This Book Changed My Life

This Book Changed My Life!

'Oprah's Book Club' and The Poisonwood Bible

Annika McPherson

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, first published in 1998, shows how difficult it is to assess whether a novel nowadays is (commercially) successful because it appeals to many people or whether people like it because the commercialized product is successfully promoted as "to-be-liked." As a simplified formula of Adorno's and Horkheimer's "culture industry" would have it, consumers' cultural needs are anticipated, identified, and classified in the production process, which causes them to succumb to the market segment that promises a satisfying reading experience according to their particular expectations. This should lead to a basic social and intellectual conformity of the consumers of a specific cultural product. However, both the complexity of the contemporary culture industry and revised notions of culture preclude the assumption that a novel is commercially successful simply because it is tailored to the needs of mass consumption, or that its consumers are incapable of performing acts of cultural criticism.

In the case of The Poisonwood Bible, one has access to a specific form of reader responses, which are in turn entangled in the dialectics of cultural production and consumption. Having been presented on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and with an edition in the "Oprah's Book Club" series, The Poisonwood Bible also has its own online discussion on www.oprah.com.[1] In November 2003, there were 517 entries on this message board. Analyzing the discussion shows how the people who visit the book section of Oprah's homepage and who choose to post messages (i.e. not necessarily the viewers of the talk show or the "average" Book Club readers) engage with a specific text. Unlike questionnaire-based reader response analyses, these responses are largely unmediated by direct academic intervention – which does of course not mean that they are not influenced by tendencies in academic criticism or by individual scholars partaking in the discussion. So far, the very media-specific interaction in online message boards has received little attention, although it could provide valuable insights into social actors' agency in the creation of meanings and identifications. The dynamics between individualized interpretation and the possible formation of interpretive communities, which might become observable in the process of such a discussion, could furthermore serve to review the notion of the interpretive community as introduced by Stanley Fish while at the same time complicating his assessment of what constitutes an "informed reader."[2]

My goal here is to reactivate reader response analysis not for the sake of interpreting the novel, but in order to arrive at a better understanding of the workings of the culture industry in its present-day complexity, as well as its relationship with academic criticism. I will thus end by asking what academic theorizing can gain from a forum like the "Oprah's Book Club" message boards, which enable readers to function as critics and to engage in a critical as well as personal dialogue with each other. Given the lack of inter- or transdisciplinary analyses of online message board communication, I also want to suggest that combining research in computer-mediated communication with questions posed by literary and cultural criticism can enhance our understanding of the processes through which social actors create meaning and identifications.[3]

A Popular Success

For 24 weeks, from November 1998 to April 1999, The Poisonwood Bible was listed on the New York Times bestseller list, reaching a top position of number two in its twelfth week, then slowly drifting out of the list. In its first week on the bestseller list (ranked sixth), it was competing against Stephen King's Bag of Bones, Anne Rice's The Vampire Armand, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six as the top three sellers.[4] The complexity of its narration and topic matter notwithstanding, the novel was a popular and commercial success.

The Poisonwood Bible portrays the life of an American Southern Baptist missionary family from Bethlehem, Georgia, during their mission in the Congo in 1959 and the early 1960s, as well as individual family members' subsequent experiences in central and southern Africa and the United States well into the 1980s. As the summary on the "Oprah's Book Club" web site phrases it, the novel is "an intimate portrait of one family's tragic confrontation with the unstoppable forces of nature, history, and hubris."[5] In my reading, Kingsolver's novel explores a wide range of complex topic areas, including the relationship between individual memory, historiography and history; intertextual re-interpretations and rewritings; representations of the cultural other and the self; as well as processes of transculturation.

As the story is told from the perspective of Orleanna Price and her four daughters, while Nathan Price is not given a voice of his own, these topics are closely connected to female points of view. The daughters' diary-like descriptions, together with Orleanna's retrospective meditations, form a palimpsest of events and perceptions, which mirrors the diversity of experiences and their different impacts on each character. After their return to the United States, Orleanna and Adah Price review their experiences in the light of the local media portrayals of the Congo. Leah, who remains in Africa, compares her own insights and experiences with the "official" versions of Congolese history and politics. From Rachel Price's outright support of the South African apartheid regime to the question of whether difference can be overcome in a relationship like Leah's and Anatole's, the novel presents various strategies of coping with extreme situations.

