Tag Archive for book clubs

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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It’s Official: It’s Franzen

There’s been speculation going on all week that Oprah Winfrey would choose Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, as the inaugural selection for the final season of her talk show/book club.  Well, it’s official: Freedom it is, as you can see from this email that just landed in my inbox:

I’m not surprised at all by Winfrey’s decision.  As you can see below, on Monday I Tweeted about this possibility, days before speculation about the selection broke out in earnest.

How did I know this would happen? Because I know The Oprah Winfrey Show, and even more so I know Oprah’s Book Club.  Both are about redemption, forgiveness, magnanimity, and healing (see Chapter 4 of The Late Age of Print).  What better way to bring closure to one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the Book Club than by giving the author who’d snubbed Winfrey the opportunity, finally, to set things right during this, her final season on the air?

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Two Little Words

Sorry about the unanticipated hiatus.  The usual end of the semester crunch, well, crunched a couple of weeks ago. After that, I was working on some administrative stuff, the details of which probably would bore you.  Suffice it to say that I’m back in blogging action, and happy to be here.

My friend Colleen alerted me to this Time magazine article, which riffs off of a piece published a few days earlier in Vanity Fair: “James Frey Gets a Bright, Shiny Apology from Oprah.” The title pretty much tells you all you need to know.  Talk show host Oprah Winfrey said two little words — “I’m sorry” — to author James Frey, three years after flambeeing him publicly on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Some quick back story, for those of you who may have missed it.  In September 2005, Winfrey selected Frey’s harrowing memoir of drug addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces, for Oprah’s Book Club.  Sales immediately spiked, as they always do when Winfrey gives a book her seal of approval.  There was just one little problem with A Million Little Pieces: it was a fabrication, or at least partly so, as The Smoking Gun reported in early January, 2006.  Winfrey initially defended the book and its author, but eventually she made an about-face.  She invited Frey back onto Oprah along with his editor, Nan Talese, and confronted the author about his having lied.

“Confronted” may be too tepid a word.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get embarrassed for people who totally go down in flames on TV.  That’s pretty much how I felt on January 26, 2006, as I watched Winfrey rake Frey over the coals for 60 excruciating minutes.

When author Jonathan Franzen dissed Oprah back in the fall of 2002, after Winfrey had selected his wonderful novel, The Corrections, for the book club, she just canceled his invitation to the show and that was the end of it.  When asked years later about the whole Franzen brouhaha, Winfrey replied by saying that Franzen “was not even a blip on the radar screen of my life.”  Ouch.

But Frey, it seems, is the blip who doesn’t ever quite disappear from Winfrey’s radar screen.  Why is she only now beginning to let go of Frey and his mendacity?

There’s something profoundly anthropological about the Frey controversy.  It is as if Frey’s lies fundamentally breached the book club’s cosmic order.  To repair the damage, high priestess Winfrey needed to sacrifice or cast out the offending party, which of course she did.  Homeostasis only would be restored in the community years later, after Frey was redeemed through a kind of purification ritual.  Okay, so it was in Vanity Fair, but you get the point.  (Would that he appeared for a third time on The Oprah Winfrey Show!)

What all this suggests to me is that Oprah Winfrey hasn’t just produced a talk show, a book club, a magazine, or even a brand name.  Around her there has arisen a unique system of valuation, a distinctive array of artifacts, and a discernible set of practices and social identifications.  In other words, what she’s produced is a bona fide culture.

The term “cultural producer” often is used to describe pretty much anyone who makes stuff — which is to say, it’s an awfully overapplied term in the age of blogs, YouTube, and more.  What the whole Frey fiasco shows us is that Wifrey is one of the few entities who genuinely deserves the name.

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What Publishing Can Learn, Part II

This is the second installment in a multi-part series reflecting on how the publishing industry might connect better with readers.  You can read part I, on The Da Vinci Code, by clicking here.


II.  What can the publishing industry learn from Oprah?

I can hear you groaning already.  “Oprah?  Really?”  Yes, really.  “Hasn’t that already been done to death?”  No.  In fact, there’s an awful lot left to say about Oprah and books.

I won’t get into the debate over whether Oprah’s killing (or has already killed) literature.  I deal with that issue at length in The Late Age of Print, the book, and so I’ll leave that strand of the argument for there.  Instead, I want to reflect here on what Oprah might tell us about the teaching of literature on the one hand, and about the form of books on the other.

Over the years I’ve pored over dozens of transcripts from The Oprah Winfrey Show — mostly those featuring Oprah’s Book Club.  What’s impressed me time and again is how willing Oprah and her producers seem to be to meet readers — and, indeed, non-readers — wherever they are educationally and to usher them into the world of letters.

For example, one episode I looked at featured Oprah traipsing around a big-box bookstore, commenting on all the different books and amenities.  I wish she’d also visited an independent bookstore or a public library, but even so the visit was telling.  Most people — but especially English teachers — presume that literary instruction begins, well, in the literary classroom, with literary concerns.  But what Oprah shows us is that there’s a prior element missing from most formal literary instruction, namely, dedicated lessons in where and how best to acquire books.  In fact, I received an email from Oprah’s Book Club just the other day giving me tips on how to shop for books in a recession.  Used books and second-hand bookstores figured prominently.  Did your literature teachers ever consider offering advice like this?

Those who are already well ensconced in the world of letters easily forget how intimidating their world can be for outsiders looking in.  If you want to excite people about books and reading, take the time to show them in, and don’t belittle them for not already knowing the way.

My second vignette happened last October, when Oprah decided to endorse Amazon.com’s e-reader, Kindle.  She effused about its portability and ease of use, and delighted in the speed with which she could acquire e-titles wirelessly.  No big surprises there; that’s pretty much the standard story with Kindle.  What did surprise me, however, was the utter exuberance one of the device’s more seemingly banal features seemed to inspire in Oprah and her studio audience.  That feature was Kindle’s built-in dictionary.

Their exuberance ought to be telling us something.  And that “something” is all about people’s implicit dissatisfaction with the form of print-on-paper books.  We live in a time of rising expectations in terms of ease of access to information.  If I’m trolling the web and encounter a word I don’t know, I can have multiple, highly-reliable definitions delivered to me within seconds.  But if I’m reading a paper book and run across, say, “sybarite,” I have to stop reading, get up, walk across the room, and hope my dictionary contains the entry.  So why don’t publishers begin including glossaries and other such readerly amenities in their books as standard features, to save people the trouble?

Maybe this suggestion sounds far-fetched.  Yet it’s no more far-fetched than breaking books up into chapters, or including tables of contents, page numbers, indexes, and so forth.  Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the “standard” formal attributes of books haven’t always existed.  Every last one of them had to be invented, and each was invented in response to historically specific needs.  (Check out some of the images of early printed books in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to see what I mean.)  Perhaps it’s time, then, to revisit the form of the printed book and to re-engineer it for a 21st century media context.

Who knew a television talk show host could tell us so much about a medium that’s supposedly being killed by…television?

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