Tag Archive for popular literature

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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A Genre Is Born

“Well folks, it’s official: literature is dead,” announces Geekologie, in a post commenting on this photo, snapped at a Barnes & Noble bookstore:

Evidently this is a real placard meant to direct shoppers to a new section of the store.  It’s capitalizing on the extraordinary success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series and all of those who have followed in its wake (and have come before it, for that matter.)

My first — admittedly flippant — response to the sign was, “well, isn’t all teen romance paranormal?” But then I got to reading the Geekologie post and accompanying commentary, and realized people were in fact quite concerned about what a sign like this meant for the wellbeing of books and literature. Indeed many, although not all, of those who commented agreed with the general argument of the piece: the day when “teen paranormal romance” becomes an accepted literary genre is the day when literature has ceased being, well, literature and has become something lesser.

I’m at once surprised and unsurprised by how a sign like this could provoke so much concern. (A good friend of mine, who posted the image to Facebook, called it a sign of the apocalypse.) I’m unsurprised because, as a historian of media, I know that “Teen Paranormal Romance” follows in a long line of popular genres that well-meaning people have dismissed as trash or, worse, accused of undermining the good standing of literature itself. I’m thinking here of detective novels, mysteries, sci-fi books, popular horror, and the like.

I’m surprised, however, by the narrowness of this perspective. It goes something like this: let’s tell lots of young people who love (…wait for it…) reading books that what they’re enjoying is not only drivel but also wrecking all that has ever been good about literature. Great message, eh?  Yet, it seems as if this exactly what the critics are saying when they get all in a huff about the teen paranormal romance genre.

In fixating on a particular category of books — whatever its merits may be — the critics lose sight of the bigger picture: young people are developing a passion for reading, and of paper books, no less.  This is short-term thinking at its worst.  Maybe one day these young readers will develop a love for “real” literature; maybe they won’t.  But why go out of your way to stack the deck against them?  Indeed, the best way to turn people off to something for a lifetime is to ridicule them for it in their adolescence.

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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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Willy Strikes Again

On the heels of my previous post, concerning a 2000 copyright infringement suit brought against author J. K. Rowling, comes news of new allegations that the Harry Potter scribe may have lifted material from a fellow writer.  The author in question, the late Adrian Jacobs, penned a little-known 40-page children’s book back in 1987 — a decade before the first Potter release — called The Adventure of Willy the Wizard, No. 1 Livid Land.  According to the Jacobs estate, which is initiating the suit, it was he and not Rowling who first conjured up “the idea of wizard prisons, hospitals and schools.”  Rowling has responded by saying that the charges are “not only unfounded but absurd.”  The Jacobs estate estimates that the suit could be worth a billion dollars.

I don’t have much information about the case beyond the press reports to which I’ve linked above, so I want to be cautious about offering too much commentary here.  I will say, however, that I find it difficult to accept the plaintiff’s claim that Rowling’s borrowings are “substantial,” given the brevity of the Willy book. This sounds to me like an attempt to claim ownership of a general concept, which would contravene the longstanding idea-expression divide within U. S. copyright law.  In a nutshell, the law says you can only copyright the specific iteration of an idea, and not the idea itself.  Everything in this case consequently hinges on the question of the specificity of Rowling’s alleged borrowing.

The Willy case reminds of another recent one.  In 2006, Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown was sued by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who alleged that Brown had absconded with 15 central themes from their book, as well as its basic plot architecture.  But the judge in the case, Justice Peter Smith, disagreed.  In his ruling he noted: “It is true that aspects of the Central Themes can be traced through the textual parts identified by the Claimants.  That is because the Central Themes are too general and nothing significant is to be concluded from that identification.” (Hats off, by the way, to Justice Smith.  Apropos of the bestselling book in question, he laced the ruling with a secret code of his own.)

Even if the allegations made by the Jacobs estate ultimately don’t hold up in court, they nevertheless underscore a tension that lies at the heart of all of the Harry Potter litigation — including that brought by Rowling herself.  We’re dealing with a book series that, however original in its own right, nonetheless makes copious use of themes, character types, and narratives that are ubiquitous in Western culture.  The fact that there’s  significant overlap with the work of other writers shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all J. K. Rowling.