Reading Clubs and "Oprah's Book Club"

"Oprah's Book Club" was launched in 1996 as a segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." In her study of African American Literary Societies, Elizabeth McHenry concludes that contemporary reading groups and book clubs deal with "issues involving the relationship between literary work and political activism, between collective study and a sense of community, between the practice of reading and the formation of literary history" (297-8). Especially for black women, she writes, "book clubs are about far more than the communal analysis of a good book. Although reading literature provides the catalyst for their coming together, the impact of black women's association with a reading group is usually felt on both an intellectual and an emotional or spiritual level" (McHenry 303). It is in this context that McHenry also places "Oprah's Book Club."

As claimed on the web site, Winfrey's mission is to "make this the biggest book club in the world and get people reading again" (which, judging from the merchandise for sale on the web site also includes a considerable commercial aspect).[6] The entanglement of literary production, distribution and consumption becomes clear in McHenry's observation that "Oprah's Book Club" has not only had an impact on her viewers, but also on the publishing industry. For example, Jacqueline Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean had only received "lukewarm reviews upon publication," but "catapulted to number one on the New York Times bestseller list" after being announced Oprah's first selection in September 1996. This has also been the case with novels selected long after their first publication, such as Toni Morrison's then 19-year-old novel Song of Solomon (McHenry 308-10). The general procedure is as follows: Oprah announces a book on the show that she has been "emotionally moved by" (Winfrey quoted in McHenry 311) and asks viewers to mail her a letter describing their reading experience.[7] Based on these letters, several viewers are selected and invited to a dinner meeting with Oprah and the author, which is then partially aired on the show. On the web site, one can find plot summaries, excerpts, guidelines for writing one's own review, information about the author, the letters that were selected, as well as a message board and reading questions.[8]

McHenry attributes the club's success largely to the fact that it "provides its 'members' with a collective experience" and allows the daily viewers of the show "to imagine themselves as part of and participants in a communal endeavor," which is said to represent the "daytime television public's desire to be part of a larger community." From postings on the web site, McHenry concludes that many of Winfrey's viewers "are women who do not work and may therefore lack the sense of community associated with the workplace," who "seek a shared experience, something that is largely absent from their lives." In addition, the success is said to be "indicative of the extent to which texts, even if read in solitude, elicit in their readers responses that demand a forum for sharing" (McHenry 310). Hence, the focus of Winfrey's book club "is typically oriented more directly toward her viewer's personal, rather than political, responses to the texts they have read," toward the "personal revelation and sentimental response that is at the heart of the talk-show format," and toward "emotional confessions and personal transformations; their intimate responses" (McHenry 311). While my analysis of the Poisonwood Bible message board seems to confirm some of McHenry's assumptions, others appear as problematic.

The Poisonwood Bible and the "Oprah Winfrey Show"

The Poisonwood Bible was announced on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" on June 23, 2000 (that is two years after its first publication) as a "Summer Book Club Selection" to be read over the summer and discussed on the show on August 23, 2000.[9] The four women who, based upon their letters, were invited to the show discussion, pointed out their emotional responses to the book as well as its literary qualities. Their comments represent major strands of the online discussion: Suzanne claims that this book changed her life because of the way it combines an attack on consumerism with the "sub-text" of "the rape of Africa's resources." After reading the novel, she feels "much more connected to a world outside of [her] own experience."[10] Sheri, on the other hand, represents the many readers who identify with the Price daughters because they, too, were raised in a strict church: "I am Leah Price," she writes. The Poisonwood Bible also changed her life because it made her "realize the horrible responsibility" of the U.S. and herself "to the world as we arrogantly seek out our own interest," and also "that all is not good or bad, black or white, right or wrong."[11] Joy praises Kingsolver's "accurate emotive descriptions of the people and places" which bring back memories of her life with her missionary parents in Nigeria and enable her to identify with each of the Price sisters in different ways. Joy calls herself a "third culture kid" who, instead of being unable to reconcile the dual cultures she grew up with, thanks Kingsolver for "restoring [her] pride in that great gift of being 'different.'"[12] Finally, Regina claims that The Poisonwood Bible is not only a journey "to mother Africa," but also "to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for white people who get it and acknowledge their varied views of time, history and blackness." Having been to Africa several times herself, she values the "dimension of history" the novel offers.[13]

