Monday, December 6, 2010

Oprah and Me (and You)

Today Oprah announced the title of her 65th book club selection. 

Why are you rolling your eyes? No, seriously, why? I'd really like to know.

I became a fan of Oprah in 1996, though I'd never seen her show, because that was the year she inaugurated her book club. I'm still a fan of Oprah...and I still haven't seen her show (except for hugely famous clips, like the one where Tom Cruise jumps on the couch, or when everybody in the audience gets a car). I didn't much care one way or the other about that first selection, The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, but you can bet your ass that as a reader and a bookseller I cared about the millions--yes, literally millions--of people who were inspired to read because Oprah did. Not just because she drove people into bookstores to purchase books--although there's no question that her book club drove book sales as nobody's recommendations before or since--but because she got people reading.

And she got them reading books that were, by and large, pretty darn good.

What, more eye rolling? What is with you people?

She selected works from such Nobel laureates as Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Not impressed? Then how about the multi-cultural depth and breadth of her selections? Viewers traveled around the world with Oprah, reading authors as diverse as Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Isabel Allende (Chile), Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Rohinton Mistry (India), and Malika Oufkir (Morocco).

Her selections have generated controversy--and oh, the discussions!--as when A Million Little Pieces by James Frey turned out to have been largely fabricated (a tempest in a teapot as far as I'm concerned...aren't all books fabricated?) and she called him to task in front of the country, or when the snobbish Jonathan Franzen withdrew his novel The Corrections as a selection (but not before it had shot to the top of the bestseller list, thanks to the big O's endorsement).

But back to her readers. I cannot tell you how moved I have been when a timid woman approached me at the information desk and asked for a book because "Oprah told me it was good." And then to have her come back the following month, having read a 500 page literary novel (a feat she'd never even attempted before in her life) and eager to get the next selection so she could read another. Thousands and thousands of people who had never read a book of their own accord read the books that Oprah recommended. Sometimes they branched out and read other books, too.

So why the knee-jerk reaction? You don't like the titles she chooses? Is As I Lay Dying any less great because Oprah chose it for her book club? How about Anna Karenina? Love in the Time of Cholera? Would you really not be willing to read the new Joyce Carol Oates because she once got the nod from Ms. Winfrey? Is Elie Wiesel's memoir of Holocaust survival and redemption Night any less devastating or uplifting because Oprah recommended it to her viewers and discussed it on her show? 

Oprah Winfrey has done nothing but good for the reading, book buying, and bookselling communities, and it makes me sad when I see the eye rolling among my co-workers, or read snobbish comments regarding Oprah book club selections in online book chats. Sure, her selections are sometimes New Age-y (The Power of Now), and occasionally celeb memoir-y (The Measure of a Man), but by and large they're good, nicely written mainstream fiction.

Sometimes they're even great.

The newest selection?

It's a twofer: Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Oh no, does that mean they're not classics anymore?

Oh, go get an absinthe and read some Celine. Wouldn't want you to be tempted by something as deliciously juicy as a couple of big fat Victorian novels.


Vampires and Tofu said...

Bravo...I'm still a fan too, and I think her book club was one of the best things to happen for lovers of the written got people to read. And anything that does that gets my vote!!

Kathy said...

Well said!

lisa :) said...

Nicely put. *sigh*

I guess I'm one of the eye rollers, but my gripe is more towards people I know that read books because Oprah said so. I figure, I read 80-100 books a year from a wide spread of authors, cultures and genres; I talk about them, rave about them, blog about them - so there's a part of me that gets a little peeved when good friends of mine will read Oprah Book Club picks but never take my suggestions on recommendations. I'll bet you can understand my frustration that people I've known for decades won't take my word on what they might enjoy reading but will pick up a book because of a celebrity endorsement. I'm not saying her choices aren't good (I read and loved Night several years before she mentioned it) but I think there's also something to be said for the quality of personal recommendations over those given to the masses.

But in terms of promoting literacy for the general populace, yes, I'll give props to Oprah. ...But maybe I'd prefer to take her advice if she had a book blog. ;)

stargazerpuj said...

