Thursday, May 24, 2007

Jim McCarthy takes on Oprah

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 Michael’s take on THE SECRET did. What could I possibly talk about that would engender that level of conversation? Miriam suggested “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?”

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,

Jim McCarthy


  1. Oh, wow, I LOVE Nutella.

    Recently, in Britain, a study was done on what the most important thing in life to achieve. (Or maybe it was mark of success, or something like that.) Anyway, celebrity won over God, over everything.

    Out of the mouth of babes ...

    I'm just grateful that so many celebrities use their influence to do some good in the world.

  2. Not being a tv watcher and living as I do outside the U.S., I have never seen an Oprah Winfrey show and very much doubt I would recognize her on the street.

    I think Wally Lamb's books are superb, and I am glad that Ms Winfrey does too. And I am sure that a lot of the books she gives the nod to are worthy of being read. But I hate to read best-sellers while they are hot and prefer to wait for all the fuss to go down so that I don't feel unduly influenced -- or perhaps because I flatter myself that doing this makes me more of an individual and less in danger of being swayed by the vagaries of the crowd.

    Anyway, it could be a lot worse. She could be a Harlequin romance fan or a passionate graphic novel reader.

  3. I think anything that can be done to endorse the purchasing and reading of books is a good thing.

    It would be interesting to know how many of those who purchase the Oprah Book Club selections also purchase another book or two at the same time, or how many of them purchase other works by the same author later. And how many people are readers now who weren’t before Oprah encouraged them?

    We may not always agree with her selections, but she promotes reading and that’s something we should encourage and applaude.

  4. Jim, do you really want to open Pandora's box and ask questions that require of people deep introspection which means you've actually considered your own mortality and vice versa, your LIFE - because this consideration mandates you dig deep into the dark end of your emotional closet where you'll find you're all alone and can only save yourself and sure enough once there you discover a "shitheap" cauldron of anxiety and global insomnia...
    My God, Jim, your asking people to come to grips with all manner of personal uncertainties and petty obsessive needs for control, your asking them to destroy and remake a myriad of denials and delusions they live by and tear down all their fortified Gospels the very glue that keeps them putting one foot in front of the other day after day...

    Your're asking People to THINK FOR THEMSELVES?

    Oh no, Jim!
    Not only no, Jim!
    Hell no, Jim!
    Let Oprah do it, Jim!

    Remember, Jim, we don't EVER color outside the lines. It's too frightening!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  5. A week or two ago, Stephen Colbert did a brief segment on "The Colbert Report" about how major newspapers are scrapping their book review sections.

    It seems that nobody pays attention to book reviews/reviewers any more. All we need is Oprah.

    I've never watched a full episode of Oprah--I don't do daytime TV except under extraordinary circumstances (e.g., the tornado warning sirens are going off and I want to know how much time I have to find the cat.)

    You ask about the survival of the book. Writing is one of the oldest human technologies--it is the mark (pun intended) of great civilizations--and it will prove among our most enduring practices.

    All this breathy ballyhooing about electronic media is fine and dandy, but electronic ANYTHING depends on a steady supply of... electricity. To those who trumpet the death of the book, I say this: Lose your power for a day (or a week) in a storm and see if you don't gain a new appreciation for the printed word.

    Apparently, there's quite the environmental storm headed our way. Some day soon we may run out of fossil fuels, flee the coastlines for higher ground, and live in caves again. The internet won't do us much good then, but--by damn--we can read and write and paint by firelight and watch the shadows flicker on the walls.

  6. Just stumbled across the blog thanks to a certain roommate/literary intern named Kate...I'm creepy.

    Anywho, loved this post - I've been weary of Oprah Power in the past as well, but she does a hell of a lot of good (and not a lot of bad), which I guess is all that really matters.


  7. Perhaps now Oprah will pick one of your author's books! Quick send her a book!!!
    Someday I aspire to be one of Oprah's chosen ones.

  8. I love Oprah. She is my role model in life. I respect and admire her more than any other celebrity out there. And I have hated passionately most of her older Oprah Book picks. Most were depressing women's fiction that's just not my cup of tea. For me, having Oprah endorse a book does not make me run out and buy it. I am already an avid reader with entrenched tastes and the habit of browsing my local bookstore at least twice a week. However, I think alot of Oprah's fans who do support her book picks are probably not like me. They probably do not equate books to oxygen. They probably need a recommendation, a direction from someone they respect and admire telling them to read a book. And for that alone, I thank her because the more she can drive people to buy books, the more books will be published every year.

