Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 | 8 minutes (2,233 words)
On the cover of Susan Sontag’s 2003 book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others, her last publication before her death, is a Goya print from his graphic 19th-century series The Disasters of War. It shows a reclining soldier passively taking in a dead man hanging from a tree, a body in a row of indistinguishable dangling bodies. Its pain — and the indifference with which that pain can be met — is the perfect illustration of Sontag’s book, which was her response to the query, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” She questioned whether the representation of suffering has any hand in ending it. “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war,” Sontag writes.
Is that why American Dirt, a sensationalized, stereotype-ridden piece of telenovela exploitation written by a self-identified white (later Puerto Rican–grandmother identified) woman, was met with a seven-figure deal and trumpeted by a publishing industry — Oprah’s Book Club most notably — that ignores countless Latinx stories? Is that why On the Record, a documentary initially backed by Oprah about various women accusing Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct, premiered at Sundance when so many other films about women’s oppression have not? Both of these works have been held up in the tradition of pain iconography and as part of a wider culture that both defers to and is let off the hook by Oprah, its designated high priestess of compassion. An indigent black girl from the rural South, she was an exemplar of one of the most neglected demographics in America. That this capitalist society made her a billionaire for inspiring a cultural bloodletting has immunized it from the sort of criticism levied when white men like Jerry Springer (or white women like Gwyneth Paltrow) do the same thing.
But the merciless critique Oprah has received both for her support of American Dirt and lack of support for On the Record points to a framework that simultaneously benefits her and uses her as a shield. This empathetic entrepreneur’s predictably myopic choices — just like her acolytes’, from Dr. Phil to Reese Witherspoon — may not serve the majority, but they do serve the system that lets her take the fall for its larger failures of representation. Oprah is one of the most salient testaments to capitalism.
“People want to weep,” Sontag writes. “Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.” She may have been referencing war photography, but the sentiment applies to all narrative forms of suffering, which “are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival.” This almost superhuman transcendence of misfortune, this ability to raise yourself out of your primordial pain toward the heavens, is the prototype for the American Dream. It is also the perfect paean to plutocracy. Oprah is the prime example: teen mom, child sex abuse, teen pregnancy, drug use. While working her way toward a journalism career, she was told early on that she was too emotional while anchoring the news. It was here that she found a gaping hole in the market: Oprah turned her “failure” into a touchy-feely talk show, eventually netting herself a cult of personality and an empire approaching $3 billion. Her triumph over her past imbued her with the authority to turn beleaguered strangers’ private torment into public good and served as testament to a hierarchy of success founded on flagellation. “There is nothing greater than the spirit within you to overcome,” she said on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “You and God can conquer this,” conquering here implying profiting. She was proof that it worked. Oprah may not think you are responsible for your own misery, but she does believe you are responsible for flipping your misfortune, just like she did. As she told a women’s economic conference in 1989, “There’s a condition that comes with being and doing all you can: you first have to know who you are before you can do that.”
Her suffering was transformative, a brand of anguish Sontag defines in her book with an unintentionally spot-on characterization of how Oprah, who referred to her talk show as her “ministry,” secularized (and capitalized on) a pious approach to hardship. “It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation,” Sontag wrote. The people Oprah chose to interview (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston), the books she chose to plug (Toni Morrison, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces), and the films she chose to produce (Beloved, Precious) — all followed this same general trajectory from trauma to some semblance of deliverance, hewing with her own personal experience. They also served to convince the most downtrodden members of the population that the system was only failing to work for them because they failed to plumb their own souls deeply enough. If capitalism was unprofitable for them, it’s because they weren’t doing the work — not in the industrious sense, but in the therapeutic one.
Oprah’s recent projects fall well within that tradition, including On the Record, the Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary she was executive producing for Apple TV+ (it will now air on HBO Max), which centered around a group of women accusing Russell Simmons of sexual abuse. (He has been accused by at least a dozen women in total and denies all the charges.) The question is why this high-profile film by multiple-award winning filmmakers that already had a distributor was playing at a highly sought-after festival, when a struggling independent film could have used that rare opening to seek distribution? Instead, the news out of Sundance focused on whether Oprah, who pulled out of the film at the last minute over creative differences, was siding with Simmons or not — whether she was betraying not only her own race, but her own brand (the enabling of struggling black women to claim their due). “In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured,” she said in a statement. This reads to me as uncomfortably on brand, Oprah squeezing as much as possible out of a desperate situation — particularly if it’s at the expense of another capitalist success story, in Simmons’s case — to get maximum returns. But this isn’t all down to her own prurience. It’s the industry around her (including Apple) that encourages her to do this, that pays her excessively for it — the same industry that doesn’t even consider the marginalized stories that do not comply with those standards (standards upheld by a black woman, remember).