The Message Board Discussion

The 517 messages posted on the board between June 23, 2000 and August 8, 2003 vary a great deal in content, length and style.[14] Some postings specify the location, gender, or other aspects of the respondent's subjectivity,[15] others simply comment on the novel or on themes drawn from it, while a few commentators appear to not have read the novel at all. Replies to previous postings occasionally enter into dialogue with each other over a long period of time. Of course, these postings can by no means be read as representative of a general readership or as symptomatic of larger critical issues. Rather, the following analysis wants to initiate discussions about the relationship between audience agency, literary consumption, and contemporary academic criticism in relation to internet message boards.

Discussion Cycles

The overall discussion seems to proceed circularly, with each discussion cycle centering on several postings by a handful of contributors. These postings spark a (sometimes heated and quite emotional) discussion on topics such as international development, gender inequality, religion, capitalism and communism, cultural relativism, U.S. race relations, and social activism. Most postings fall into one or several of the following categories:[16] emotional responses; comments on literary qualities; relating the novel to personal experiences; "current affairs"; identifying central themes in the novel; descriptions of individual characters; "close readings" of scenes; describing the message of the novel; content clarification; reading questions;[17] intertextuality;[18] negative criticism.[19]

The following cycle depicts the development of the discussion over time: Expressions of emotional responses to the novel are followed by comments on the style of writing and readings of individual characters and/or scenes. Then, personal experiences and revelations relating to topics addressed in the novel are revealed, after which an emotional discussion of these topics begins and becomes more and more detached from the novel. Following moments of reflection on this development, there are calls for getting "back to the novel," after which the process starts over. The fact that the discussion shows this recurring "meta-level" seems to contradict the picture of the passive consumer of others' emotional revelations, as the stereotype of the talk show audience would have it. On this meta-level, postings acknowledge the limitations of a predominantly North American perspective (123) and the circularity of the discussion (136); they summarize the main aspects of the discussion (161.1-161.1.1, 189) and reflect on the meaning of reader responses and authorial intentions (160-160.1).

Emotional Responses

This category comprises responses like "one of the best novels I read in a long time/ever." Respondents emphatically state that they will read it again (or have already read it several times); that it is a novel to be studied, not merely read; that it swept them away; moved them; touched them; inspired them; that it was powerful; that they cried; or even that it changed their lives. The other recurrent aspect in this category is that the novel stays with the reader; that it lingers; that they can't stop thinking about it; kept pondering and reflecting it; that it "becomes part of you:" "Ever since then whatever I do in my daily routine I find myself relating to something that was written in that book or counting my own true blessings and my children's. I don't think I will ever forget the characters in the story, they will live with me daily" (233), or "one can never look the same upon life and the world we know after reading this" (243). Of course there are also negative emotional responses ("I couldn't even get through the first part of the book - BORING BORING BORING! [...] I would not recommend it to anyone, unless you can't sleep - it's sure cure. SNOOZER!!," 218; or "absolutely hated it," 252.2), but the great majority of responses state a positive emotional engagement with the novel. Such feelings are then carried forward into statements about certain characters, scenes, or topics the novel addresses. "Feeling" books like this, one posting states, "opens the doors to such a good life" (217.1).

