Oprah Closes The Book

by Alma A. Hromic

June 3, 2002


When push comes to shove, people read what they LIKE to read. In the light of this irrefutable truth, it is probably time for the reading public to leave their "reading childhood" behind and step into a mature attitude towards their choice of reading material, not relying on pundits to tell them what their taste ought to be. Stand up and be counted -- pick up a book that intrigues you, no matter if you have never heard of the author before, and tell the world, "I'm reading this because I am interested in it, I chose it, I want it. I want it. I want it because it intrigued me, not a critic from the New York Times -- or Oprah Winfrey."

Oprah Winfrey is a one-woman industry -- and all power to her for achieving this. Being "on Oprah" has become the measure of success in the fields of media and entertainment. From being just another chat show, Oprah's version rose to the giddy heights of credibility, and even people who scoffed at chat shows in general were not too averse to watching Oprah interview someone on her set.

Six years ago Oprah started a monthly rubric showcasing books - "Oprah's Choice." Oprah's endorsement of a book could sell a million copies in the few weeks before the title was discussed on her show; and the instantly recognisable mark of approval, the "Oprah's Choice" circle, seemed to merit a reprinting of the book so that the logo could be incorporated into the cover (no mere stickers for the Oprah books!). The presence of this stamp on a book cover meant instant dollars in the till. Her influence in the industry has been immense, with her endorsement resulting in the sale of more than 12 million books in 2001, more than the entire sales output of a medium-sized publishing house. During the lifetime of her book club, 47 books were given the Oprah seal of approval, and each went on to the bestseller charts. Whether or not they could have gone there on their own merit will, now, remain forever a moot point. Having a book featured on the Oprah show became something of a monthly Academy Award ceremony for the publishing conglomerates, whose ever-hungry corporate focus remains the fiscal bottom line.

In the first week of April 2002 Oprah Winfrey announced, much to the consternation of those publishers, that she would be dropping her book club feature -- because, apparently, she could no longer find enough compelling books. She states, "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share."

The question is, why is Oprah's opinion so important?

Sure, she has made instant literary megastars of writers like Wally Lamb, whose profile in the publishing industry was pretty low before Oprah took a hand in furthering that particular literary career. But other authors in Oprah's pantheon -- Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carrol Oates -- were well-known names before they became Oprah's writers. A book like Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" would have deservedly racked up sales through pure word of mouth even if Oprah had never heard of it. These are the high achievers, writers at the top of their game, literary stars. With the best will in the world you could not compare an Allende or an Oates book to a novel like "White Oleander" by Janet Fitch or "Tara Road" by Maeve Binchy, or to anything by Bill Cosby, another of Oprah's nominees. Any of these are fine writers, but their work is far more commercial and mainstream than the more "literary" offerings of someone like Angelou or Morrison.

In other words, what on Earth was Oprah's criterion? And how can you lump such different books together and expect the reading public to lap it all up indiscriminately?

Oprah's remark upon the closing of the book club insults writers everywhere -- does this mean that no new talent is worthy of Oprah's august regard? If she could pad the Kingsolvers and the Angelous with the lighter reading matter of the Cosbys and the Binchys up until now, there is no reason why she should not be able to continue doing so -- if promotion of books is in fact what she was hoping to achieve.

I am not denigrating her influence -- for the people who would not normally read a book, the creation of reading clubs featuring Oprah's choice books was an introduction to the written word, and, as an author, I am all for it. But there are several aspects of Oprah's club that I do not like at all -- its creation of megastars at the expense of other (equally deserving) writers simply on Oprah's say-so, and the idea that a reader is unable to make an informed or even an adequate decision on their reading matter without an Oprah to point them in the "right" direction.

Tastes differ. What Oprah loves may not be what you or I would love; what Oprah would not consider "noteworthy" might be something that I could not put down. Opinions are as divergent as people. Take, for instance, the book that took the publishing world by storm -- "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. People raved about it. It left me, much like its title, stone cold. I felt it was a distancing narrative, so much so that it failed to engender any kind of interest as to what eventually happened to the characters, and generally not worth the hoopla. No, it wasn't an Oprah pick -- but what makes this particularly noteworthy at this time is the recent newsflash that the author of "Cold Mountain" has received an $8 million advance for an as yet unwritten second novel, with an additional $3 million going for film rights. That is an endorsement quite as ringing as any Oprah pick. And yet... I hated it. And there are doubtless like-minded people out there who wonder what on Earth the whole hype was about.

That's what it boils down to -- hype. Bestsellers become bestsellers not because they are particularly good, but because they are well hyped. Where Oprah's book club did do a good job, it was in the arena of actually pulling a new name out of the hat now and then and turning the hype machine away from the usual suspects onto a new kid on the block. With the publishing houses merging into fewer and fewer corporate entities focused on the almighty buck, the people most in need of having their work promoted, the young up-and-coming authors, are neglected in favour of the publisher's megastars like Stephen King and John Grisham, where the thousands spent in advertising can cynically be raked back in with book sales in the millions.

The publishers' earnings may go down a million or two -- but the world of writing would bloom. The books might once again start getting chosen by the people in the profession, the editors and the publishers, instead of the accountants; we could return to a golden age where a book would be published because of its intrinsic merit and not because of what its sales figures might be. And who knows -- if the books start getting chosen purely by quality once again, the earnings may well go straight up again.

Oprah Winfrey was a self-appointed literary judge -- but I'm still sorry that she doesn't think the literary future is worth her continued attention. Unfortunately, the end result of her withdrawal from the field will not necessarily mean that people will start relying on themselves as opposed to using her as a crutch. Those who cannot read a book unless a celebrity says it's worth reading will simply go back to watching soap operas instead.

As a writer, and as an inveterate reader, I cannot help but mourn the fact that reading has become more of a status symbol for all too many people than a necessity of life. For me, life without books would be inconceivable. Until more people return to reading as an activity on which to build a personal lifestyle, celebrity endorsements may have been all that they had going.

Will there be life after Oprah's Book Club? I would like to believe so. I hope, fervently, that there will be enough people out there who will go on reading Barbara Kingsolver and Maya Angelou, and who will have enough self-confidence and taste to go on to discover their literary heirs without being prompted from the wings by celebrities who have no more right to be arbiters of public taste than any one of them.

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Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com

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Published June 3, 2002
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