"If I could say": voice and community during the summer of Faulkner.
Indeed, though recent critical investigations of the original and reincarnated versions of Oprah's Book Club (OBC) have analyzed the political, affective, and economic dynamics of Oprah's literary choices and her interactions with her audience, its formal dimensions as they relate to reading as a social practice have been overlooked.1 In this essay, I will analyze the open-access section of Oprah's Summer of Faulkner website devoted to The Sound and the Fury to argue that it parallels the novel's most characteristic structural feature: its focus upon the voices, rather than the bodies, comprising the Compson family. (2) The website's various sections highlight the fecundity of narrative silences and gaps in order to encourage Oprah's ideal reader to view the novel as an opportunity to speak or, more accurately, to write. Yet Oprah's reading of The Sound and the Fury remains far from glib. Though the website figures the narrative's absences as questions for debate, the debate remains open-ended and fundamentally irresolvable. In keeping with her (in)famous peddling of personal disclosure as therapy, then, Oprah's website constructs the personal voice as central to one's identity, and yet not as a means to an end. Speech, or the virtual representation of speech in the context of the website, is constituted as without telos: it is an end in itself, a part of a larger story of messy belonging and alienation. Each individual voice becomes a part of a polyphony of voices, stitched together by the common endeavor of struggling with Faulkner's difficult prose. Oprah's website for The Sound and the Fury replicates the text's methods, producing voices that circulate amongst each other but not necessarily with each other. Despite its byzantine connotations, attention to this formal dimension of the work and the website as they reflect upon each other promises new methods for understanding community and belonging, as well as the aesthetic transportability of certain texts across time. Oprah's website leads us to this rethinking of the hegemonic structuring of community in mass society through the logic of loss. In mirroring the conventions of one of Faulkner's bleakest novels, Oprah's website fails in the same way that The Sound and the Fury fails: in both cases, we are left with a collection of voices ringing out, but responding only to themselves.
Voice in The Sound and the Fury
Suggesting that Oprah's open-access website for The Sound and the Fury parallels the actualization of voices in the novel itself entails, first and foremost, close attention to the role of voice in the novel and its relationship to the novel's various communities. By voice, I refer to the written representation of internal thoughts, memories, or observations in The Sound and the Fury and on Oprah's website. My choice of the term is intended to invoke its fetishization as a marker of presence as well as its claims to authenticity. Indeed, the intricacies of the spoken and written word in The Sound and the Fury are often cited as a central crux of the text, with Quentin, Benjy, and Caddy receiving the most attention. Since the Cold War, the role of the voice and interior monologue in The Sound and the Fury have been of central importance to discussions about the novel. Here I will consider several critics who, despite differing methodologies and scholarly allegiances, prove emblematic of this focus, as well as those, most notably feminist critics, who have broken with this tradition. In regards to the former group, Andre Bleikasten calls Benjy's telling of the Compson family story "the very negation of narrative" (86) and defines The Sound and the Fury as a novel about the failure to communicate (83). Eric J. Sundquist largely agrees, contending that Benjy not only "says" nothing, he thinks nothing as well (14). Though Richard Godden refutes this particular estimation of Benjy's narrative capabilities, he too considers Benjy's narration paradigmatically flawed (11). Likewise, Quentin's twice repeated lament, "If I could say Mother ... if I'd just had a mother so I could say Mother" (Faulkner 60,109), receives similar treatment, serving as a cry against the unrepresentable havoc modernity has wrought on traditional Southern gender relations (Miller 38-39; Weinstein 29-41; Matthews 77-97). Yet critical exegeses of these two brothers' rendition of the Compson family's angst pale beside the attention paid to Caddy Compson's silence. While some continued to label her as the unsayable cultural Other, the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1980s and 1990s led many to attempt to recuperate Caddy's voice, casting her as a divisive and dangerous figure that the text routinely attempted to suppress (Waldron; Wagner).
These critical strains, though, typically refrain from investigating the relationship of the individual voice itself to the novel's social structures, especially in regards to the construction of the Compsons as a familial unit. The machinations of Benjy's ability to narrate aside, the lack of meaningful response to his bellows and tears--his singular vocalizations--provides a significant window into the novel's construction of community. Though both Caddy and Dilsey anticipate the meanings of Benjy's howls, Benjy's section serves as an extended lament for Caddy's disappearance, which leaves him to call in vain. Similarly, while Dilsey realizes that Benjy can "smell" death, often the source of his despair, the reality of everyone's ultimate demise receives no answer except oblivion itself. Benjy "speaks," then, without an audience: his jeremiads are heard but unanswered. Quentin, too, converses with no one, asking questions of phantoms and becoming so entrapped in his own internal memories that he provokes Gerald Bland in the midst of a fantasy about a fight with one of Caddy's lovers. The novel's model of interaction, then, is that of the quarantine. Participation in the Compson tragedy, and by extension membership in the family, thus amounts to the declaration of one's thoughts, feelings, and desires without any hope or expectation of understanding. Caddy provides the paradigmatic example of this phenomenon, speaking only in others' memories, and never really "minded" regardless of paternal assurances to the contrary (Faulkner 16).