Literary Qualities and Personal Experiences

The postings concerning the novel's literary qualities follow a similar pattern. They comment on the structure, the poetical writing style, the use of language and imagery, symbolism and allegories, the "real as life" characters that enable readers to identify with all of them and to become attached to them, and the pleasure to be taken away mentally and emotionally (59) that results from this writing style: "Barbara Kingsolver's heart does not pump blood through her veins...it pumps words" (90). The great majority of postings point out the narrative's poly-vocality, some explicitly using this term. Reading is described as "a physical experience" that enables readers to "truly hear each individual voice" (120), it conjures up "a movie of images" (122): "Man, I am LIVING in the Congo" (217). This kind of writing is described as "a classic" (303), as revealing "the human condition" (216), as "real literature" (313). Many respondents comment on the novel's descriptions that make it feel "so real" (58, 271.1, 273, 280). Such comments, sometimes posted by people who temporarily lived in Africa themselves (e.g. 308), refer to "life in Africa," (27, 71); to the history of the Congo ("enjoyable and educating on the subject of the Congo", 78); or to a certain desire the novel seems to fulfill: "It makes me want to travel to the Dark Continent" (36); it brings back "memories of those days when as a young girl I dreamed of going to the Congo" (81); memories "my own Peace Corps service in Kenya" (84); or it is seen as relating to experiences in other places such as Haiti or Mexico (109, 212, 221).

While some seem to read the novel as factual history and a depiction of a supposedly timeless African reality (e.g. 58, 84, 57: "I could see in my mind's eye what life is like in small African villages"), others point out that it is "historical fiction" (152) capturing "the cultural view and family dynamics of the period" (12); emphasizing that it "made you taste, smell, feel what their life was like in the Congo" (68, my italics); that the novel presents an "accurate picture of what it would have been like to be taken from a 'very American' lifestyle and planted in Africa" (162). Reading the novel also elicited the desire to research history (31); to learn more; to "join Amnesty International and do something" (289); to rethink one's own beliefs (293.1.1) and preconceived notions (297, 311): "It made me stop and think" (208).

Central Themes

"Family, values, beliefs, politics, Love, and War it's all in there" (45), one respondent summarizes the great variety of topics addressed in the novel (see also 10.2, 45, 113, 205.1). An overwhelming majority of postings identifies religion as one of the novel's central themes. Here, a debate develops about whether the novel simply raises questions about organized religion and those religions claiming to be the "only way"; whether this is "wrong" Christianity and a "wrong" reading of the Bible;[20] or whether the author simply got it all wrong and depicted Christianity incorrectly (104). Also, there are several "missionary kids" who feel their own lives in different places are accurately depicted in the novel (221, 223.1, 271, 292). Numerous self-identified Christians address religious issues in the novel, some of them in a fundamentalist fashion.[21] Others read Kingsolver's two missionary characters, Nathan Price and Brother Fowles, as a negative and a positive example respectively.[22] On the topic of religion, a very emotional discussion on the Bible develops between those who consider it a document written by men[23] and those who see it as the Word of God.[24] Accordingly, some read it as "a spiritual book, not a political one" (42) whereas others see it as a condemnation of Christianity's "cultural imperialism" (127, 128, 139.1) or an "indictment not of missionaries, but of oppression" (129.1).

Oppression is also identified as a central theme by a graduate in International Development and former Peace Corps Volunteer to Western Kenya, whose posting initiates a heated debate about "the oppressor and the oppressed, the West over Africa, the Father over the family, Men over Women, Humans over Animals, Nature over People" (84.1). One question sparked by this commentary is whether the oppressed resist and triumph or whether the oppressor wins (84.1), while several other messages pick up on the "capitalism vs. socialism/communism thing" (180, 180.2, 184), which includes accusations of spreading anticommunist "propaganda." Respondents discuss the notion of poverty (who is poor, the materially poor or those who lead a culturally deprived life)[25] or whether or not Africa can talk back ("Can Africa talk back? Africa did talk back, in the way it destroyed the Price family as they knew themselves," 150). This leads to a debate on cultural relativism, about absolutes of right and wrong (136), and about different value systems (87, 87.1, 104.1.2.2), in which the discussion becomes entangled with the religious discussion as well as issues of religion and gender (51, 105, 128, 129, 144, 188). "Religion is oppression" (132) states one posting, in response to which another highlights economics and points out her own ignorance ("And I don't think I am qualified to discuss African religions or other forms of 'oppression' of Africans by Africans. [...] What do I know about Africa? [...] For God's sake, don't you think it's time we showed respect for other cultures?" 132.1).

