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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