Quantcast

Kathy Rooney | The Nation

Kathy Rooney

Author Bios

Kathy Rooney

Kathy Rooney is a poet and writer living in Boston.

Articles

News and Features

When the University of Nebraska Press sent my review copy of the
Selected Short Stories of Weldon Kees
with a note asking that I
please accept the book with the compliments of the author

Is this it? The end of the Oprah Book Club as we know it?

It's Thursday, April 4, at approximately 3:45 pm. In less than
twenty-four hours, virtually everyone in America will have received word
of Oprah Winfrey's abrupt decision to cancel her televised book club,
but now, as member

number 251 in a select studio audience of about 300, I find myself privy
to this news before it has broken over the general populace. It is with
no small sense of irony that I find myself here at this unforeseeably
historic taping. For one thing, I don't even own a TV and have had
little direct exposure to The Oprah Winfrey Show up until this
moment. For another, I'm here not because I'm a fan but because I'm
hurrying to finish my lengthy English thesis on the impact of the Oprah
Book Club on American literary culture. In fact, my very arrival here at
Harpo Studios played out something like a game of six degrees of
separation, starting during a thesis-writing seminar last fall when a
friend and fellow student mentioned that her mother's cousin's friend
knew Oprah's makeup artist, and would I like help getting tickets.

Now--countless e-mails, multiple phone calls and several months later--I
have come to Chicago's West Loop from Washington this very morning
expecting to receive a typical and formulaic book-club-segment
experience. I plan to take a few notes, write a nice, anecdotal
first-person account of the whole thing upon my return home and be done
with it. Still, along with every other polite, neatly dressed guest
present, I gasp with pure, unstaged shock when, immediately after
returning from a commercial break, Winfrey stands up and declares, "I
just want to say that this is the end of the book club as we know it."

I sit stunned in my seat listening to the rest of her official statement
that will air during her regularly scheduled program on Friday, the
statement in which she explains before the cameras that "the truth is,
it has just become harder and harder for me to find books on a monthly
basis that I am really passionate about." I hear from Winfrey--as will
anyone else who watches the show, listens to the soundbites or reads the
papers--that "I have to read a lot of books to get to something that I
really passionately love, so I don't know when the next book will be. It
might be next fall or it could be next year. But I have saved one of the
best for last. It's one of my all-time favorites, and we'll be
discussing this selection as usual in about a month. So my final
selection is Sula. Sula, by my favorite author, Toni
Morrison." Unlike most other people who will hear this quote bandied
about the press for weeks to come, from my position, dead-center in the
third row, I have the advantage of hearing those parts of Winfrey's
explanation that will not make the TV edit.

I hear her say during one of the final commercial breaks that six years'
worth of book club has been long enough for her, that having to read so
many contemporary novels with an eye toward picking one for the show is
just too much pressure in conjunction with everything else she has to
do, and that she wants to take time now to return to the classics. I
hear her say that she spent the previous weekend rereading The Great
Gatsby
, a title to which the audience responds appreciatively with
knowing oohs, ahhs and nods.

Back on the air again at a few minutes before 4 o'clock, an assortment
of staffers pass out copies, both hardcover and paperback, of the final
selection. Winfrey reminds all of us in the audience and, of course,
everyone watching at home, "After you read it, write me a nice letter. A
great Toni Morrison-worthy letter, OK, because in the end she's
going to see your letters too," before laughing, thanking us and
plunging into the well-mannered crowd herself to help with the
distribution of books. The cameras are rolling as I receive my copy of
Sula straight from Winfrey's hand; I could reach up and touch the
sleeve of her fuzzy, pale blue sweater or the crease of her tailored
gray trousers were I so inclined. By slightly after 4 , the show is
over. The books have all been handed out, but Winfrey sticks around, as
is her habit, to chat with the audience after hours. It is during this
unaired window of time that Winfrey's fans have the opportunity to tell
their heroine what's on their minds. It is during this time, too, that I
witness the saddest part of my in-studio experience, sadder even than
Winfrey's initial announcement, sadder because it is heartfelt and
wholly unorchestrated.

Rising before posing her question, as we were instructed to do at the
beginning of the taping, a well-spoken middle-aged woman in a periwinkle
blue shirt addresses Winfrey. I do not catch her name because she is
speaking quickly and earnestly, and I couldn't record it anyway because
writing materials are not allowed. I do catch that she is a former
English teacher, a current mother and homemaker, and a longtime fan of
the Oprah Book Club. As such, she thanks Winfrey for having done so much
for reading and literature. Then, standing unselfconsciously in front of
us all, she pleads with Winfrey not to stop now. Recalling Winfrey's
rereading of The Great Gatsby and desire to return to the works
of dead authors, she wonders if it might be possible to continue to
include literature in the show's format by, say, hosting a themed
dinner, throwing a Roaring Twenties party or inviting a Fitzgerald
professor to say a few words about the works of F. Scott. There's
something strange and desperate and true in her plea, and I want so
badly for Winfrey to assent. Instead, Winfrey explains that she just
wants to be a "normal reader" for a while, and that although she and her
staff certainly considered such alternatives, the likelihood that any of
them could ever take place is slim. She does not want, she says
laughing, to have to read and select classic novels on the basis of
their potential for an accompanying dinner. By a quarter after 4, the
discussion turns from the announcement entirely. At approximately 4:30,
Winfrey announces that she must take her leave. Without another word
about the cancellation of the club, she's gone.

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.