Here, the discussion arrives at an impasse: "Here we are. In cyberspace, reenacting the divisions between the Prices and the Villagers," (193). One respondent takes the discussion back to the novel by drawing parallels between the book's internal discussions and the book club's external ones: "[...] You were sounding a little Nathan Pricish there for a while). Let's try to listen to one another and think...wasn't this one of the main messages of the novel that we all loved so much?" (188). A temporary consensus seems to be that "the novel transcends the particular story" (116.1.1), that the "U.S. needs to look more critically at itself" (116, 117.2) and its imperialist role in the world (180.2), and that "outsiders cannot know what is best" (161.1.1). In summary: "the book is so rich and filled with so many layers of themes and issues that everyone can pick it up and relate it to their own life and experiences" (220.2).

For many readers, these life experiences include issues of gender and/or racism. Kingsolver's novel is seen as "[taking] sisterhood to new horizons" (12), as depicting women and motherhood across cultures (36, 45, 280, 329), or as "a metaphor for the universal female experience [... because] the capacity of women to love transcends borders, bibles, broken dreams, and bull-headed male agendas" (65). The fact that Kingsolver "gives women a voice" (124.1.1, 124.1.1.2, 126, 153.1, 156) is highlighted by several postings. Similarly, the discussion board is credited as being "a forum to air female voices," which is used to justify having strayed from the book (196). Topics surrounding racialization and racism emerge on several levels in the discussion. There are direct references to racism in the United States (47, 52, 66, 189, 210) and the depiction of Africa and African history in U.S. schools:

As an African American, I was reminded of the messages learned during history in grade school. We never learned much of Africa in the '70s. But we were taught that Africans were savages and the introduction of slavery civilized our culture from the brutality of our homeland. At that time and even now in some media forms we are being overexposed and brainwashed to believe that Africans have always been weak and unable to care for themselves (140).

One woman states that the author "has most definitely captured the manner in which most euro-american [sic] women interact with people of color" (300), which suggests that Kingsolver's descriptions not only transcend the time period of her novel but also the geographic setting. Just like most of the other themes identified as central in the novel, racism is taken out of the time frame and location of the novel and applied to reader's everyday lives. Hence, the evaluation of Kingsolver's approach varies greatly: "I did have a problem with the author using the word dark or black to generate an image of Bad things" (69), states one respondent, while another claims that it is wrong to accuse Kingsolver of perpetuating "negative and inaccurate stereotypes about Africa" because "this was a book that sung Africa's praises and was supposed to make the reader question misconceptions and stereotypes about Africa (and encourages you to be more critical of the U.S.)" (100.1.1), thus reenacting academic debates on representation and the problematic of working with stereotypes to counter them. This also points to different readings of the author and her work: "I was extremely surprised that the woman who wrote the book was white," (36, 43) two readers reveal their ideas about who can write what, whereas another counters that she was "not surprised that the author was white" because "the book is told through the eyes of four white women" and "we see the Congo and its people only through their eyes" rather than the "black native view" (83) – although such a depiction probably would have resulted in even stronger criticism of Kingsolver's approach.

In a manner typical for this discussion board, these issues are not only negotiated emotionally (e.g. the novel "made me feel different about that part of the world and about bi-racial relationships," 210.1) but also related to questions surrounding social activism. Respondents ask: "Can anyone offer any positive suggestions for how people can improve race relations in our country?" (189); "How shall we ever set things right? Can we?" (91, 100.1); or "What now? Do we sit in shame and silence feeling the pain and grief, or is their [sic] something we can do?" (92). Answers to these questions range from raising awareness through reading books to joining development projects (190, 191). There is no consensus, however, on what constitutes action, since many seem to believe that self-reflexivity (65, 100.1.1.1, 100.1.1.1.1, 232) and awareness of one's own entanglement in historical and present-day forms of exploitation (57, 104.1.2) are virtuous in themselves. Along the same line of thought, Barbara Kingsolver is praised as "a champion for causes to end discrimination, no matter what form it takes" (83). One message sees humanism as the way out: "This author is living proof that there is a title that goes beyond your race or occupation and that is a human being" (78), while another calls for small-scale personal action: "If you are moved by this marvelous novel at all, let it move you away from patterns of overconsumption. Don't ignore your anger and frustration. Use it to transform your life" (322). As these examples show, whether or not The Poisonwood Bible changed readers' lives, it certainly affected many of them emotionally.