Yet articulation proves a stumbling block for more than just this famous triumvirate. Jason Compson, though typically posited as the most garrulous of the tellers, also struggles to speak, a fact that persistently challenges his position as the head of the household and the wielder of vocal authority. Indeed, even his opening comments prove suspect, destabilizing the assumption that Jason, at least, can be heard:
Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you're lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they've got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her. And Mother says, "But to have the school authorities think that I have no control over her, that I cant??" "Well," I says. "You cant can you?" (113)
The use of the phrase "I say" or "I says" is complicated here by the fact that Jason does not actually say "Once a bitch always a bitch" but rather thinks this phrase, along with the remaining content of the opening paragraph. The transition to Caroline Compson's words and their attendant quotation marks highlights this very distinction. Moreover, though Jason insists that he "says" these words, nowhere in his section, nor in any other section, do they appear in actual dialogue. While Jason here uses "say" and "says" as a colloquial substitution for "what I think" or "what I believe," the quick transition to the words he and Caroline Compson actually say, as marked by the use of quotation marks, places the word in flux. It comes to stand both for what is verbalized and for what is thought but unexpressed. Like his siblings, then, Jason similarly struggles to say, repeatedly failing to express the words inside his head. His adages go unacknowledged, and thus he, too, is locked inside the isolation of his own thoughts.
As is the case with his brothers, Jason's inability to speak is imbedded in the politics of gender, which present a significant impediment to his ability to be heeded and understood. Throughout his section, Jason only once opens a dialogue with a woman, as indicated by the use of quotation marks: when Miss Quentin arrives at the store where Jason works in a failed attempt to collect the check Caddy has sent her (Faulkner 133). (3) This disparity cannot simply be attributed to the nature of Jason's telling, since he frequently initiates conversations with men. (4) Even in his own memories of interactions with women he orthographically positions himself as the respondent, rather than the instigator, of dialogue. This tendency to be spoken to by women extends to relationships in which he presumably unquestionably occupies the dominant role. (5) For example, after burning a letter he has received from Lorraine, the prostitute he visits in Memphis, Jason ruminates:
Lorraine is always after me to write to her but I says anything I forgot to tell you will save till I get to Memphis again but I says I don't mind you writing me now and then in a plain envelope, but if you ever try to call me up on the telephone, Memphis wont hold you I says. I says when I'm up there I'm one of the boys, but I'm not going to have any woman calling me on the telephone. Here I says, giving her the forty dollars. If you ever get drunk and take a notion to call me on the phone, just remember this and count ten before you do it. "When'll that be?" she says. "What?" I says. (122)
As in the opening pages of his section, the use of quotation marks signals a moment when a woman's words ultimately force Jason to alter the structure of his memory. This shift towards the spoken word proves ironic given Jason's apparent discomfort with it. Though he recalls saying he will allow Lorraine to write him a letter, he insists that she never call him on the telephone. He wants their interactions to remain silent. Further, a letter, like an online message board, necessarily entails delay and monologue, rather than conversation. Unlike "real-time" communication, epistolary communication requires a leap of faith--the belief that the addressee will read the letter and respond. Despite this injunction, even if only in Jason's mind, Lorraine does speak, breaking into Jason's ruminations to ask when he will return to Memphis. The female voice thus serves as a verbal rupture and a defiant one at that. It marks the difference between what Jason claims to have said and what he actually says, as well as his subordinate status: he can reply, but he cannot initiate the conversation. Indeed, he fails to be heard-. Lorraine does what she likes regardless of his invectives. Like those of his brothers, Quentin and Benjy, then, Jason's words lack closure. Never enacted, they sound out in an abyss that turns away from them.
The ability of the female voice to disrupt, even if only in memory and even if only filtered through a male rendering of it, reframes the role of silence in the novel, particularly when read by a largely white, female, and middle-class reading group (Wu 83). Though Caddy never manages to tell her story in her own words, she and the other women in the text consistently determine the narrative's movement and structure. Yet the novel persistently denies these narrative disruptions a sounding board. Lorraine's and Caroline Compson's interjections open up a space for speech, but not necessarily for meaningful dialogue. This kind of calling-out without answer comes to define participation in the Compson family drama. Such a view of women in the novel challenges Bleikasten's assertion that Caddy
is in fact what woman has always been in man's imagination: the figure par excellence of the Other, a blank screen onto which he projects both his desires and his fears, his love and his hate. And insofar as this Other is a myth and a mirage, a mere fantasy of the Self, it is bound to be a perpetual deceit and an endless source of disappointment. (65)
Though Caddy and the other women in the text may appear only in the words and minds of others, their ability to derail the plot--and, in Jason's case, the pattern of his speech--suggests that they are more than "a blank screen." Rather than behaving as narrative sutures, in this reading, the male-rendered female voice serves to open alternative possibilities for the plot as well as the for the play of readerly imagination. Yet despite our expectations to the contrary, such alternatives forge a model of community that is not predicated upon interaction or harmony, a key dynamic that Oprah's website amplifies and that has significant implications for our understandings of community in the digital age.
