Monday, September 26, 2005

Oprah's Book Club

More than once I've joked about Oprah Winfrey possessing some special mental ray or signal that, when she beams it out from during the taping of her show on her Harpo Studio soundstage, brainwashes millions of people, particularly suburban, middle-and-upper-middle class women, who are immediately reduced to ecstatic Oprahettes. Of course the truth is that Winfrey is a brilliant businessperson and savvy performer who has steadily refined her methods for connecting with her audience, which she has expanded over the years to transform herself into one of the highest-earning and most influential TV entertainers of all time, as well as one of the richest Black people on earth. Several years ago, she also became one of the most powerful and influential people in publishing through her Oprah's Book Club, which from 1996 through 2002 regularly selected works of fiction and non-fiction, nearly all of them decently written, most but not all by women, many by women of color, which hundreds of thousands--and in some cases millions--of readers would then buy and, in the best-case scenario, read and discuss, at planned gatherings, on online forums linked to The Oprah Winfrey Show, telepathically with Winfrey. (Just kidding.) Winfrey would invite the authors on her show and chat them up, usually going beyond the usual superficial exchanges to solicit their opinions about their works, to ask questions that she, as a genuine lover of literature, had been pondering, and to allow audience members to have their say. Occasionally she'd host specially events, like a dinner for Nobel laureate Toni Morrison that also included together several female readers specially drawn from her audience. (I remember discussing that event in one of my graduate writing classes.)

The effect of her selections in almost every case was far higher book sales than would otherwise have occurred; in nearly every case as well, the authors experienced a financial windfall, with some becoming millionaires as the books flew off the shelves. It was a marvelous little system, which had its critics, but for six years, it had no peers, though publishers and other programs tried to emulate it. Winfrey ceased featuring living authors on her book club in 2002, however, shortly after being publicly insulted by Jonathan Franzen, the author of the award-winning book The Corrections (and a series of other works of fiction and non-fiction). Franzen voiced what some critics had been stating anonymously or in a far les public way--that the Book Club trafficked in insufficiently literary, often therepeutic work (a ridiculous charge given that among Winfrey's selections were outstanding literary works by Morrison, Ursula Hegi, Edwidge Danticat, Rohinton Mistry, Bernhard Schlink, André Dubus III, and many others; and as for the charge of therapy, he could take that up with Aristotle, Freud and others) that mainly appealed to women (this was only slightly closer to the truth, but so what? What was wrong with a woman choosing books she enjoyed that might appeal to other women? Had anyone with such a public profile done this before, and weren't male authors and readers also benefiting in the process, by having more people actively reading and seeking out books in general?). In fact, Winfrey had chosen Franzen's book and invited him onto her show, but while she disinvited him from appearing, she didn't jettison the book, helping it to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and the controversy didn't hurt either...Franzen or his book sales, that is. Many other potential Book Club authors, as well as the publishing industry, experienced pangs of shock, horror and sorrow at the knowledge that the golden goose's neck had been wrung.

Instead in 2003, after a hiatus, Winfrey turned to "classic"--i.e., canonical--mainly European and American literature for a while. The picks ranged from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, with a little (or big) Gabriel García Márquez (still living) thrown in, culminating in this summer's audacious selection of three of William Faulkner's greatest novels, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and my favorite, The Sound and Fury (the sublime Absalom, Absalom, arguably Faulkner's masterwork, really would have been too much). It is difficult to get anyone to read any of these three extraordinary novels, especially the third, under the best of circumstances, even though they are easily among the greatest works of American literary prose fiction, but Winfrey's imprimatur persuaded hundreds of thousands of people to buy them, and then, through the online forums, which included literary critics and specialists, actually got quite a few of the books' purchasers to read and discuss them. But slogging, even with extra guidance, through Faulkner is not the same as zipping through Wally Lamb (by a long shot), and Oprah's Book Club readership, at least in terms of sheer numbers, fell off. (Nevertheless those readers who stuck with the sage of Mississippi won't soon forget the crazy Compsons, Dilsey, the Bundrens or any other of those larger-than-life characters anytime soon.)

Then, last week, the good news came: Edward Wyatt wrote in his September 23, 2005 New York Times article that Oprah will resume featuring living authors in her book club. She will not, however, limit it only to fiction and literary non-fiction. Instead, she will now be picking memoirs, histories, biographies, whatever strikes her fancy. (Poetry, literary criticism, cookbooks, etc., don't appear to be among the options.) As she says in the article,

"I wanted to open the door and broaden the field," Ms. Winfrey said in an interview. "That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It's kind of hard to do that when they're dead."

She has already chosen the first book in the new Book Club series, a 2003 memoir of drug addiction and recovery (not so literary...therapy....), entitled "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. No comment. It'll be fascinating to see what she chooses next and what the works of fiction will be. And how will people in publishing, from the industry executives and editors, to agents and writers, respond? According to Wyatt's article, book executives are already cheering. But some writers, unfortunately, are already making condescending, no stupid, comments: Meg Wolitzer--"'To have somebody with a really loud mouth and a lot of power saying to people, "You need to read this," is important.'" Please, Meg Wolitzer, can you keep your "loud mouth" closed, or at least try not to disdain someone whose efforts will help you in the long run? Doing so, I assure you, will be very "important." Above all, I say let's give the new Book Club a chance. Despite the obvious popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, decreasing numbers of people in the United States read even one book, especially a literary text, in a given year, so Winfrey's advocacy can't hurt.


  1. Wow. I hadn't heard the bit about a return to living authors. That's wonderful news.

  2. It is. I'm so curious to see what sorts of books she selects, though.

  3. I know. There's really no telling, but I'm fascinated by Oprah's Book Club. Not so much the show -- since I've never actually seen a book show episode -- or her way of reading, but her sense of what she ought to be doing with literature as a public figure. And I love all the talk around the books and the clubs and the money.

  4. Any promotion of "reading" is a good thing. And, Oprah Winfrey has provided a wonderful opportunity for authors, poets, artist, etc. to get well desired exposure.

    Thank you Oprah Winfrey. Thank you for empowering others.

    Wishing the best of all possible worlds,
    Iyengar Yoga teacher, tony eason