In this emotionality, many postings at first sight seem to confirm a generalized assessment of the book club's focus on personal and sentimental responses and confessions (McHenry 311). However, as the examples presented above indicate, neatly separating the personal from the political does not do justice to this specific online discussion. Personal revelation, sentimental responses and emotional confessions certainly play an important role, but they often cannot be separated from wider social concerns or political motivations. The Poisonwood Bible message board has to be distinguished from generalized observations on the talk-show format (which might also have to be further qualified), and more in-depth and comparative research is necessary in order to determine the characteristics of its specific format. Further research into the role and evaluation of the emotional in the given context seems also necessary.[26] If we conceive of understanding and knowledge as also determined by emotional processes, analyzing emotionality can be useful when trying to contextualize the reader responses.

McHenry points out that viewers have objected to "Oprah's Book Club" selections which "do not lend themselves to immediate visceral and emotive responses and instead require readers to engage in more complex discussions of textual analysis and interpretation" (312). However, she warns against assessing this as an inability to negotiate difficult texts, which would support the distinction between and hierarchization of emotional and intellectual reactions (McHenry 313). Distinguishing reading strategies as intellectual or political on the one hand and emotional or personal on the other does not reflect the acts of criticism analyzed above. If Winfrey has been criticized for combining television and books (McHenry 313), the internet, by bringing individual reader responses to the forefront, further complicates the issue. What is at stake here is not only the distinction between "elite and popular cultural forms and canonical and noncanonical literature" (McHenry 314) but also their entanglement in media-specific forms of literary criticism.

Conclusion

In its entirety, the Poisonwood Bible message board raises many questions that also appear in academic acts of literary criticism of the novel (e.g. Kunz 2001; Demory 2002; Koza 2003; Ognibene 2003). Although the postings often tend to use a more colloquial vocabulary, there are many parallels that demand further comparative analysis. Clearly, though, popularity does not imply passive consumption and popular cultural forms can be seen as sites of agency that indicate struggles with (although not necessarily against), hegemonic forces. In order for academic criticism to not take on the role of yet another hegemonic force, it has to take into account alternative, non-institutionalized acts of criticism and popular engagement with literary texts.

Emotionality as one central aspect of the reader responses questions a persistent gendered critical subtext that implicitly continues to view women's writing as emotional, romantic, domestic and personal and hence of lesser quality. The message board analyzed here should encourage further studies of emotionality and its potential for raising public awareness and contributing to social change, which Barbara Kingsolver claims as one objective of her work.[27] Many commentators on the message board share this quest for social change. Here the paragraph which, according to the author and many readers including myself, forms the center of The Poisonwood Bible,[28] is indicative of the crisis this novel both highlights and ultimately fails to resolve:

You'll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or diamonds, free at the very least, prosperity. Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don't, but we wear it all the same. There's only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it? (Kingsolver Poisonwood: 9-10).

This excerpt, taken from Orleanna Price's first retrospective mediation on her experience in the Congo, summarizes what the participants in the message board have come to realize and reenact: we are all complicit in ways we usually are not even aware of. For many readers becoming aware of their complicity is followed by a desire for change. Whether this desire is based on a moral concept, religious belief, guilt, a form of humanism, multicultural societies' everyday challenges or some other liberal quest, the question remains the same. The answer too, it seems, is similar in both the message board and in much of contemporary literary and cultural criticism: Since we have no answer, we revert to claiming that "simply raising awareness is very powerful" (87.1.1.1; 106.1.1). What, then, distinguishes the academic critic from the posting that claims: "My hope is that if enough people do something on grass root level it will all add up and change the tide" (89)? While scholars today tend to give in to pessimism, many of the message board postings seem to have retained an optimism that leaves me wondering just how academic criticism aims to live with it.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. and Introd. J.M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991.