This approach to the novel stands in stark contrast to negative appraisals of Oprah's Summer of Faulkner in the mainstream media in 2005. When interviewed for the New York Times about Oprah's announcement of her Summer of Faulkner, Richard Howorth, mayor of Oxford, Mississippi, and the owner of Square Books, expressed skepticism about Oprah's choices: "With a good reading-group leader, they'll make it through 'As I Lay Dying,' ... And they'll make it through 'Light in August.' But they're going to start 'The Sound and the Fury' and say, 'What is this?"' (Wyatt). In addition to this condescending take on Winfrey's Book Club participants, Howorth casts The Sound and the Fury, more than Faulkner's other novels, as a closed hermeneutic circle with a distinct end. Like As I Lay Dying and Light in August, The Sound and the Fury is a novel to be gotten "through." Yet Oprah's website's emphasis upon the voice, and especially the silent voice, casts community as a product forged through a collective reading ethic that focuses on the practices rather than the plot or outcome. It is just this aspect of Oprah's Summer of Faulkner, an aspect that parallels the workings of the novel itself, that Meghan O'Rourke celebrates when she writes of the experience:
Faulkner's modernism, especially refracted through the experience of reading it with Oprah, is curiously democratic. Those of us reading all struggled with the same mechanical issues, with the materiality of language--its obsessive, repetitive self-questioning imaginative gains--that Faulkner cared about. His idea of "universal truth" may not seem sophisticated today. But his pursuit of it had a curiously unifying effect on many readers this summer. Turning the pages in the invisible company of Oprah's other readers, I suspected I wasn't alone as I became more convinced that not all of the supposed divisions in our culture are as insurmountable as they sometimes seem.
O'Rourke finds OBC meaningful not because she landed upon an essential understanding of Faulkner's novels, but rather due to the "invisible company" forged throughout the summer. Indeed, part of the aesthetic appeal of Faulkner's novels lies simultaneously in their difficulty and the ways in which that difficulty, when mutually agreed upon, creates a sense of communal purpose. Though this communal feeling threatens to "reif[y] the very racial categories that [it] seek[s] to undermine" (Davis 147), O'Rourke achieves community rather than understanding. For O'Rourke, belonging lies in her sense of mutual recognition of the unending struggle with Faulkner's texts, and it ends there: unlike understanding, recognition demands no action and makes no apologies. Distinct from the act of recognition that Michael Perry finds so dangerous in OBC's reading of Toni Morrison's Paradise, recognition here is about reveling in the difficulty of the text rather than resolving it (135). O'Rourke's "universal truth" remains unnamed and fundamentally opaque. A decidedly less imperialistic affect, such a particular sense of belonging is largely indebted to the "invisibility" of the other members of OBC. O'Rourke's community thus resembles that within The Sound and the Fury\ a collection of voices hearing only themselves, and speaking without any assurance of response.
Oprah's Website and the Ideal Reader
The open-access sections of Oprah's website devoted to The Sound and the Fury consistently encourage the ideal reader to engage in a mixture of personal reflection and collective discovery that casts the individual reader's voice as analogous to the voices in the novel. Despite its seemingly straightforward format, the website contains hidden intricacies and dead-ends. The main page for The Sound and the Fury consists of five links titled "About the Book," "Start Discussing The Sound and the Fury," "Your Exclusive Bookmark and Character Guide," "Shift Happens," and "Did You Get That?" ('"The Sound and the Fury': About the Novel"). (6) Each article is introduced by a small image on its left, and while advertisements for several of Oprah's other ventures, such as her TV network and style newsletter, occupy a sidebar on the right, the bottom of the page consists of a vertical list of additional resources followed by a horizontal banner of further reading suggestions. Clicking on three of the lead articles on this main page brings users to a series of discussion questions, an interactive exercise, and a reading quiz, respectively. The remaining two links, "About the Book" and "Your Exclusive Bookmark and Character Guide," provide relatively perfunctory information. In addition, the website for The Sound and the Fury repeatedly loops back upon itself. Clicking on the icon for the final page in any given entry redirects the reader to the main menu bar. It is thus not a new page at all, but rather a return to origins. In other words, the website repeatedly presents the same information as though it is new information, much like the hashing and rehashing of past events engaged in by the Compson brothers and the external narrator of the final section. The website renders interpretation in regard to the novel as a compulsive looping back rather than a search for definitive answers and ends. Like the characters in The Sound and the Fury; Oprah's ideal readers never arrive anywhere: they merely reconsider the same information they had before. While the site mimics the format of more straightforward websites, with its numbered pages, sidebars, links, and banners, it repeatedly, like the circuitous diegeses of The Sound and the Fury, undermines the ability of these generic devices to provide readerly orientation.
