Oprah Learns Her Lesson
Filing from my section to the studio exit, I can't help considering that this unexpected last chapter in the story of the Oprah Book Club is not dissimilar to the kind of secret or surprise divulged in a number of the novels that were her book club picks. Unlike the best of the Oprah selections, though, this story seems to have a highly unsatisfying conclusion. Nonetheless, it is done, and it seems a shame that the club was never discussed as the rich cultural phenomenon that it really was, but rather, as is typical of so much contemporary cultural commentary, almost exclusively in terms of commerce. In fairness, each and every one of Winfrey's forty-eight selections over the past six years became a bestseller, and in an industry in which only a few novels sell more than 30,000 copies, the fact that those recommended by Winfrey routinely sold a million or more secures the club's status as an undeniable economic marvel.
Still, even when the opportunity for broad-based exploration of the club arose, as in the case of last fall's dust-up with Jonathan Franzen, reductive high-versus-low cultural bickering seemed the only result. Now that the club is over, perhaps we can examine the story of the Oprah Book Club with the care we would devote to the analysis of any complete story.
More than anything else, we'll find that the club was not just extremely significant, hopeful and positive as a development but was actually a revolutionary cultural event. The use of such a far-reaching television program--The Oprah Winfrey Show charts a domestic audience of an estimated 26 million viewers per week, plus a foreign distribution in 106 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe--as a deliberate means to such a flourishing literary end was unheard-of before Winfrey. More than any other cultural authority, Winfrey made an almost subversive use of television, a categorically "low" medium, to bridge the high-low cultural chasm that cleaves the American literary landscape. Thus, Winfrey fought the good fight for literature in America by promoting an enormous and active readership, racking up her victories--succeeding with grace and ease in the creation of new readers where the book industry itself had failed. Indeed, her widely inclusive televised discussion of books had millions of people reading within the club and outside it. Typically, by the time a book club segment appeared, more than 500,000 people had read at least part of the novel and nearly as many would buy the book in ensuing weeks. Moreover, the club resulted in people reading titles other than those featured on the show. According to Bob Weitrach, director of merchandise at Barnes & Noble, 75 percent of the people who bought a book club title bought something else too. And even though there are some who would say--and who did say--that the revolution should not have been televised, they were, quite simply and sadly, wrong, and now we're seeing the cost of their snide, misguided complaints.
Whatever else can be said about the Oprah Book Club--that it superficially treated fictional works as Things That Really Happen; that the narratives of the books themselves were flattened by the pandering, shallow narrative of the television program; that it drew an inordinate amount of attention to the personalities of the authors--the reality that it offered or came close to offering a third way of sorts between America's high and low cultural literary camps cannot be denied. By providing substantial evidence that such arbitrary and binaristic classifications as high and low may actually have the same limits, boundaries and scope, the Oprah Book Club presented a way to begin healing the senseless rift in American literary culture.
Paradoxically, within Oprah's success rested the very problem so many people had with the book club, and that led to its untimely demise. For as Richard Lacayo noted in Time, "Culture snobs who thought of her as that mawkish woman who was always on a diet now think of her as that mawkish woman on a diet who has got millions of people to read Toni Morrison." In short, even though Winfrey's position as a major arbiter of literary taste was undoubtedly established, her right to hold that position in the first place was subject to a great deal of unabashed public doubt. As C. Wright Mills observed, virtually all taste is dictated, if not by recognized cultural authorities at the so-called top, then from somewhere. All reviewing of or advocacy for a particular book--whether it appears on the book's jacket, in The New York Times Book Review or wherever else--may be construed as suggestion or even a subtle form of coercion from those in positions of cultural superiority to those at lower levels. Worthy of note, too, is the fact that most people seem fairly comfortable with this long-established tradition of how we, the public, are told how and what to read by various powers that be, many of whom are perceived as members of some kind of specialized literary class.
A reasonable question, then, becomes why widespread signs of discomfort surfaced only when said power manifested itself in the form of a middle-aged black woman and, more precisely, a middle-aged black woman with lots and lots of money (her net worth is estimated at $425 million). For even though Winfrey picked a multitude of critically acclaimed books (including Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize-winning Song of Solomon and Jane Hamilton's PEN/Hemingway-winning The Book of Ruth), her picks still managed to be subject to critical scorn once they had received her approbation. In short, Winfrey books exhibited an inversely proportional relationship between their cultural capital--low--and their economic capital--high. The critical backlash against the selections of the club presented unfortunate proof of how caught up in a kind of textbook hierarchy of legitimacy American literary culture really is.
Indeed, in large part because Winfrey selected titles with an eye toward both their literary merits and their ability to go over well with an audience consisting chiefly of women between the ages of 18 and 54--which women, incidentally, purchase and read more than 70 percent of the fiction sold in this country--the club was perceived as an easy target, open to countless cheap shots. I'm not suggesting here that all the Winfrey-selected books of the past six years--thirty-five of them by women and thirteen of them by men--were brilliant, nor that there should be no distinction drawn between top- and poor-quality literature. What I am suggesting, having read the majority of the novels myself, is that Winfrey's picks proved that readable literature is not by definition unchallenging or unworthy of both popular acclaim and critical respect. Put another way, for every stray inferior club pick, like The Pilot's Wife, there were multiple superior club picks, like The Poisonwood Bible. Moreover, Winfrey continued to move the club in increasingly challenging directions right up to the bitter end, picking such serious and demanding works as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Franzen's The Corrections. The disinvitation fiasco--wherein Franzen insulted Winfrey and she, in turn, canceled his appearance on the show--could have served as a tremendous asset to the club, the literary community and the country. Instead, it became a liability, a disheartening battle of egos between its figureheads and led to attendant galvanization along the lines of high culture versus low among the population at large. Owing in no small part to this highly publicized challenge to her cultural authority, Winfrey seems to have come now to the conclusion that the club is just no longer worth it if it means being exposed to such derision.
None of this alters the fact that while it lasted, the club was an unquestionably encouraging phenomenon, indicative of an American impulse toward intellectual self-improvement and a hunger for the kind of seriousness and stimulation that good literary fiction can offer. Such a story as that of the Oprah Book Club should not suffer from so weak an ending. The closing of the book before a satisfactory denouement represents a tremendous loss to the promotion of active readership.