Demory, Pamela H. "Into the Heart of Light: Barbara Kingsolver Rereads Heart of Darkness." Conradiana 34.3 (2002): 181-193.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. London: Harvard UP, 1980.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception [1982]. Trans. Timothy Bahti. Introd. Paul de Man. Minneapolis, Minn.: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible [1998]. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder: Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Kondo, Dorinne K. "Dissolution and Reconstruction of Self: Implications for Anthropological Epistomology." Cultural Anthropology 1 (1986): 74-88.

Koza, Kimberly A. "The Africa of Two Western Women Writers: Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Laurence." Critique 44.3 (2003): 284-294.

Kunz, Diane. "White Men in Africa: On Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible." Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other). Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 2001. 285-297.

Lewin, Beverly A. and Yonatan Donner. "Communication in Internet Message Boards." English Today 18 (2002): 29-37.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2002.

Ognibene, Elaine R. "The Missionary Position: Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible." College Literature 30.3 (2003): 19-36.

Radway Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature [1984]. London: Verso, 1987.

Timberg, Bernard M. with Robert J. Erler. Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2002.

Ting-Toomey, Stella. Communicating Across Cultures. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

Endnotes

[1] Oprah.com, Message Boards, The Poisonwood Bible. 30 Oct. 2004. <http://boards.oprah.com/WebX?14@51.DLlSaItsaUh^3@.eeaa080>.

[2] Jauss' and Iser's reception theories are of course other points of departure for developing further research questions as to the specificity of online message board discussions. A comparison with Radway's approach in Reading the Romance might be equally productive.

[3] Lewin's and Donner's quantitative analysis of usage in Computer-Mediated Conversation (CMC) points to the difficulty of measuring the effects of CMC. Here, an interdisciplinary qualitative-quantitative analysis might provide some insights.

[4] Adult New York Times Best Seller Listings. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://www.hawes.com/pastlist.htm>.

[5] Oprah.com, Oprah's Books, Oprah's Book Club Archive, The Poisonwood Bible. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_20000623_aboutbook.jhtml>.

[6] Oprah's Online Book Club Membership. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://www.oprah.com/obc_classic/login/obc_login_signup.jhtml>.

[7] A list of books featured on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is available at <http://www.hawes.com/oprah.htm> (30 Oct. 2004).

[9] See <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_20000623_aboutbook.jhtml> (30 Oct. 2004) for the summary of The Poisonwood Bible.

[10] Oprah.com, Oprah's Books, Oprah's Book Club Archive, The Poisonwood Bible Discussion Group Member, Suzanne. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_letters_20000823_b.jhtml>.

[11] Oprah.com, Oprah's Books, Oprah's Book Club Archive, The Poisonwood Bible Discussion Group Member, Sheri. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_letters_20000823_c.jhtml>.

[12] Oprah.com, Oprah's Books, Oprah's Book Club Archive, The Poisonwood Bible Discussion Group Member, Joy. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_letters_20000823_d.jhtml>.

[13] Oprah.com, Oprah's Books, Oprah's Book Club Archive, The Poisonwood Bible Discussion Group Member, Regina. 30 Oct. 2004 <http://images.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/barb_kingsolver/obc_letters_20000823_e.jhtml>.

[14] The postings are numbered, and all subsequent references and quotes from the message board indicate the number of the message (responses as sub-entries).

[15] Oprah.com, Message Boards, The Poisonwood Bible. 30 Oct. 2004. <http://boards.oprah.com/WebX?14@51.DLlSaItsaUh^3@.eeaa080>. E.g. a journalism student from Kenya, who has been in the U.S. for 3.5 years (104.1.2, 104.1.2.3.1). Specified U.S. geographical locations are Ohio (248); Texas (64, 241); the Southern States (72); Kentucky (82); Denver, Colorado (169); South Carolina (147.1), Virginia (199); and Boston (84.3). Non-U.S. geographical references include New Zealand (53); The Netherlands (308); Sweden (298); Ireland (304); and South Africa (118, 168, 242). Other aspects mentioned are, for example, "white African" (71); "a 48 year old mother of three grown daughters" (320); a 16-year-old Christian who is "not so good at Grammar" (187); "Kenyan woman living in the States" (137, 209); and "African American" (140, 172, 228). In most cases, there is no clarification of gender, and there are at least two posting by men (169, 328), and one reference to a book club with male membership (70). Of course the given names do not necessarily reveal gender or biological sex. While studies of the Oprah Winfrey Show tend to identify viewers as predominantly female (e.g. Timberg 139, McHenry 310), I wish to point out that this should only be seen as an unverified tendency in my analysis, which again points to the lack of data.