This tendency to present clarity as a ruse and thereby to force the reader back upon him- or herself persists throughout the website. Though the first link on the page, the "About the Book" section actually says very little about the book. Only five brief paragraphs in length, the entry gives biographical details about Faulkner and the genesis of the novel and comments upon the innovative nature of American modernism. Significantly, it lacks any suggestions for where to begin or how best to untangle Faulkner's complicated prose. Unlike the articles written by various Faulkner scholars, these entries contain no by-line. Though Oprah is the implied author of these posts, "Harpo, Inc.," and not Oprah, holds the website's copyright. Likewise, OBC and the other sections of Oprah's website insistently invoke a communal rhetoric, appealing for instance to "our House Rules" and "our posting policies" ("Oprah.com Community Conversations"). These practices cast Oprah as a collocation of voices--one, however, whose words do not necessitate a response. As with the speakers in the individual sections of Faulkner's novel, the author of these sections never names him- or herself. Yet just as readers are encouraged to recognize individual speakers in The Sound and the Fury through the orthographic marks of their speech patterns and the ways that others respond to them or name them in their memories and present-day interactions, so too are readers expected to recognize those links implicitly attributed to Oprah based upon their diction and tone. Instantly recognizable, the website thus suggests that individual identity inheres in the voice itself. Further, like Oprah, Jason, Quentin, and Benjy Compson serve as ciphers for the words of others, filtering them through their own memories and delivering them up for readerly consumption. Indeed, though these entries conjure up notions of the teacher-student relationship, Oprah's Summer of Faulkner remains a digital book club and not a classroom. Unlike a classroom, the participants never meet in person nor at a specified time. Without the presence of an instructor, a fixed temporal frame, or a focused purpose, conversations run the risk of sliding past each other rather than intersecting. In addition, they exist in a kind of no-time, or more accurately, any-time. Finally, as with the voices in the novel, these suggestions and descriptions call out, often enthusiastically, and yet the participation, indeed even the presence, of the respondent remains fundamentally unknowable.
The inscription of voice is also the ruling element of the message boards that appeared on the site during the Summer of Faulkner. (7) Participants writing on these boards represent themselves through the written word rather than their physical presence. This virtual space becomes a particularly ripe forum for various modes of play, but rather than one's corporeal appearance and self-fashioning, the written representation of one's thoughts functions as the coin of the realm. As in the first three sections of The Sound and the Fury; the members of OBC are visible to one another only through their words. Though they can choose to divulge certain details that may mark them as part of a certain class or race, their writing, and their writing alone, testifies to the veracity of these claims. Unlike the final, externally narrated section of the novel, though, the "big reveal" for these readers, when we see what everyone "really" looks like, never comes: most of them will remain anonymous members of their virtual community, thereby altering the basis upon which recognition or misrecognition could occur. Fittingly, then, the final reading quiz for the novel gives participants a series of quotations and asks them to identify the speakers of the passages. Mastery over the book is thus figured as the ability to recognize a character based solely on what he or she says and how he or she says it. In other words, this quiz suggests that identity lies in the written representation of speech or thought. Such an emphasis upon speech levels the various tellers of the Compson family tale, thereby rendering each Compson's words as unreliable as another's. In Oprah's website's reading, polysemy, along with the need to intuit identity as rendered through the voice, becomes the text's most characteristic formal aspect and applies equally to all of the characters.
This focus on the voice and the constant encouragement to "speak out," however, remain bound to the personal and reflective even in the case of the more explicitly authoritative entries on the website. Though clicking on any of the links on the splash page except for the bookmark PDF leads to a block of text followed by a "Keep Reading" section with four additional links, these links largely repeat those from the main page or direct OBC members to reading questions for one of the other Faulkner novels read that summer. Only two links provide new information. The first, "Faulkner in Hollywood," simply gives more biographical information about Faulkner's time writing for the screen. The second, "How to Read Faulkner," written by Robert Hamblin, the Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, encourages struggling readers to "be patient," "be willing to reread," and "make the story your own" ("Faulkner 101"). These suggestions keep the reader and the process of personal interpretation at the fore, rather than provide a hermeneutic key. The experts, in other words, repeatedly take on the role of lay reader, or non-expert, assuring OBC members that many struggle with Faulkner's novels. Similarly, the "Exclusive Bookmark" provides a list of the main characters in the novel divided into two categories: "The Compsons" and "Dilsey's Family." The relationship between these two families goes unmentioned, and thus the bookmark preserves rather than clarifies the opacity of the original text. In a kind of Faulknerian joke, it tells readers nothing that they could not glean on their own. The website thereby repeatedly thrusts readers back upon themselves and their interior resources in order to grapple with the text.