    Personally, I thought Franzen's response was asinine at the time. Snobbish, elitist and arrogant, and really unfortunate given how good his book is. But perhaps it is the trademark of the "Highbrow" literary who disdain what is commercially successful. For him to state that he "cringed" at the idea of being an Oprah book choice given the books she had chosen in the past was quite insulting. She would have brought his book to a whole new audience and wouldn't that have been a good thing?

  9. I don't watch Oprah, as I am never home during the day, but I think it's truly wonderful that Oprah cares about books and uses her clout to do good things for books and reading. She is one classy woman.

    I hadn't heard about Franzen's dismissal of Oprah's endorsement and show. I think that's a shame, in more than one way.

  10. please come read my fictional blog journal,
    and tell your friends

  11. I'm all for promoting reading, but how about promoting trying new things, like a fantasy novel. Or a romance? It seems that Opronians are just as likely to avoid romance and other genres a not being serious enough. They forget why Oprah got her show in the first place... entertainment.

  12. I may be a rebel... but I refuse to buy any book with the Oprah label on it. She has WAY too much influence on the minds and tastes of people in this country...of course, that is, until she endorses my book! Then she's an absolute genius.

  13. I think Oprah's Book Club success shows that readers are looking for some way to weed through the thousands of books out there to find an entertaining, well-written book. Personally, I wish there was a daytime talk show only about books. From literary to commercial...give us quick reviews, interview the writers, etc.

    I don't religiously watch Oprah's show, in fact, I really don't watch it at all, but I do pay attention to the books she chooses. I may not read each and every one, but I will pick up a book off the shelf and look at the back blurb if it has the Oprah's Book Club symbol on it.

    I think there is really need out there for some help in finding the good books, the entertaining books. I would watch a show like that...

  14. Michelle -- "Opronians"--love it!

    Kris, I think you're right about one reason for Oprah's book club success.

    Here's another reason: Oprah has taken the place of something that must be missing from a lot of people's lives: a thoughtful friend who talks about interesting things.

    I wouldn't mind buying/reading a book that Oprah recommended, but I have so many interesting, well-read and sensible friends whose judgment I trust. I'll read a book on a friend's recommendation before I get to Oprah's list.

    I think a lot of women are so harried and hurried that they won't make time for cultivating the soul and the mind, and that includes cultivating friendships. Too busy being mom or honey to be themselves and nurture themselves. But you can TiVo Oprah and watch her show any time. And that may be as good as it gets for some women.

  15. Very true post, Jim.

    Oprah doesn't quite have as much influence in Australia (where I am), but her sticker on any book still does more or less guarantee a bestseller. Even here we have her to thank for the popularity of Franzen, Lamb, Edward P Jones and of course Toni Morrison. This is great. Even James Frey remains big, controversy or not.

    The reality is that fiction is now such a small percentage of most general book store's sales that any exposure that novelists and their books get has to be seen as a good thing. My wife recently returned to work after five years as a stay-at-home mother, and she scored herself a terrific job in a great book store in the heart of one of our country's biggest universities - captive market of about 70,000, the only book store on campus. To her surprise, what did she find are the books that sell by the truckload, even in the centre of academe, and specifically, literary studies? Gardening and cookery books, travel guides and maps. Not to mention DVDs, especially anything to do with packaged TV shows such as Lost or Lost in Space.

    All fair enough, but fiction is occupying a smaller and smaller amount of space in this store, as it does in most stores in this country - I guess the same as in the states? Unless it's the wizard-boy, hand-selling is the only way my wife can get people to buy novels: "That's a great book on the history of jazz you've picked up there, but I just read this novel by Toni Morrison, it was stunning, and on Oprah..." You get what I mean. Thankfully she likes graphic novels too, and they sell well, but where Frank Miller will sell twenty times more than Morrison or Murakami, "How to Cook the Tuscan/Roman/Sicilian/Calabrian/Whatever Way" will outsell all of them by 100 to one.

