Thursday, April 28, 2005


Oprah redux

A couple of days ago, I cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the Word of Mouth petition to Oprah Winfrey. Now Chekhov's Mistress fires right back at me, citing a Detroit News piece by Patti Thorn about the Oprah Phenomenon in general--and about Kathleen Rooney's Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America in particular. According to the article, 75% of the customers who came to Barnes & Noble to buy the latest Oprah pick exited the store with at least one additional title. Doesn't this make mincemeat of my claim that relatively few club members went on to buy more books by the same authors? Uh, no. Granted, my evidence is anecdotal. It's based on my experiences during the five years I worked at Amazon, when each post-Oprah title by a previous anointee was issued with bated breath and a gargantuan print run. In most (if not all) cases, the results were disappointing. Not piddling, not shameful: once Oprah has raised your profile, you're unlikely to slink straight back into the authorial shadows. But what sold all those books the first time around was her imprimatur, and it's foolish to pretend otherwise. After all, even Rooney, who diligently read all 43 selections as part of her research, concedes that 10 of them--nearly a quarter!--range from "plain awful" to "unreadable." Yet they flew off the shelves no less quickly than the quality merch by Toni Morrison, Bernhard Schlink, or Jonathan Franzen. If that's not the cult of personality in action, I don't know what is.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not weeping and wailing because the gates of High Culture have been breached. Oprah put millions of novels into the hands of often reluctant readers, and for that she deserves our gratitude--perhaps even a laurel and hearty handshake. But that petition sounded like it was addressed to the Wizard of Oz, if not to Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. (You want fulsome? You got it: "Your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear." How they appeared before Oprah stirred her quick-rising yeast into the mix is anybody's guess.) I can only reiterate that Oprah is not a magician, and it's not her duty to restore the fluttery pulse of literary fiction in America. That's up to the writers--and, needless to say, the readers.


Not really my intent to single you out and I don't even have an axe to grind on the O thing. I wrote a previous post on it when a guy was very condescending (which you were not really) and it sent me to the keyboard - I saw your post about the same time I saw the article on the B&N stats, and well, you saw what I wrote.

I don't even entirely disagree with you, but a lot of bloggers are making generalizations on this thing and assuming they can get into the minds of these millions of people. I think it's unfair to a lot of (perhaps) intelligent people who need Harpo to sift through the piles and piles of new books published every year.

My spurt of populist interest in this thing has gone much further than my interest, so again, sorry if it seemed like I was singling you out.
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