The reading questions for The Sound and the Fury follow suit, expanding upon, rather than foreclosing, the text's various voices without any promise of genuine dialogue. More surprisingly, they often refuse to sidestep the uncomfortable political and racial questions raised by the novel. Though Hamblin counsels readers disturbed by the content of Faulkner's works that "there is... no denying that, in his time and place as a white Southerner, [Faulkner] was considerably ahead of most of his contemporaries" ("Faulkner 101"), the discussion questions' mixture of plot-driven and more complex queries, the latter particularly in regard to issues of race and gender, complicates this more sanguine take on Faulkner's project. This technique ultimately results in a messy view of The Sound and the Fury. Pairing straightforward inquiries ("What objects does Caddy use to soothe Benjy?") with more thematically and politically troublesome questions ("What is Quentin's relationship with black characters, especially the man named Deacon at Harvard? What does this have to do with his being a 'Southern gentleman'?") encourages readers to take all of the prompts seriously ("'The Sound and the Fury': Reading Questions"). By giving the factual and the overtly political equal weight, the reading questions entice participants to struggle with the novel, without guiding them to a tidy solution. Oprah's website prompts her ideal readers to speak, like the characters in The Sound and the Fury, without achieving clarity or closure. Similarly, though the front matter for the reading questions instructs OBC members to use the discussions to spur conversations with friends or on the site's message boards, this purpose remains an ancillary one. Since Oprah cannot guarantee any real discussion, the website poses the questions instead in a reflective vein.
The questions pertaining to the female characters, particularly Dilsey and Caddy, prove especially interesting in this regard. While the actions and behavior of both of these characters provide insight into their motivations, their performances are always filtered through an outside party. Indeed, despite critics' tendency to attribute the novel's final section to Dilsey, the novel never discloses her inner thoughts. Though scholars have been reticent to investigate this allegiance, Dilsey, like Caddy, remains one of the few central characters to which we have only external access. While they sometimes express frustration with those around them and with their circumstances, Caddy and Dilsey, unlike the other figures in the novel, never directly discuss their internal psychic state. Though Caddy does self-reflectively lament her role in the family tragedy in Quentin's section, her words are filtered through Quentin, and thus the reader's experience of them remains a mediated one. Even Caroline Compson and Caddy's daughter, Quentin, who also do not have their own sections, repeatedly state their feelings in the novel's final part. When Bleikasten famously writes that as "the ambiguous and evasive object of desire and memory, [Caddy] can be approached and apprehended only in oblique ways," by the logic of the internal voice that rules OBC's presentation of the novel, the same can be said of Dilsey (60).
The reading questions for the novel's final section do not make this point explicitly, but in a move characteristic of female book clubs they encourage readers to group the female characters in the novel together based upon their inability to self-represent (Long 2-8):
Although this section isn't told from the first person, the third person narration favors Dilsey's perspective. It is also the closest we come to hearing a female voice in the novel. Why do you think Faulkner chose not to have Dilsey, Caddy, Caroline, or Miss Quentin narrate her own section? What do you think they might have said? ('"The Sound and the Fury': Reading Questions") (8)
The discussion questions describe the section four narrator, like Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, as biased, concerned with certain truths and observations at the expense of others. More saliently, OBC's question calls attention to the novel's various silences--namely, the lack of female subjectivity--and asks readers to project themselves into this lacuna. Just as Oprah may, due to her sometimes mammy-ish role (Harris and Watson 11), evoke Dilsey's persona and burdens, so too are Oprah's ideal readers asked to see themselves as present in the novel. By insisting upon the contingency of each of the novel's various narrators, the discussion questions for the final section invite readers to view what the novel fails to disclose as an opportunity to find their voices, and thereby interact with the novel itself. (9) Oprah's website holds open the possibility of the reader "discovering] his participation within the world he has thought to stand outside," in Carolyn Porter's memorable phrasing (xviii). The terms of belonging rhyme with those of the novel itself: the ability to reflect upon one's own thoughts and past. Indeed, despite injunctions to use the message boards, or to discuss with one's friends, the majority of the exercises on the website are individual ones, just as the questions are directed at a single participant rather than the group as a whole.