I agree, no eye-rolling for someone who has done so much to make reading a mass movement. I've been following her book club and have read and enjoyed some of the titles. Many others are still languishing on my to-read list.

stargazerpuj said...

I agree - no eye-rolling for someone who has made reading books a mass movement. I follow Oprah's book club and have read and enjoyed some titles, and some others are languishing on my to-read list.
More power to readers!

EnriqueFreeque said...

Oh, go get an absinthe and read some Celine. Wouldn't want you to be tempted by something as deliciously juicy as a couple of big fat Victorian novels.

Oh really!

Celine kicks ass, I'm hear to say, over 90% of Oprah's picks any day! Give me Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan anyday (and give me my absinthe, yeah, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!) ;-) and some bon bons too.

Oh dear, pardon my pedantry (actually, don't pardon it, okay? because your Celine blast has riled me up something FIERCE and got me feeling OH SO FAUX SNOOTY!), but, um, A Tale of Two Cities my dear Becky, even though written by a -- the -- Victorian author, is not a Victorian novel per se; but rather, an historical and didactic novel surrounding the events of La Guillotine (1793, I believe, pre-Victorian). And, nor, sadly, is it big or fat; in fact, it's one of Dicken's shortest novels ever, under 300 pages. And Great Expectations is one of his shortest novels too, roughly 500 pages. Oprah essentially picked the two easiest Dickens' novels to read for her Club, and I'm supposed to applaud her for that? For being easy on her gullible audience with her easy breezy picks? Applaud her when I know that David Copperfield; Our Mutual Friend; Little Dorrit, Bleak House; Nicholas Nickleby; Dombey & Son are all 800-plus page novels (big and fast, yes!), and all Victorian staged, and all superior in literary craft and story compared to the two books Oprah picked? Granted, her picks aren't bad picks necessarily -- I do love A Tale of Two Cities -- but they're just so predictable ... like what you'd predict your High Sch. teacher would have you read.

It's Oprah's predilection for predictable choices I chafe at. Note I'm not calling the books she picked predictable, but her selections predictable, and just not that interesting, for a well read reader like myself (and others). Her pics are so uniformly Lit. 101 whether it's English, or Latino, or Classics, or African-American, or contemporary. Frankly, I find her picks pedestrian and boring; I've already been there done that, Oprah! and I suspect many of her readers have to, but since Oprah said we should read it (even though I've already read it) I guess I better read it again because Oprah's Oprah and Oprah knows best!

Your anecdote of the timid lady coming to you and asking for the Oprah pick is touching, yes, but these figures of "millions and millions" of book buyers coming into the store because of Oprah sounds hyperbolic to me. Contrived. I'd like to know who's quoting those numbers and whether they're coming from her camp or from an objective data source that has actually tracked the Oprah Cult as its entered bookstores these last 15 years.

In a nutshell, I think the good she's done for readers and booksellers has largely been overhyped, just like anything Oprah does: hype hype hype. I'd wager over half her audience are readers that don't need her to make recommendations.

Great post nonetheless, Becky, and you know I love you even if this comment irritated you. And remember, you have the power over these contrary opinions, you don't have to post them!

Rebecca Glenn said...


500 pages is pretty fat and juicy, even if not as fat as some of the others.

Tale of Two Cities not a Victorian novel? Okay, it's historical...whatever.

Celine better than Dickens? I'm rolling my eyes, Sir Freeque.

Millions and millions of readers? I'm not quoting anybody's figures. However, I am basing my hyperbolic statement on my own personal anecdotal evidence. I've been in the book business since before Oprah's first book club, and I can attest to the fact that she drove books to the bestseller list--where they stayed for extended periods of time--which never would have come anywhere near it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is pedestrian? Oh, to have the magic and beauty in my life that you do, if you find that work run-of-the-mill and predictable! Anna Karenina is not one of the most beautiful, sweeping love stories ever written?

Oh, Brent.

No more absinthe for you. You're on black coffee now.