[16] Of course these categories cannot always be clearly distinguished. While I tried to discern all major aspects of the discussion, these categories rarely reflect any single posting's full range of topics. Although I did categorize most posting under several topic areas, I focused on the content that seemed noteworthy in that it was either recurring or outstanding.

[17] E.g. questions like "What is a Piggly Wiggly" (23.1.1.-24) or "what does B'enee mean?" (108.2), but also the meaning of the title (94, 117, 117.1, 117.2) or what constitutes Orleanna's crime (290). Some of the discussion questions from the web site are also addressed, e.g. why the village of Kilanga no longer exists at the end of the novel and is claimed to never have existed (82, 83, 121, 197, 201, 293).

[18] By intertextuality I here do not only mean intertextual references in the novel but also texts mentioned in the discussion (usually either because of topical and structural similarities or differences, similar emotional responses, or as reading suggestions). Such references include Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (36.1, 55, 201, 313), Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (55, 201, 313), Toni Morrison's Beloved (36.1, 36.2), William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (282), Kuki Gallman's Out of Africa (83), Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes (36.1), Kipling's poem "White Man's Burden" (87.1.1), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (103), missionary stories (162), a Langston Hughes poem (171.1), James Michner's Hawaii (173), the movie "Amistad" (179.1), Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (298), Pilgrim's Progress (197), and Ken Hamblin's Pick a Better Country (199).

[19] Most negative criticism describes how difficult it was to "get into" the novel (e.g. 2.1.1, 6, 6.1, 20, 22, 32, 50, 59, 67, 94, 275, 325), that readers "could not get into it at all" (258.2, 315.1), that "it started to drag on" (68, 277), that they were "not really swept away" (34), or that the "end was confusing" (80). Others criticize Kingsolver's glossing over the oppression of women in Africa (87, 87.1), that the young girls' voices are "overly precocious" and that Kingsolver "anticipates the hindsight her characters will have" (112.2), that the novel was "too cautious, idyllic, romantic" (161.1.1), or that they missed the father's voice (291).

[20] 2.3, 32, 33, 36.2, 38, 46, 46.2, 47, 51, 52, 53, 66, 95, 104.1.2.3.1.1.1, 127, 128, 129, 133, 134, 138.1, 139, 139.1, 140, 141, 143, 147.1, 148, 152, 152.1, 153.1, 168, 171.1, 173, 174, 179, 179.1, 192.1, 292.1.

[21] 43, 45, 52, 56, 66, 77, 104, 124.1.2, 139, 141, 147, 148.1, 151.2, 170, 174, 179, 179.2, 215, 293.1.1, 310.

[22]  43, 43.1, 46, 46.2, 78, 78.1, 78.2, 98, 124.1, 124.2, 124.3, 129.1, 205.

[23] 139.1, 144, 146, 147.1, 148.1, 149.1, 154, 186, 188, 192.

[24] 141, 147, 148, 159, 177, 184, 185, 187, 190.

[25] 84, 84.1, 84.1.1, 84.2, 86, 89, 94, 100.1, 104.1, 104.1.2.2

[26] For example, anthropology has long come to realize that emotionality is a central aspect of knowledge production and a source of information in the ethnographic research process (Kondo 85). Emotional understanding has also been identified as a characteristic element of "intercultural" communication (Ting-Toomey 20f).

[27] Barbara Kingsolver's essays position her not only as a social and cultural critic, but also as a spokesperson for environmental and social change (Kingsolver High Tide; Small Wonder). She is also the founder of the Bellwether Prize for fiction in support of a literature of social change, see <http://www.bellwetherprize.org> (30 Oct. 2004).

[28] See posting 236, in which Kingsolver is said to have rewritten this paragraph over 700 times.

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