Such a model of collective and yet individualized voices bears striking resemblances to Benedict Anderson's often cited--and now, perhaps more often qualified--model of nationalism as an imagined community. Anderson invokes the newspaper as the operative metaphor for nationalism in his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Just as the readers of a daily newspaper are bound together by the common practice of reading the same articles during what they imagine as a simultaneous present marked by the newspaper date on every page, so too does the nation inhere based upon a sense of shared practices and values as well as a shared temporal frame. The nation is therefore an imaginary, rather than a physically present, community (26-36). Despite the limitations of Anderson's claims, his arguments provide a useful theoretical framework with which to understand how OBC constructs its community. (10) In both cases, physical presence is not necessary for inclusion. Rather, for Oprah, voice and the recognition of the voice's machinations prove the building blocks for imagined collectivity. More strikingly, the construction of community on Oprah's website, as a collection of isolated voices bound together by the architecture of the website itself, shifts the terms of Anderson's discussion of nationalism. Belonging in this instance rests upon the capability or possibility of having a voice without any need to be heard. Collectivity, in other words, proves paradoxically atomized.
Furthermore, since the very nature of the website itself posits belonging as a shared literary endeavor, it unflinchingly insists upon the reader's involvement in the tragedy of The Sound and the Fury. One achieves membership in the community by reading the story of the Compsons' decline along with the other members of OBC, even if at different moments. As Anderson's work would suggest, time here, due to its virtual representation, consists of a multitude of convergent but nonetheless distinct and discrete presents united by the process of reading The Sound and the Fury. Such a vision of temporality, though, means that individual readers may never come together to inhabit the same present. Time in the novel works in a similar manner, since the voices that speak in each section inhabit various, and divergent, presents. The "now" of the novel thus proves highly individualized: on the most obvious level, each of the novel's four sections takes place on a different day. Participation in the novel's tellings and in the Book Club thereby map onto one another. Yet due to the ways that Oprah's website makes the boundaries between the characters in the novel and OBC readers permeable, the boundaries of the Compson family, too, become permeable, should Book Club members choose to traverse them. Just as Oprah may breach the textual divide, so too, by being solicited to imagine what silent characters would say if they could speak, are readers invited to do the same.
Unsurprisingly, a website that so persistently recapitulates the play of voices in Faulkner's novel must necessarily recapitulate its loneliness. If, as I posit, The Sound and the Fury serves as both the object of analysis and the model for Oprah's website and online community, then the belief or statement of one's place within both the community of the novel and the Book Club enacts that very belonging. Just as the Compson brothers and the omniscient narrator in the novel's final section speak at cross purposes, due to the nature of virtual spaces--with their time delays, their distractions, their ability to facilitate multiple conversations at once, and their openness to silence and anonymity--the same holds for the members of OBC. Moreover, despite the website's amplification of the individual voice, it lacks any apparatus to ensure that any one voice is heard. Postings on message boards, individual insights, and even conversations with other participants can thus easily slide beneath the radar without any official or unofficial acknowledgment. Like the letter that Jason tells Lorraine to send him, participation in the Summer of Faulkner is an act of good faith where the belief in a recipient for one's thoughts conjures that recipient into being.
These insights into the nature of Oprah's dynamic community extend beyond the novel, suggesting that Shawn P. Wilbur asks not bad questions, just imprecise ones, when he wonders how we might
tell the difference ... between a community and a market segment, or a culture of compatible consumption? What are the relations between the real and the virtual, between being and seeming, between "real life" and "net.life?" Are the structures and marks of class, race, gender and the like more or less deeply inscribed in these virtual spaces? Can these clearly mediated spaces provide a place for contesting "real world" powers? Or are many of these questions badly posed, as they assume a certain authenticity and lack of mediation in our everyday lives which is perhaps illusory? (Schick 54)
Oprah's website suggests instead that the nature of community in the digital age inheres not in the relationship of virtual worlds to real ones, nor in the role commercialism plays in online personae, but rather in the ways users understand belonging in a virtual sphere. How does a notion of imagined community that refrains from stipulating even a legitimate belief in dialogue alter the terms of Anderson's arguments? What might it mean for conceptions of the local and the global if becoming a participant in a cosmopolitan Web merely demands a personal calling out, a sense of one's own identity? How might such a structure of feeling alter our understandings of sovereignty, understanding, and solidarity?
