because these movies deal with
emotions and relationships, which only women want to see, and are therefore worthless.

That notion is wrong on at least two levels. First, women aren't
the only ones who like to see something other than explosions, bullets
ripping through bodies and fart jokes on-screen. Why should anyone, male
or female, be made to feel ashamed of wanting to see a film that deals with
emotions because of a label? Second, the term (particularly the way Williams uses it) suggests movies with greater appeal to women than to men are somehow inferior. Haven't we gotten past
that yet?

If labels are so useful, maybe Williams' next movie review could
talk about the "dick flicks" that fill the multiplexes these days. Or maybe
she should realize that she doesn't speak for everyone. The rest of us
would rather see a story that has emotions, tears and -- oh my God -- maybe
even hugging before we'd slap our money on the counter for another of those
soulless, mindless flicks the studios churn out in bulk. To me, the story
of an inner journey well told has a lot more happening than a movie
filled with the most special of special effects.

-- Donna Peck-Gaines

A confederacy of dunces


Ian Williams asserts that the United States can join the ranks of other
states too poor to pay their dues in the United Nations, and implies that this will be a
great blow to American influence. While it might detract from prestige, losing the vote
in the General Assembly means nothing in terms of power. After all, that body
has regularly voted against American interests for 30 years, calling for
things like a new economic order or the end of all Zionism. Thankfully, the G.A. doesn't do
much; the real power resides in the Security Council, where the United States is
unbreakably ensconced.

He continues that this is the result of domestic politics trumping
international concerns. But foreign affairs become meaningless
without a domestic frame of reference. Is it so surprising that we have a hard time
supporting family planning abroad when we are so divided on the issue? Or that our foreign
military alliances are complicated by divided sentiments at home?

The United Nations is an agency of only occasional effectiveness. Williams harps that we cripple it by making it go to Kosovo or East Timor without paying, but in fact we tend to go wherever we want, pay for the operations with our allies and then kindly have the Security Council
stamp a seal of approval.

What do we get from the United Nations? Quite a lot, I think. It
does maintain communications, provide a forum for multilateral action and address
global issues of all sorts. It does not prevent the apocalypse, end world hunger and
suffering or promise the salvation of mankind, as Williams wants us to believe. It is
one more international agency with which we bargain, as we have bargained for
years with the World Bank and the IMF, using funding as a chit. If we manage a
compromise here and pay our arrears, it is a good thing; it saves us from
embarrassment. If we do not, then there is some loss and some gain; perhaps the prophets
preaching to their choirs about the good of the United Nations will finally hear the
grumblings of the American interest over their own voices.

-- Jack Massey

Those xenophobic congressmen have a further motive for their
irresponsible actions: pandering to their constituencies as they perceive
them. Specifically, what better way to establish one's "pro-life"
credentials than to use the power of the purse strings to attempt to limit the
U.N.'s family-planning activities? Why waste your time trying to get around Roe
vs. Wade in this country when you can make impressive noises about
respecting life everywhere, and do it by saving money? Those
foreigners couldn't vote against you if they wanted to (and in some
countries, that goes double for the women), but some of the evangelicals
might applaud your "brave" stance.

-- Brenda Trickler

Ian Williams disregards the truism that a signature on a
piece of paper has never guaranteed any nation
security. In fact, naive faith in such a mechanism has
led to national disaster (reference: Munich). The only
forces that have ever secured the independence and
freedom of a people are the ability to inflict
devastating harm to enemies and the ability of the citizenry to inflict devastating
harm on an oppressive civil government.

Worthless scraps of paper such as the Nonproliferation
Treaty and the land mine ban can do harm by coercing
small nations (Pakistan) to abandon their cheapest
means of self-defense against larger opponents (India, China),
thus forcing the United States and Europe and our allies
into a never-ending series of wars protecting nations
we have weakened from predatory neighbors.

If the wretched dictatorships of the world are tired
of America constantly bailing them out, if they demand
we ante up more billions, we should inform them of the fact
that for over 60 years more than half of the U.S. defense
budget has gone to protect non-Americans all over the world.
Therefore, these peoples owe America trillions of dollars.

-- Thomas Fagan

Don't cry for me, Gray Lady



None of Rosenthal's detractors has even
touched on the inherent racism within the paper's culture. When Louis
Farrakhan organized and promoted the Million Man March, Rosenthal and the
N.Y. Times had a column almost every day blasting the anti-Semitic rhetoric
of the Nation of Islam. However, the daily hate-filled rhetoric of the likes of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and their legions elected to Congress has been characteristically ignored by the columnist and the paper. Why? Could it be that it is safe to blast a
black hatemonger, even though white hatemongers are treated with kid gloves?

-- Amy Dadichandji Laly


Sharps & Flats: "Days of Our



I picked up an import copy of Luna's "Days of Our
Nights" several months ago after Elektra rudely dropped the band, and reading
Seth Mnookin's lazy review, I can't believe he's even
bothered to give it an attentive listen. While writing tossed-off blurbs for my
college paper, I quickly figured out that 1) sniping about one or two
out-of-context lyrics and 2) complaining that a band just doesn't sound like they used to are the most useless and thoughtless review techniques imaginable.
Furthermore, if you're insipid enough to actually
write about some "disaffected voice for a generation
of sensitive souls," it's usually not a good idea to
pretend you have an ear for lyrics.

The Luna record's sweet, smart and quite listenable; you might save your hack jobs for artists who deserve them.

-- Rose Souris

Pick a peck o' presidents


I, too, used an online "who supports what" Web site and found that I agreed
most with a Socialist candidate I'd never heard of. She's running for
veep this time around, but in 1996 I voted for Mary Cal Hollis based on
her answers at vote-smart.org's Web site.

Their political questionnaire (not yet ready for the 2000 election cycle)
is much more open-ended; naturally they don't have a form where you can
check off boxes and be told for whom to vote, but it's worth the effort, I
think, to review the results. I do remember having the option to review
all candidates' answers to any particular question, which narrowed the field right quick.

-- Ben Ostrowsky

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Fiction Oprah Winfrey The New York Times United Nations