Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Oprah Book Club--In Support

[gary daily col. 13 April 21, 2002]

Everyone knows by now that the Oprah Book Club is no more. After more than five years and forty-six selections, all of which were destined to become “best sellers” on one or more of the lists we can’t seem to live without, the powerhouse of the TV talk show world has suspended this feature of her program. As one report put it, “authors and publishers mourned the loss of one of the biggest boons to reading and book sales since the creation of the Book-of-the-Month Club more than 75 years ago.”

And well they should mourn. Oprah Books were always works of fiction, and they were always books she had read and found, as she would tell it, “that I feel absolutely compelled to share."

Share them she did. Oprah books sold and sold and sold. Publishers readily acknowledged the power of the Oprah Book Club seal. Sales of Oprah books reached as high as 1.2 million copies and never fell below 600,000. The vast majority of books sell fewer, far fewer than 30,000 copies.

I have never been able to find the details of how Ms. Winfrey proceeded in making her choices. It seems certain that her staff would give her materials--reviews, essays, author bios-- for her to sift through. She probably started reading many books, finishing some and ditching others. Ah, imagine the pain of an author who was short-listed only to be short shrifted by Oprah. But the always compassionate and empathetic Winfrey kept her reading lists sacredly secret.

I once attended an Oprah Book Club show. When it was time to announce the book for next month it was brought out under heavy cover, I almost said guard. No advanced hype or leaks, ever. This brought suspense to the show, but it also indicates that it was all about the book, the reading, and not about commerce.

It’s clear from everything we hear and read about Oprah that the woman is an omnivorous reader--a lover of books and authors. This fact was underlined for me a number of years back when Jane Hamilton, the author of not one but two Oprah Book picks, was in Terre Haute as a speaker at the Vigo County Public Library. She told the story of how Oprah’s staff was at a loss as to what to give the boss for her birthday. (Can you relate to this problem? Gift? For Oprah!) It should be emphasized that this was in pre-Oprah Book Club days. They hit on the gift idea of “giving” Oprah lunch with one her favorite authors–Jane Hamilton, the author of “The Book of Ruth.” A few months later the Oprah Book Club was launched. The rest is publishing history.

Critics of the Oprah Book Club success are quick to dismiss her choices as didactic and predictable middle-brow stuff aimed at, in Caleb Carr’s immortally sexist words, “lady readers.” And Jonathan Franzen, the author of the marvelous “The Corrections,” placed himself in the center of a brief brouhaha by whining about the Oprah logo on the cover of his novel. It seems his concerns were personal as well as artistic. He stated, "I don't want people to think that I have no idea about literature or that I sit home and watch TV all day."

In the meantime, his publishers rushed another 600,000 copies into print and Oprah saved Mr. Franzen from the literary status danger of appearing on afternoon television by rescinding her invitation to appear on the show, a regular feature of the Book Club. She was classy about it, keeping the book as her choice but announcing in regard to canceling Franzen’s appearance, "It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict."

I don’t have the complete list of books Oprah has recommended over the years. I do find it common among Oprah’s critics to sniff at or forget the many choices Oprah has made which probably conform to the high standards they would set for readers.

She has chosen at least three of the novels of the Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison. She also chose Bernard Schlink’s demanding “The Reader.” As mentioned, two of Jane Hamilton’s much praised novels, I’m talking “New York Times Book Review” here, were Club selections. Works of the remarkable Joyce Carol Oates have been Oprah Book selections. Franzen’s work has won prize after literary prize this year. His public rejection of the Oprah award (well, half rejection, the Oprah seal is on my copy of his novel) garners him another prize, “Bad Winner of the Year.”

A senior editor of the “Washington Post Book World” section sniped at Oprah by making reference to “Oprah’s readocracy.” There’s plenty of fear and loathing wrapped up in that coinage. He should think about what, or if, those citizens of “Oprah’s readocracy” will be reading now.

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