One potential answer might lie in Faulkner's relevance for Oprah as well as for her readers in 2005. Not since the Cold War had Faulkner's works experienced such a convergence of popular and critical attention. While Faulkner enjoyed an outpouring of celebrity during the 1950s, complete with CIA-sponsored trips to Latin America and Japan, his reputation in the eyes of the public waned in the years that followed. This initial resurgence of interest in Faulkner in the wake of World War II despite poor sales of his books when they were first published provides some insight into Oprah's decision to read three of his novels in 2005. Just as Faulkner's high tragedies of the defeated American South furnished domestic readers with a framework for understanding German and Japanese postwar despair (Stecopoulos 16), The Sound and the Fury, as framed by Oprah's reading of it, has similar appeal. In the midst of two seemingly endless and increasingly technological--and therefore dematerialized--wars, Faulkner's novel provides readers with a way to imagine voices that have been silenced without necessarily needing to hear them. The website here finds a sort of analogue, albeit a non-violent one, in the drone strike. Like a war waged with the push of a button--a tactic that advocates promote as more humane because it is more targeted and does not directly risk US lives--Oprah's website conjures a like-minded audience with a click of the mouse or the quick movement of fingers on keys. In both cases, war and community avoid the messy business of bodies. Though wars, on one level, serve to divide nations rather than unite them, the post-September 11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought under the auspices of keeping the US together and protecting its various citizens against forces encroaching on the nation. (11) The violent, and ostensibly virtual, rejection of one group serves to solidify the imagined connections within the other. Yet Faulkner's novel and Oprah's representation of it have additional resonances. In locking voices away unto themselves, Faulkner's novel provides readers with a way to see themselves in others--to feel sympathy--without empathy, an affect that threatens to destabilize one's sense of self. Indeed, reading a novel about the aftermath of the Civil War during wartime projects a postwar temporality upon a wartime present, relegating the war to an elsewhere and other time, to the mytho-historical rather than the topical.
Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall at the end of Oprah's Summer of Faulkner, provides just such a reminder of the communication failures and strange temporality of Faulkner's novel and concomitantly of Oprah's website about it. Like Quentin, who lives out a catastrophe that both has and has not already happened, Oprah's Summer of Faulkner proves almost prophetic in its timing, given both the uncanny repetitions of past events--like the 1927 Mississippi Flood--in 2005, and the predictability with which race and class intervened in disaster response. It also helps us to understand how readers use literature in order to construct meaning in uncertain and yet not altogether unfamiliar circumstances. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in the wake of New Orleans' destruction, Kimberly Swise wrote of the storm, "William Faulkner ... whose first novel was penned in rooms behind St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, closed 'The Sound and the Fury,' his epic novel, with these simple words: 'They endured.'" Though Swise refers, of course, to the "Appendix: Compson" which was penned after The Sound and the Fury (see Faulkner 215), such a reconfiguration of Faulkner's oeuvre seems in keeping with the openness of Oprah's project. And yet this act of speaking for others is marked by difference: "They endured," not we, not us, not me. The tragedy is secondhand. The voices ring out but may not be heard. Rather than seeing the novel as a bridge to a vast series of interregional relationships, Swise uses it to construct difference, to see certain peoples and places as other. The virtual here divides rather than unites. As Godden writes of Faulkner's use of language in The Sound and the Fury, "Such texts do not in any simple way repress the traumatic situation; instead, they generate the very situation that must be avoided, creating in words the catastrophe that those words displace" (7). Oprah's website indeed enacts this very catastrophe.
Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.
Bleikasten, Andre. The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.
Cotten, Trystan T., and Kimberly Springer, eds. Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010.
Davis, Kimberly Chabot. "Oprah's Book Club and the Politics of Cross-Racial Empathy." Farr and Harker 141-62.
Farr, Cecilia Konchar, and Jaime Harker, eds. The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah s Book Club. Albany: SUNY P, 2008.
"Faulkner 101: How to Read William Faulkner." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Ed. David Minier. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Frampton, Edith. "From the Nobel to Oprah: Toni Morrison, Body Politics, and Oprah's Book Club." Cotten and Springer 145-59.
Godden, Richard. Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Harris, Jennifer, and Elwood Watson, eds. The Oprah Phenomenon. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2007.
--. "Introduction: Oprah Winfrey as Subject and Spectacle." Harris and Watson 1-31.
Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.
Matthews, John T. William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Miller, Nathaniel A. '"Felt, Not Seen Not Heard': Quentin Compson, Modernist Suicide and Southern History." Studies in the Novel 37.1 (2005): 37-49.
O'Rourke, Meghan. "Reading Faulkner with Oprah: It's Underrated." Slate. The Slate Group, 15 Sept. 2005. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
"Oprah.com Community Conversations." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 22 June 2011. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
Pereira, Malin. "Oprah's Book Club and the American Dream." Harris and Watson 191-205.
Perry, Michael. "Resisting Paradise." Farr and Harker 119-39.
Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner. Middletown, CT : Wesleyan UP, 1981.
Robbins, Sarah. "Making Corrections to Oprah's Book Club: Reclaiming Literary Power for Gendered Literacy Management." Harris and Watson 227-57.
Rooney, Kathleen. Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2008.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
Schick, Sherra. "Post[ed]structuralism?: Oprah's Message Boards, Soul Stories, and the Everyday Lives of Women." Cotten and Springer 51-64.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Stecopoulos, Harry. Reconstructing the World: Southern Fictions and U.S. Imperialisms, 1898-1976. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.
Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.
Swise, Kimberly. "A City in Ruins: Americans Open Their Hearts (10 Letters)." New York Times. New York Times, 1 Sept. 2005. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.