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The Magnitude of Nora Roberts

I love The New Yorker, but I cannot ever seem to keep up with it. Case in point: I’m just now getting around to the June 22, 2009 issue. Specifically I’ve been reading — and thoroughly enjoying — Lauren Collins’ profile of romance novelist Nora Roberts.

I don’t have anything to say about the content of Roberts’ books, as I’ve never read any of her romances, much less the detective novels she puts out under the nom de plume, J. D. Robb.  It’s not that I’m so snooty a reader that I wouldn’t bother with her books; I’ve just never had the occasion to do so.

Anyway, what struck me about the article was the magnitude of Roberts’ output.  Here are a few of the more stunning tidbits:

  • Roberts has written 182 novels since 1980;
  • lately she’s been publishing around 10 novels a year;
  • 27 of her books are sold every minute;
  • the amount of Nora Roberts books in print is equivalent to the volumetric capacity of Giants Stadium . . . times 4,000.

All I can say is, whoa.  Anyone who believes that print is dead hasn’t caught up lately with Ms. Roberts.

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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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We Interrupt This Broadcast…

I’d been planning on posting installment three of my “What the Publishing Industry Can Learn” series, on Netflix.  I’ve decided to postpone it until later in the week, however, given the thoughtful responses over on Conversational Reading and The Reading Experience to installment one, on The Da Vinci Code.

I argued that the publishing industry might take some inspiration from books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and media guru Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, both of which contain short chapters, as a way of helping people to fit reading better into their everyday lives.

Neither Conversational Reading nor The Reading Experience was particularly moved by my argument.  Despite my caveats to the contrary, both insisted that I fell back on the “people have waning attention spans” refrain that too often gets trotted out in conversations about the alleged decline of book reading.  I must not have been clear enough in my reasoning.

If we assume, as many do, that book reading is on the decline, then there are at least two ways of approaching the issue.

Option one is to imagine that people have been seduced by electronic media — lulled by television, the internet, Twitter, video games, and more into a state in which they are pathologically unable to focus and, by extension, incapable of following a book-length narrative from beginning to end.

Option two is to recognize the numerous “environmental” factors that make it extremely difficult for people to find sustained time for book reading in their everyday lives.  Hence the examples from my earlier post, of leaf blowers, crying babies, etc.

Option one places all of the responsibility for not reading squarely on people’s shoulders and opens them (us?) up to moral condemnation.  Why don’t people read much anymore?  Because they’re obviously damaged by the electronic media!

Option two, on the other hand, is driven by a different set of entailments.  Instead of disposing us to pathologize people for not reading books, it asks us to consider what, precisely, gets in the way of reading.  The assumption behind option two is that people do indeed want to read but that specific aspects of their everyday lives simply get in the way.

Clearly I prefer option two, and that’s what I had in mind in my post on The Da Vinci Code.  People’s attention spans aren’t waning — or, at least, they’re not simply doing so.  Instead, a host of environmental factors militates against our picking up books and sitting down with them for long, ponderous hours.

There’s a lovely example in The Late Age of Print (the book) that might illustrate what I’m getting at.  In the chapter on Oprah, I discuss the surprising number of people who admitted on The Oprah Winfrey Show to reading books at stoplights while driving alone in their cars.

What can this banal example tell us?  First, it shows us just how hungry people are to read.  You must be desperate to do so if you break out a book for however long you’re forced to wait until the traffic light turns green.  Second, it suggests that people don’t read more books in part because of the myriad everyday activities that, cumulatively, cause our free time to evaporate.  Most of the stoplight readers happened to be en route to picking up children, for instance, or in the midst of running the types of errands that sustain the workaday world (grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, etc.)

Do these people have pathologically short attention spans?  No.  Is their attention divided?  Absolutely.  So why not begin writing books that would fit better into the world of option two?  Might it not follow that people would begin consuming more books?

The other glaring issue here, of course, is economic class.  Not everyone is sufficiently enfranchised to read for a protracted amount of time; doing so takes time, which costs money.  The length of the average workday/week in the United States has risen steadily over the last 25 years, while real wages have fallen.  Today we work longer for less.