    Unless of course it's The Secret + accompanying DVD and ancilliary paraphernalia... I guess things like this keeps book stores afloat, and allows them to stock and sell un-bestselling authors, the ones who really do need that shelf-space till Oprah decides to call...

  16. Trust me...I will never be an Oprah pick. But I don't consider that a bad thing - truly.

    And while I know, Jim, that you'd be thrilled if the Harpo people called and said, "We MUST have your client on our show...." for all that would mean in dollars and cents, there is something truly honorable about the simple, everyday person's word of mouth.

    I don't have huge numbers, (I think the total tally to date is somewhere under 90,000 books sold,) but believe me, I earned Every. Single. Sale.

    My publisher didn't send me on a national book tour, there was no fanfare, no promotion, just some rented space on the shelf at B&N etc. So, it is my firm belief that even without Oprah, I consider myself a success.

    And I love Oprah, but I have never written for her. The goal is not superstardom, because with that as the aim - anything less is failure. No, the slow and steady sale, the one book at a time, a hundred here a week, a hundred there...that's the mark of someone making it in this profession.

    For anyone out there really working to get published aim lower than Ms. Winfrey - rejoice in the act of just getting published and take stock in the everyday nameless who buy your book...just cuz.

    P.S. Athena - your line about only watching daytime TV when the tornado sirens are going off to give yourself enough time to find the cat? BRILLIANT! :)

  17. Jim,

    You, of all people will understand why I've watched the James Frye vs. Oprah battle so closely. I'm not sure how I feel about it, except that I don't think it was her place to pratically spank the guy on national television. This would be an example of using her influence unwisely. I'm uncomfortable that she turned out to be the spur of a class action law suit against the book, which has settled and will allow readers who were emotionally scared by Frye's exagerations to get a refund. It's a book, for heaven sakes, not mercury in our drinking water.

    But on the positive side without Oprah I may have never read A. Manette Ansay or gone to a book festival in Nashville just to have her sign all my copies of her books. I might never have read White Oleander and had my senses and writing expanded ten-fold. And Billie Lett's, who could forget her. Where The Heart Is turned out to be the only novel my mother has ever read cover to I say that, I hide my face in shame. Yes, the writer's mother hates to read.

    I fear I've said enough. Long live Oprah. May I one day be on her show (carrying a binder with all my double checked and verified facts from my memoir). And finally, may she use her influence over us like a wise fairy god mother. Wave your wand this way, please.

  18. Victoria Laurie wrote:

    "P.S. Athena - your line about only watching daytime TV when the tornado sirens are going off to give yourself enough time to find the cat? BRILLIANT! :)"

    Well, the cat is less impressed. To her, I am simply doing my duty as a petty minion. ;-)

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. I rarely watch Oprah (I'm writing, you know), but I admire her greatly. And, if she has a list of books and authors she'd like to see in the public's hands (the books, not the authors) then I think that's good for everyone--readers and writers. Sure, I'd like to see her start her own slush pile and discover me, but we can't have everything, right? Keep up your great work, you'll be on Oprah before it's all over...

  21. Ryan Field30/5/07 2:41 PM

    First, I eat Nutella by the spoonful and then suffer all night with a smile on my face.

    Second, we all just assume Oprah is choosing these books on her own. I would think, but could be wrong, that well paid "experts" who are in touch with what the mainstream public wants to read are making these choices and then passing them on to Oprah. I'm sure Oprah reads a lot of books she personally loves, but wouldn't bother to promote on national TV.

    My point here is that TV and film always seem more objective when it comes to the tastes of the public, where publishing is based on the subjective tastes of a handful of people who are usually bit quirky, to say the least. Do you have any idea how many people don't even know what Nutella is? Seriously. They don't even have a clue. Maybe the publishing industry should be thinking more along the lines of peanut butter and jelly?

    Just an objective thought.

  22. Mr. Field,

    Hereabouts, Nutella, (Ella Beauteen by christian name), is that ole' stringy white headed nature woman what stomps barefoot on fire swingin' a calico Bobcat, She lives yonder on Puddin Hill, and howls ever full moon and keeps her finger and toenail clippin's in shoe boxes.

