JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY:
When Oprah Winfrey announces a new book club pick, and her dedicated masses head out to their local book seller to purchase it that very day, I can’t help but liken them to lemmings and wonder how, exactly, Oprah has managed to make herself the Authority on All Things Literary. Don’t get me wrong, I have a healthy amount of respect for Oprah. I appreciate her philanthropic work, and I admire her business savvy. But, try as I might, I cannot understand why her picks are automatically gobbled up by the general public.
Full disclosure: I am something of a snob. I avoid purchasing the paperbacks with the movie tie-in covers. I like to pretend I’ve discovered a great new book or band. I tend to turn my nose up at most everything that gets radio play. I’m one of those types who questions anything too mainstream. To that end, it is unsurprising that I would greet a daytime talk show host’s literary recommendations with skepticism. Most people would probably raise an eyebrow to see a title with “Geraldo’s Holiday Pick” or “A Maury Povich Must-Read” emblazoned across its cover. Granted, she has done much to distinguish herself from these counterparts, but I am still left wondering, “Who the hell is Oprah to tell me what to read?”
However, how do any of us decide what to read? Maybe the cover art is particularly compelling. Maybe you read a good review, or your mom gave you the book, or you know that someone you admire appreciated it. Maybe you’re systematically working your way through every title of a particular author’s, even those clunky early works or the disastrous last few novels from the twilight years. Or maybe one of your most trusted friends told you about it, so you figured, “why not give it a go?”
It is the trusted friend syndrome, I believe, that is part of the lure of Oprah’s Book Club. Millions invite her into their homes to watch her daily. They’ve seen her struggle with her weight, been on road trips with her and Gayle, and spent time with Stedman and the dogs. Oprah is, to many, a trusted friend – so of course you’ll pick up that great novel she was telling you all about.
OK, I get it, but only to a certain extent. If my friend told me about some book she loved, and it turned out to be smarmy schlock, I’d take that person’s literary recommendations with a grain of salt. Not so with Oprah fans. The vast majority of her selections are, simply put, one step above chick-lit in the hierarchy of fiction.
Have there been exceptions? Of course – and not just when she decided to forsake new work for the classics. Cane River, The Corrections, The Bluest Eye, A Million Little Pieces (which Oprah both made and broke), and several others were wonderful books, books which should be read and then recommended and passed on. The majority of her picks, though, are lacking – yet they shoot to the top of bestseller lists and distract from better written, more thoughtful and interesting works.
If Oprah would only select books with greater merit instead of those she thinks her average viewer would enjoy, her book club could end up being something quite special – and her recent choices are indeed edgier, smarter and less prosaic. Nevertheless, I still scoff at the fans who swarm to purchase the latest title she touts. And when I recently purchased Middlesex (which was published in 2002, won the Pulitzer in 2003 and was named an Oprah selection in 2007) as a gift, I made certain to get a copy without her golden seal of approval on the cover. Sorry, Ms. Winfrey, I could not let you take credit for that one.
I think it misses the point, honestly, to complain about the books chosen by Oprah Winfrey, a stamp that allows authors the financial windfall to write what they please for life. It would be a similar complaint to go after the tooth fairy because he usually doles out singles or Santa Claus because he didn’t get to the Jewish kids.
And we know Oprah exists. Given the state of the book industry, can we be critical of anyone who leads to a large jump in book sales?
But as you point out, it isn’t as if Oprah is picking one Danielle Steele novel after another. Oprah has been pushing her audience to read more challenging books, and with great results. Who besides Oprah would have provided an economic boom for Love in the Time of Cholera? Elie Wiesel’s Night? Even, to go back to her greatest hits selections, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy?
No one. That’s who. Just Oprah.
The point with these kinds of crossover figures is to bring greater access to art forms to the larger American public. We saw Leonard Bernstein do this with some success for classical music in his heyday, and Wynton Marsalis is trying the same thing for jazz. But neither man has had the impact of Oprah’s Book Club on access to literature—quite an accomplishment for a woman whose own addition to the literary canon is largely limited to O Magazine.
It’s worth noting that even her most famous miss, when the author Jonathan Franzen accepted, then reneged on his decision to appear on Oprah’s show, was not simply a middlebrow choice. The Corrections, I would argue, is one of the most complex and eloquently wrought novels of the decade. Only Franzen’s desire not to appear before a popular medium cost him the chance to reach a far wider audience.
Why exactly was he writing, if not to see his ideas take hold in as many corners as possible?
Now, it is easy to find reasons to fault Oprah—anyone who is on television for nearly three decades is going to have some missteps along the way. No one here is defending Dr. Phil. No one. And obviously, some episodes of her show (when she travels with Gayle, for instance) do seem a bit self-indulgent.
But even beyond popularizing literature that certainly only reached best-seller status due to her, a worthy life’s accomplishment in and of itself, are we really to ignore that on balance, Oprah’s approach to life is a tremendously positive one? She’s single-handedly taken topics like homosexuality and AIDS—her brother was a gay man who died of the disease—and made them approachable for mainstream America. She is one of the biggest philanthropists in the world.
And what did Oprah do in 2008? You can make the argument—and a pair of University of Maryland economists did—that she added approximately one million votes to Barack Obama’s primary total through her early advocacy of his candidacy. In such a razor-thin victory over Hillary Clinton, Oprah may well have been the difference.
Unlike Jonathan Franzen, Barack Obama was smart enough to take Oprah’s help. So as we enter the age of Obama, who brings an unparalleled intelligence to the White House, Oprah will continue to reach out to her approximately 22 million viewers, leading them to read some of the finest literary works of our time.
What exactly is the problem here?