I’ve mentioned before that I love competition. Set me loose in a Pictionary game and suddenly it becomes a contact sport. So it should be no surprise that I track the comments on this blog with depressing fervor. Therefore, I’m going to make a blatant effort to elicit as much discussion as
But I won’t do that. I’ll go even bigger than God. I’ll go Oprah.
As everyone who works in publishing does, I follow Ms. Winfrey’s book club selections closely and keep an eye out for surprise bestsellers that can be explained only by an author’s appearance on her show. Anyone remember how fast ON THE DOWN LOW became a bestseller? I watched the fallout from Freygate on the office television set and pondered what it would mean for the future of memoirs (more disclaimers), and I bemoaned the choice of THE ROAD for her next book club (I know, I know, I’m still not over it).
I keep my fingers perpetually crossed that someday one of my clients will have the patented Oprah seal of approval stamped on his or her book, and I get a great big kick out of the fact that she uses her enormous commercial power to promote reading. I’m thankful that she introduced me to Wally Lamb whose SHE’S COME UNDONE is an outstanding read. And I’m delighted that she has compelled thousands upon thousands of people to keep returning to the works of my favorite author, Toni Morrison.
So why is it that there’s an eensy weensy nagging voice in the back of my mind that always questions whether Oprah, the woman and the show, is actually a good influence?
Let’s go back a few years to Oprah’s selection of Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS for the book club. This is an exceptional novel that deserves every reader it can snag. But the unthinkable happened: after the official announcement, Franzen cancelled. Ye gods! All hell broke loose.
It seems that Franzen questioned whether or not it was appropriate to allow one person so much control over what we read. At the time, the argument made sense to me. With hundreds of book critics nationwide, why should such an enormous group of readers instantly jump on board with whatever a talk show host happens to have picked for them to read?
It wasn’t too long thereafter that Oprah did her stint in the classics. Suddenly John Steinbeck and Leo Tolstoy were huge bestsellers. And people began to complain that those authors didn’t need the help. For one, they were already classics. And also, they were dead. Give the royalties to someone who needs them, right?
I’ve come around a bit over the past few years. No, I don’t think we should have one arbiter of literary taste. But then again, we get what we deserve, don’t we? If we lived in a society of readers, maybe the number of people buying Oprah’s selections wouldn’t make us blink. But we just don’t. One of the biggest shocks to me when I started working in this industry was how few books it took to create a bestseller. I figure there has to be a backlash to technology at some point and that readers are waiting to be made—just look at how much people latched onto a certain boy wizard and you can see the possibilities. But until then, perhaps I’ll just find happiness in the fact that at least someone out there is encouraging folks to read literature. Even if it is just a talk show host.
P.S. Dear Ms. Winfrey:
I mean absolutely no offense by that “just a talk show host” comment. I think you’re the greatest thing since Nutella. You’re a hero of the people. Hermès never should have slighted you. You’re looking awfully thin these days. Pretty, pretty please pick one of my clients’ works as your next book club pick...
Your devoted follower,