    Haste yee back ;-)

  23. Rather than keeping 'Nutella knowledge' to ourselves, as if we were creating buzz for the kitchen equivalent of 'The Secret,' let's describe the product: a spread made of hazelnuts and cocoa, smoother than peanut butter, and healthier too. Looks like cake frosting, spreads like butter, tastes like heaven. Tastes like a Godiva hazelnut praline, only it's a good source of protein. Can't beat that.

    Nutella is a staple in a lot of pantries in Europe, and you can find it in most grocery stores now, near the PB&J.

    Costco sells Nutella in a twin pack--works out to be about half-price or better compared to a grocery store.

    I suppose there are people who will try Nutella because "literary people" blogged about it and like it, or because it is "European" or something like that. And then they'll turn around to their friends and say, "You mean you haven't heard about NUTELLA?!"

    Honestly, it's just dang good.

  24. Three random thoughts...

    1. I've heard of Nutella, never knew what it was precisely, but now...I'm buying it. It apparently combines two of my favorite things in the world, cocoa and nuts. (Two of the major food groups in one swell foop.)

    2. I'm not buying anything Oprah says to buy, period, end of sentence. Nothing personal, but as someone put it here, the fact that she successfully snubs genre fiction of all sorts means there are a whole lot of us who don't ever have a hope of having her pick us and make our careers. Trouble is, lots of us also happen to LIKE genre fiction...and we're people who would actually read (and did) whether Oprah had ever come along or not.

    3. Jim, I'm sending you a query as soon as I can sit down, chain myself to a non-work-site computer, and write the danged thing up. Pictionary as a contact sport? You and I are on the same page...

    heh heh

  25. I love Oprah! Yet, despite this, I don't particulary enjoy her choice of books. Ironically, I wouldn't mind sitting on her chairs. Schmoosing. About how great my book's good to dream...

  26. Look, I think the NY Times best seller has a tremendous influence on what people believe is good writing, when in fact, it's just an indicator of what's selling, or the tastes of the masses.

    Oprah tends to pick books that others would overlook. Literary fiction isn't the first choice of many, yet that's what she choses. She alerts readers who might usually segment themselves to one genre and gets them to stretch.

    No one disputes her power. I mean, if the woman chooses your book, no doubt this will absolve you from any negative reviews of your prose, plot, pace or characters. In a sense, you're free. So it might seem like a cool thing, but really... I wonder if in the long run, it could be a noose for both reader and writer.

    The problem becomes when Oprah loses her objectiveness. I think she did that with Frey, and I believe she's doing it with The Secret.

    The Secret... well... all I can say is that this is what spoke to her at the time. Which in a way, with her gigantic success in business and her number of staff, she really can make things happen just by thinking about and giving directives. And so, perhaps she thought we could too.

    So hey, Jim... there's your answer!

    Just THINK really hard about your clients books getting on the Oprah show. When her show comes on, place the books around the TV screen. Make little fake "Oprah" stickers and put them on the covers.

    If you can SEE it, it will come true! I swear! That's what The Secret says!

  27. So, what's wrong with The Road?

  28. She has control because we have given her that power. And we continue to vest our trust into Oprah because she (rarely) steers us wrong with her book picks.

    I find it ridiculous to say that she has the job of "helping out" authors. She has no such task. Her job with the book club is to engage people with books that will enhance their lives and she does this with aplomb.

    Oprah is a good influence because ANYONE who can get the ENTIRE COUNTRY to read ANNA KARENINA, The Sound and the Fury, and East of Eden and ENJOY them is worthy of our esteem.

    It is odd isn't it. How we bemoan the loss of reading in our culture. Yet, when someone comes along and encourages not just reading but quality reading, we question, criticize, poo-poo, and scorn her because she is "main stream."

  29. Let's do it Jim. It's a pact. I'll write as fast as I can. Oprah here we come!

  30. I appreciate your blog and all the info. I'm a big nobody in the literary world for all my effort to write worthy of my own expectations, however I feel compelled to respond to this comment.

    My son recently did a report on Oprah and learned that she was required to do five book reports every two weeks for her father after she went to live with him. She said that her father's influence helped her become who she is today, and I am sure reading was a huge part of it. Those of us who can see the influence of the written word on our lives are the ones who are passionate about it. I think this is the only thing I have in common with Oprah.