Thought Paper: "The Oprahfication Of Literacy" Fall 2005


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Hall, M. R. (2003, July). The “Oprahfication” of Literacy: Reading Oprah’s book club. College English, 65(6), 646 667.

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Thought Paper: "The Oprahfication Of Literacy" Fall 2005

  1. 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton Think Piece/Paper August 29, 2005 ELAN 8005 Hall, M. R. (2003, July). The “Oprahfication” of Literacy: Reading Oprah’s book club. College English, 65(6), 646--667. I chose this article for two reasons: the author incorporates the theoretical lens of “literacy sponsor” coined by Deborah Brandt, whose work I studied this summer, and the author examines how the Oprah and the Oprah Book Club function as a sponsor of literacy. Brandt defines a sponsor of literacy as “…any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstracts, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy---and gain advantage by it in some way” (Brandt, p. 19). Oprah is a literacy sponsor who is successful because she is willing to “…should the mantel of cultural authority…she can do this because her appeal to viewers…is based on…self- help”(660). In using Brandt’s theory to “read Winfrey’s power and authority to tell millions of people what---and how---to read…”, Hall closely examines how Oprah Winfrey uses her status as a member of celebrity culture to hook and maintain readers in the Oprah Book Club. Although Hall seems critical of Oprah’s emphasis on the use of literacy for personal transformation and self-help, his article seems more of a lament of the non-highbrow uses of literacy by Oprah’s Book Club rather than a convincing argument that Oprah and the Oprah Book Club are detrimental sponsors of literacy.
  2. 2. Hamilton 2 Hall introduces his examination of the Oprah Book Club as a sponsor of literacy by stating the central purpose of the article: “…to develop this conceptualization of literacy as an ideological practice by investigating the manner of content of thinking about reading and writing associated with it”(647.). Rather than literacy being a set of concrete “skills,” Hall takes a sociocultural view of literacy in which literacy is an “…ideological practice, implicated in power relations and embedded in specific cultural meanings and practices”(647). Two essential questions are at the heart of Hall’s analysis: What values and assumptions about literacy were advanced on The Oprah Winfrey Show? How are they (values and assumptions) implicated in power relations and ingrained in specific reading practices? According to Hall, an investigation of these questions is important not only in understanding how literacy perpetuates and is embedded in the values and practices of a culture, but also because “…understanding the literacy goals and practices of non-school communities and institutions can help teachers to connect with students’ literacies and lives beyond the classroom”(647-648). Exploring these understanding is important to me for two reasons. As an English educator and school based literacy sponsor, I am interested in the practices of adult readers and the influences of sponsors of literacy in adult readers’ lives and how those practices might translate to meaningful classroom practice. However, given the conversations from our ELAN 7700 class this past summer, I am particularly interested in the practices of literacy sponsors that are not associated with public schools, especially when I think about how many of us perceived schools as literacy sponsors who shaped our reading beliefs and practices in a negative way.
  3. 3. Hamilton 3 Hall devotes the majority of the article outlining how Oprah links a glamorous lifestyle and reading through a detailed analysis of episodes featuring book club meetings at Oprah’s home with sumptuous dinners and hallmarks of “good taste.” Hall identifies the major themes of “…Winfrey’s Cinderella fairy tale: secrets, intimacy, power---and books”(648). Hall spends the majority of the article analyzing how Oprah creates “an illusion of intimacy”(651) to convince her book club members to engage in the books she chooses for the book club selections. Hall especially hones in on how Oprah frequently engages in self-disclosure, frequently sharing the story of how books and reading transformed her life from one that was intellectually and financially impoverished to a life that is rich both spiritually and materially rich. Hall also depicts how Oprah links celebrity culture and good taste while avoiding any associations “highbrow” culture when she hosts book club dinners at her home that feature fine dining and sumptuous settings (652-54). While Hall seems to hint that Oprah’s tactics are a smoke and mirrors kind of act and that her theme of books as a means to self-improvement (655), Hall never acknowledges the fact that Oprah as a literacy sponsor achieved what so many other sponsors of literacy have not: she has people reading and engaging in dialogue about books. I do not think we should discount Hall’s concern that Oprah’s Book Club sometimes privileged “…deeply personal, affective responses…because they are more consistent with the value and assumptions underlying the show”(658) over intellectual responses to the texts. The concern of how to balance a literary conversation with personal response and a deeper inquiry into the text itself is a challenge for all literacy educators. In addition, Hall expresses a valid concern over the messages, implicit and explicit, sent to
  4. 4. Hamilton 4 readers about literacy and its uses through the linkage of celebrity culture and lifestyle with reading when Oprah hosts book club dinners at her glamorous home complete with fine amenities and sumptuous cuisine. However, I think it would have been more useful for Hall to have interviewed individuals who participated in the Oprah Book Club and to have compared how the literary conversation and meetings were different or similar to those book club meetings televised on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I am intrigued to know how participants in the book club benefited from Oprah’s sponsorship of literacy in her viewers’ lives. Although Hall asserts that Oprah provides her readers her “…credibility, with the promise of self-improvement and moral uplift…”(660) in exchange for “ratings and revenue”(660), I do not see the Oprah really gains any power from her role as a literacy sponsor, particularly after reading Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads; in this book, Dr. Cecilia Konchar Farr points out that Oprah did not make any financial gains through the Oprah Book Club. While Hall perceives Oprah’s role of hostess at the book club dinner table representative of a woman in traditional and subservient roles of mother, hostess, and homemaker (660), I disagree with Hall’s assertion that the Oprah Book Club falsely frames reading in terms of “female empowerment”(661) and depends on “fundamentally conservative forces in the history of literacy sponsorship for women in this country”(661). The all female book clubs of America in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not depend on “fundamentally conservative forces”; instead, these book clubs were a means for women to do social work that actually conflicted with traditional cultural values and enabled women to enlarge their reading practices and forge bonds with other women to enlarge their
  5. 5. Hamilton 5 thinking and push the envelopes of socially acceptable behaviors of women in a time when women’s rights were severely limited in American society. While this article did not change my overall perception that the Oprah Book Club has functioned as an important sponsor of literacy in contemporary American society, Hall does pose some valid questions that warrant further inquiry: Might there be, for instance, a negative version of the literacy sponsor---a “non- literacy sponsor,” perhaps? (663) What would be the reciprocal relationship among these non-literacy sponsors and the sponsored? How might non-literacy sponsors, such as schools and bureaucracies, reinforce existing inequalities in America? (663) What “extracurriculum” might flourish and function as part of the “experiences of literate people” (664) when non-school readers become enthusiastic readers through the sponsorship of a literacy sponsor such as the Oprah Book Club? How might other literacy sponsors create literate communities that embrace and embody the literacy practices from this “extracurriculum”, particularly for those in public schools who have had limited literacy access to literacy and/or limited literacy learning experiences? In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this article that analyzes the Oprah Book Club through Deborah Brandt’s literary lens of “sponsors of literacy”. Although I did not agree with all of Hall’s analysis and conclusions, I do value the important questions he raises in this article and feel that this reading will inform my own research project this fall as I interview individuals and examine the role of literacy sponsors in the lives of my research participants.
  6. 6. Hamilton 6