Under these conditions, publishers and writers have a choice.  Either they foment revolution and thereby free people to work shorter hours and to read more, or they adapt to the changing temporal and economic contexts within which people live.

Given the degree to which book publishing has become a bona fide capitalist enterprise, the choice seems pretty clear to me.

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What Publishing Can Learn, Part I

This is the first in a multi-part series called, “what the publishing industry can learn.”  Each post will focus on a specific — and specifically instructional — facet of contemporary book culture.  The goal is to help those of us invested in books to imagine how the publishing industry might connect better with readers and thus remain relevant (and these days, solvent!) in an increasingly dense media landscape.

The series is prompted in part by Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ recent essay in Harpers, “The Last Book Party” (March 2009), which intimates that the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair will be the industry’s last happy occasion — at least for the foreseeable future.

You can expect to see more installments of “what the publishing industry can learn” appearing here over the next few weeks.  Check back for more.


I.  What can the publishing industry learn from The Da Vinci Code?

With tens-of-millions of copies sold, to say that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a bestseller’s bestseller would be an understatement.  How can we account for its astronomical success?  A gripping story full of mystery, code breaking, and religious heresies definitely is a good place to start.  I’d also suspect that there’s a Doubleday marketing agent out there somewhere who’s convinced that she or he made all the right moves in getting the book into exactly the right hands at exactly the right moment, thereby creating this runaway literary blockbuster.  A major motion picture directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, can’t hurt, either.

I don’t dispute the accuracy of story, advertising, or spin-offs in explaining The Da Vinci Code’s astronomical book sales.  But as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point shows, the success of nearly anything can result from banal — often overlooked — circumstances.  I want to focus on one such circumstance in thinking about what publishing might learn from The Da Vinci Code: chapter length.

Several years ago my sister asked me to buy her a copy of The Da Vinci Code for Christmas.  I obliged, despite her fears that I would judge her negatively for indulging in literary pap.  (I read popular literature all the time, I assured her.)  She was especially concerned that I would scoff at the length of the chapters, many of which are just a handful of pages each.  “The chapters are so short, they’re almost like scenes out of a movie,” I recall my sister saying, embarrassedly — this a year or two before the film adaptation was released.

She was on to something.  The chapters were remarkably brief, and in their brevity, I later realized, lie important lessons about The Da Vinci Code’s success.  My sister described the chapters as “cinematic.”  Perhaps that’s true, but having watched her read the book over the next couple of days, I couldn’t help but think that they were even more televisual in nature.  She could sit down and read for five or ten minutes at a clip, non-commitally, and even manage to finish a chapter or two in the process.  She could read distractedly, as the text didn’t demand that she sustain her attention for very long.  What’s remarkable is that the book, despite being more than 400 pages, hardly behaves like a substantial (as in long) work of fiction.

The Da Vinci Code isn’t the first book to be composed or read in this way.  Anyone who’s ever consumed or even simply thumbed through Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) or Understanding Media (1964) will recognize The Da Vinci Code’s distant kin.  The former are academic screeds composed of punchy “snack sized” chapters.  McLuhan understood better, and earlier, than almost anyone how to communicate effectively using the printed word in a time not only of ascendant electronic media but indeed of myriad other everyday distractions.

In saying that The Da Vinci Code’s success is attributable in part to the brevity of its chapters, I should be clear that I am absolutely not suggesting that people’s attention spans are waning, or that we have lost our ability to process long, slowly developing arguments or narratives.  Nevertheless, ours unquestionably is an age of myriad distractions — electronic or otherwise (a crying baby, a loud truck rolling by, the incessant drone of leaf blowers) — that make it more difficult to spend protracted periods of time with protracted amounts of text.

My suggestion that books might be better served with smaller chapters, à la The Da Vinci Code, thus is a pragmatic rather than a moral one.  Essentially I’m asking book publishers and authors to attune their sensitivities better to the fine-grain of everyday life, where reading happens, and to refashion their books accordingly.

More to come….

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