by Amye Barrese Archer
Selling Out or Selling Lots?
Oprah’s Book Club Returns
When Oprah Winfrey chose her last book for her now infamous Oprah’s Book Club, it was with great sadness for many readers and authors alike, that the reigning Queen of Daytime would no longer be in the book business. Whether you love her or hate her, the book club’s 15-year history has generated many millions of dollars for those 70 authors lucky enough to have graced the diva’s list, and her effect on the publishing world cannot be denied. Last week, Winfrey announced the return of the book club, calling it Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
The book club has, at times, been divisive, often angering authors and upsetting those in the literary community. As a reader and a writer, I do have an opinion, yet where I come down on the issue often depends on which hat I’m wearing, and even then, sometimes I find myself treading water in both pools of thought.
As a reader, I have been a longtime follower of “the list,” and have found some of my favorite authors through Oprah’s Book Club. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of my all time favorite books. Others like House of Sand and Fog, all of Wally Lamb’s books, The Corrections, Fall on Your Knees, Night, The Road, and A Lesson Before Dying, were all wonderful reads, and I can’t imagine having never read them.
Would I have gotten to them on my own? Perhaps. But let’s face it, the book world is enormous and sometimes good reads get lost by the wayside.
As a writer, I have a more muted admiration for this process, and I’m not alone. Mention the words “Oprah’s Book Club” in a room full of writers and you will almost always be met with more sighs than shrieks of excitement. What Oprah has done to the publishing world is create a platform for exposure for many young authors, her choosing of their books has become known in the literary world as “The Oprah Effect.” It’s almost a guarantee that you will at least make back your advance, and possibly a lot more. When I was working on my MFA, I jokingly hatched a plan that involved throwing my book at Oprah and snapping a picture of her holding it as she picked it up from the ground.
Writers have been critical of the book club. In 2001, Oprah chose Jonathan Frazen’s The Corrections, which also won the National Book Award for Fiction, as her pick, and the author was not happy.
Frazen was quoted in an interview as being somewhat unhappy that his book was among some other “schmaltzy one-dimensional” reads. Then there was the James Frey disaster. After choosing Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, in 2006, it was revealed quite publicly that many parts of the memoir had been fabricated. The author was subsequently reamed out by Winfrey on her show along with his publisher. We in the memoir business call this “The Frey Fear”, and it keeps us from venturing too far into the world of hyperbole and interpretation.
Despite my mixed feelings as a writer and a reader, however, there is one dimension to my personality that supports Oprah’s Book Club whole-heartedly. And that is my role as a teacher. As a first-year college English teacher, I am so often met with students who just flat out refuse to read. They balk at any attempt by me to engage them with literature, and even though I know in my heart that some of them will eventually come around, I also know that many will not. But where I cannot reach the masses of those who are not lining up around the block to read a book, maybe Oprah Winfrey can. There’s no denying by anyone that Oprah has probably turned millions of nonreaders into readers, or has at least led those with a desire and no direction to some great authors and some great reads.
And it is as a teacher, that I welcome back Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, and applaud her efforts to digitalize this venture. Her first pick, Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, is a beautiful story of one woman’s physical and emotional journey through the grief of losing her mother to cancer, and her divorce which followed soon after. As a memoirist I am thrilled by this pick; as a reader, I am not surprised by it. I recommend reading this book, and not just because Oprah said so!
For a complete list of Oprah’s book selections over the past 15 years, and information on Book Club 2.0, visit www.oprah.com.
Amye Barrese Archer is a writer and teacher in Scranton. You can read more about her at www.amyearcher.com.