"The Sound and the Fury. About the Novel." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 3 June 2005. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
"The Sound and the Fury: Reading Questions." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 3 June 2005. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
Wagner, Linda W. "Language and Act: Caddy Compson." Southern Literary Journal 14.2 (1982): 49-61.
Waldron, Karen E. "Recovering Eve's Consciousness from The Sound and the Fury." Women's Studies 22 (1993): 469-83.
Weinstein, Philip M. Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Wu, Yung-Hsing. "The Romance of Reading Like Oprah." Farr and Harker 73-87.
Wyatt, Edward. "For Oprah's Book Choice, Lots of Sound, a Little Fury." New York Times. New York Times, 6 June 2005. Web. 26 Aug. 2012.
University of Virginia
(1) Many studies of OBC consider the literary merit of Oprah's choices, though these studies typically focus on issues other than formalism. While Kathleen Rooney, for instance, devotes the third chapter of Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America to an enumeration of the various novel selections, she concentrates mostly on plot and the various affective responses that she and the other Book Club members had to the works (67-108). Similarly, though several critics note that professional readers frequently denigrated Oprah's choice of John Steinbeck's East of Eden as the first selection for her reincarnated Book Club, their analyses often hinge upon the therapeutic nature of the novel, as well as the various power dynamics raised during televised OBC discussions of it. These interests are largely in keeping with several major studies of women's book clubs as well as African American women's literacy, which often argue for the social value of these groups, as well as their ability to help construct alternative realities for the participants. For more on such issues, see Royster, Frampton, Pereira, Robbins, Long, and Perry.
(2) Though subscribers to OBC received additional support in the guise of video tutorials, lectures, and so on, I've chosen to focus on those resources available even to non-subscribers for two reasons. First, unlike the other forums associated with the Summer of Faulkner, these open-access resources persist and thus provide us with the Summer of Faulkner's most lasting virtual legacy. Second, these features would have been open to the casual observer, the reluctant but curious participant, and the sneering critic, among others. This particular community is more dynamic than the subscribers-only circle, and the appeal made to them by the website therefore broader.
(3) Though Jason sometimes speaks before a woman does, with the exception of this exchange with Quentin, this only occurs once a conversation is already in process. In addition, the use of the word "say" here is similarly problematized. Jason tells Quentin that Caddy's letter will most likely "say" how much money she has sent, though this saying is obviously a silent one (Faulkner 133).
(4) Notably, though, these conversations rarely go anywhere. Characters like Earl ignore Jason's outbursts and excuses. In addition, Mrs. Compson often behaves as though she responds to Jason's words, though she really just repeats what she has already said.
(5) Jason's conversation with Quentin is distinct from these other examples, since it remains the only instance in his section where he attempts to swindle a woman by asserting his power and authority over her without first resorting to emotional manipulation. With Miss Quentin, Jason need only appeal to his material control over her.
(6) Though the links to the videorecorded lectures by the three Summer of Faulkner experts have been removed, these other links persist today, over seven years after the Summer of Faulkner began. The website thus remains an active part of Oprah's online presence and a continued resource for Oprah fans reading Faulkner, as comments to Oprah's general website message board testify.
(7) Though these message boards are no longer publicly accessible, members could see and use them during the Summer of Faulkner.
(8) The website corroborates Bleikasten's point in a question regarding the novel's third section as well: "While Caddy is presented as maternal and promiscuous, she is also unknowable, given that she can only be glimpsed in the rather unreliable narrations of her brothers. Does she appeal to you as a sympathetic character? Is Caddy's fall the cause of the family tragedy or is she just another child-victim of the abdication of parental responsibility?" ('"The Sound and the Fury': Reading Questions").
(9) The fact that the website does not ask readers to consider the differences between these women is a significant issue, though beyond the scope of this article.
(10) Critics have attacked Anderson for focusing on the nation-state as the locus for nationalism to the exclusion of other forms of belonging and community. In addition, Anderson's framework does not provide insight into the material relationships among the citizen-subjects who comprise his imagined communities. Specifically, he refrains from discussing how identity categories like race, gender, and class might impact and alter one's sense of a nation's make-up, or one's relationship to its other members.
(11) Though this logic may apply to all wars, the idea of conducting a pre-emptive strike in the case of Iraq, and of attacking a nation as vengeance for a strike perpetrated by Al-Qaeda--a terrorist group housed only temporarily within a particular nation--in the case of Afghanistan is especially resonant. From this vantage point, the war against terrorism, broadly construed, has quite a lot in common with US wars against various Indian nations throughout the nineteenth century as well as with the Vietnam War, which Richard Slotkin, among others, has analyzed as a twentieth-century reincarnation of the Indian war (see Slotkin 586).
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|Title Annotation:||William Faulkner|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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