A World Without Oprah

Most of you probably already know that the final broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired Wednesday, May 25, 2011.  After 25 years of hosting the popular syndicated talk show, Oprah decided it was time to move on.

Of course, what that also means is the end of Oprah’s Book Club, which some credit with having “changed the way America reads.”  Others go further, suggesting that the Club “changed America” during its 15 year run, from 1996-2011.  I offer a more measured view in Chapter 4 of The Late Age of Print, where I focus on the strategies Oprah used to connect novels and some nonfiction works with actual and potential readers.

Whatever way you cut it, we now live in a world without daily appearances by Oprah.  I’m sure that upsets a great many people — individuals who, like my mother, dutifully tuned in most weekday afternoons to watch her show.  For them it’s as if an old friend has moved away.

Others, though, are overjoyed to finally see her go.  I could point you in the direction of any number of books and internet sites that hate on Oprah.  (Mostly they accuse her of having popularized therapy culture in the United States.)  Instead, I thought a little Late Age of Print back-story might provide a different perspective on why certain people aren’t saying “goodbye” to Oprah as much as “good riddance.”

I was fortunate to have had a bunch of generous souls read drafts of my book before Columbia University Press published it in 2009.  The feedback was rich and varied, and it certainly helped to improve the manuscript.  One strange thing kept cropping up, though.  The reviewers either loved or hated Chapter 4.

The two who most disliked it went as far as to recommend that I drop it from the book.  Essentially they were asking me to write about the past and present of popular book culture in the United States as if the Club never existed.  What they wanted was a world without Oprah.

Needless to say, I thought the suggestion was absurd.  The Oprah chapter was and is integral to the “consumerism” part of my “consumerism to control” argument, plus it sets up and is a foil of sorts to the next chapter, on Harry Potter protectionism.

What’s telling is that both of the readers who suggested cutting Oprah keyed into my discussion of the Jonathan Franzen and James Frey controversies but completely overlooked the bulk of Chapter 4; mostly I explore how people featured on the Oprah show — the vast majority of whom were women, and many, women of color — read and responded to the Book Club selections.  In the end, I believe the reviewers’ objections to the chapter had less to do with my arguments and analysis and more to do with their lingering disdain for all things Oprah.

Thankfully my a-m-a-z-i-n-g editor at Columbia, Philip Leventhal, had the good sense to let me keep the chapter.  The many positive reviews I’ve since received of the book, and of the Oprah chapter in particular, would seem to confirm that I did manage to say something worthwhile there.

The funny thing is, despite the focus, Chapter 4 isn’t fundamentally about Oprah or her Book Club.  It’s more of an attempt to answer the question, What gets people excited about books and reading today?  That’s something everybody invested in book culture ought to be asking, from authors, publishers, and booksellers to librarians, teachers, parents, and beyond. Whether you like Oprah or not is beside the point.

Still, what made Oprah’s Book Club fascinating for me were the clever ways Winfrey and her producers responded to that question: by making book reading a more social — and sociable — activity; troubling generic distinctions between literature and life; touring viewers around bookstores; strategizing how to squeeze reading time into busy schedules; and varying the degree of difficulty of the selections so as not to alienate anyone.  They came up with these ideas, incidentally, by listening closely to readers and their needs.

Would that our English teachers (or reviewers) listened so well.  Farewell, Oprah, and thank you.  Your talk show may be gone, but you’ll always be a part of my world.

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6 comments

  1. PJorge says:

    That is one great chapter. I am glad you were able to keep it.

  2. Ted Striphas says:

    Wow! Thanks so much for the affirmation. The initial readers’ negative responses to the chapter are still with me, clearly, so I’m truly grateful to hear from people who connected with it.

  3. PJorge says:

    In our culture, the book is almost a magical and ineffable thing. I think The Late Age of Print is so great precisely because it deals with so many aspects of the book as it exists in real life. The chapters on Oprah and Harry Potter are great in that regard. Actually, it amazes me that the book is not twice as long, because it packs many interesting ideas and concepts.

  4. Ted Striphas says:

    You’re too generous, Pedro. My thanks for the kind words. And for whatever it’s worth, the original draft of the book — including the Oprah and Harry Potter chapters — was about 50% longer than the finished product. Needless to say, a lot ended up remaining unsaid in the final version.

  5. I echo your readers. I think your Oprah chapter is my favourite one of the book. As you write in your post, it is about contemporary reading practices and social formations much more than it is about Oprah. I think the convergence of books, tv and the Internet is well illustrated — and problemetized. Like the entire book, the chapter is accessible and jam-packed with interesting analysis. Funny how readers’ comments, when negative, stick with us. Kind of like those pesky negative teaching evals!

  6. Hi Ted – just finished reading The Late Age of Print and when I bought the book a few months ago to read over my summer “break” from grad school, I didn’t make the connection between the show ending and the fact that I would be reading about the book club at the same time. So let me say that I believe you would have been totally remiss if you hadn’t placed Oprah’s Book Club AND the Harry Potter phenom at the center of “book modernity”. Both are central to the current expression and articulation of reading, book consumption and how it all relates to IP and consumerist culture. In regard to Oprah’s Book Club though, I think you almost say this but I really believe that the success and influence of that venture speaks significantly to the way people currently view celebrity and expertise. The fact that social media and “Likes” on Facebook are often as influencing as critical reviews for movies and books tells us that the social is key (accessibility, etc.) but also, the role of “the celebrity” is extremely pronounced in our culture and has become more so in the last few decades to the point that the “celebrity seal of approval” is the key selling point for many consumer products. There is something to be discovered in why people feel that alignment with these celebrity endorsements are so desired, but they are and they are very powerful. In addition, there is the sense that anyone can be an expert (social media and Wikipedia are good examples) so why not follow Oprah’s advice, she should know what is good better than most anyone else because she is extraordinarily successful…. I think you are 100% “on the money” with your argument that Oprah’s Book Club was successful due to the way it appealed to the everyday experiences/lives of its audience – but I also believe that it was an expression of power expressed by the power of the amateur (Andrew Keen’s book comes to mind here..) and of celebrity. I’m glad you didn’t listen to your critics!!!

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