Having said all of that, it is also a function of technology that our culture expects us to bleed out to survive. The more intimate media becomes, Sontag argued, the further our shock threshold moves. “The real thing may not be fearsome enough,” she wrote, “and therefore needs to be enhanced or reenacted more convincingly.” This is where you get a situation like Jeanine Cummins’s “trauma porn” American Dirt, the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick, about a Mexican migrant fleeing a drug cartel across the border with her son. “I’m interested in characters who suffer inconceivable hardship,” Cummins writes in her author’s note, “in people who manage to triumph over extraordinary trauma.” It was a direct dial to Oprah, and in particularly unfortunate timing, she expressed her support for this hyperbolic yarn about a fictional woman of color’s pain on the same CBS morning show in which she discussed pulling her support from a documentary full of actual women of colors’ pain. In a video posted on Twitter, Oprah held up the Cummins book, with its cover of watercolor birds and barbed wire, and gushed: “I was opened. I was shook up. It woke me up. And I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.” Her description reminded me of Sontag’s portrayal of graphic battle imagery: “Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” American Dirt was another in Oprah’s Apple streaming projects, part of her ambition to make “the world’s largest book club,” and it showed a level of outdated hubris that was revisited tenfold upon her mentions.
While the flesh-and-blood migrants who are dying at the border have not been much of a priority to the world of capitalist enterprise, the literary industry’s corner offices have been effusive in their tone-deaf praise for American Dirt, which last year celebrated its release with — no shit — barbed twig centerpieces. The hypocrisy was too much for the Latinx community (and social media) to bear. They balked at a non-Mexican woman who claimed her husband was undocumented (he’s Irish) and painted her nails with her book cover (more barbed wire) being edified for a cheap piece of Mexican cultural appropriation, while their own perhaps less uplifting (see less white) stories were serially overlooked — Oprah’s Book Club has never chosen a Mexican author. “The clumsy, ill-conceived rollout of American Dirt illustrates how broken the system is,” wrote Mexican American author and translator David Bowles in a heavily circulated New York Times op-ed, “how myopic it is to hype one book at the expense of others and how unethical it is to allow a gatekeeper like Oprah’s Book Club to wield such power.” He pointed out that a bestseller doesn’t just happen; it’s deliberately made by big publishers sinking money into its promotion and rallying press and booksellers around it. One book’s immoderate gain is then every other book’s loss: For three months in the wake of Oprah’s book announcements, other books’ sales plummet. This is a clear impoverishment of culture, but, more importantly, it limits the dissemination of ideas that do not serve big business’ hierarchical ideals. Trauma is valued as long as it’s sanctioned by the small number of powerful people who maintain an overwhelming amount of sway over the capitalist system they uphold. The voices that are ultimately projected are their own, serving their interests and no one else’s. As Drew Dixon, the woman at the center of the Simmons doc, said, echoing Bowles: “Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for the whole rest of the world.” More importantly, the machine that created her shouldn’t get to either.
“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering,” Sontag writes at the end of her book. “Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” In the case of Oprah, it proclaims hers while hiding the main accomplices. Once among America’s most oppressed populations, her triumph is not only immune to interrogation, so is American plutocracy for having anointed her as its apostle. Oprah gamed the system that once neglected her, and her success lends it a veneer of progress and perpetuates it into the future. With her accumulated power, she shifted taboos and secured the first black American president approximately 1 million votes. But Oprah’s $2.7 billion net worth, her $25 million private jet, her empire — none of these are incidental. They are emblems of a world which has traded millions of people’s poverty for a handful of people’s riches, millions of perspectives for one authority. Oprah may still be full of good intentions, but good intentions are no longer as significant as actions, and every one of us is now accountable — and not just for ourselves. It is not enough anymore to ask people to lift themselves by their bootstraps now that people are aware that those straps are all rigged to snap.
In the midst of American Dirt landing at No. 1 on the Times bestseller list, its publisher acknowledged mistakes but also announced its epic book tour, the one which elbowed out so many other more worthy books and authors, was being canceled over safety concerns. The move proved that Flatiron — also publisher of five Oprah books — fundamentally buys into the notion that when the country’s marginalized populations interrupt the capitalist machinery, it’s a risk to the country itself. The Hispanic Caucus has since requested a meeting with the Association of American Publishers. Bowles, meanwhile, praised the director of a border library — Kate Horan of Texas’s McAllen Public Library — for declining to be part of a pilot partnership with Oprah’s Book Club. Sontag writes that a transformative approach to suffering like Oprah’s is “a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility, which regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed.” But Horan’s response to the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” is neither Oprah’s nor the opposite — it is to reject the war itself. Oprah serves up war stories to the system that is responsible for them — her response is to meet suffering with suffering. The Latinx community sees the paradox even if Oprah, in her prism of privilege, cannot. “We’ll never meekly submit our stories, our pain, our dignity,” writes Bowles, “to the ever-grinding wheels of the hit-making machine.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.