Friday, March 30, 2007

The Big O.

by Marcus Sakey

One word for you: Oprah.

On Wednesday, Lady O. announced her latest book club selection, and it's a doozy: Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD (incidentally, one of two finalists in The Tournament of Books).

I should begin by saying that I think McCarthy is one of the finest writers working today, and that I loved THE ROAD. It's not my favorite of his--I prefer BLOOD MERIDIAN, even if, as Stephen King pointed out in ON WRITING, there are great wacks of it I don't fully understand. But favorite or no, THE ROAD is terrific: bleak, haunting, and chillingly effective in its juxtaposition of a delicate flame of love against a world of icy-cold winds.

Still, I have to admit, Oprah threw me for a loop with this one. It's not that the books she selects aren't good; almost without exception, they are, and most are downright spectacular. Nor are they sweetness and light (by and large), or, god help us, entitled THE SECRET. (That retching sound you just heard? Me.)

But I have to think that THE ROAD is going to startle some of her readers. Though I suppose that's the point, right? To open people to new books, new experiences, things they might not have picked up on their own. And boy, does she open them, at least their wallets--being selected for Oprah's Book Club is an automatic route to bestsellerdom, good for moving a million copies.

Yet many people, both readers and writers alike, seem to feel a lot of ire towards her for it. Scorn and jokes abound. Her picks are frequently dismissed. And I remember people thinking Jonathan Franzen came off cool for rebuffing her--when he should have been on hands and knees rubbing her feet and asking which of car she'd like him to wax first.

Is it just her name? The Oprah label, suggestive of a day spent watching empowerment-oriented television, of chicken soup for our collective souls? Or is it something deeper? Do we hate the success that accompanies it?

When--and why--did it become a bad thing to be an Oprah Book?

25 comments:

Libby said...

A bad thing to be an Oprah pick? Let her choose my book, and I'll let you know if that's true.

I think anytime someone professes to know what's good for "us" .. however "us" is defined, you'll see folks who chafe at any kind of authority or dictums weigh in.

And Oprah has been known to profess.

Maryann Mercer said...

I have to agree with Libby on the "what's good for us" resistance factor. A personal example for me was the film Hotel Rwanda. Several people said "you must see this film. It will make you think." I decided to not see the film, but ran across it last night on TV and thought I'd watch for ten minutes...and was hooked. And, yes, the film made me think. On my own time. Maybe that's what the Oprah critics are really saying. Thanks for the recommend but we're not quite ready. And Jonathan Franzen, well...to me it made Oprah fallible, just like me.
Off topic but definitely in the category of 'what's good for us',please check out this website.
It will make you think.

www.protect.org

Rob in Denver said...

I've got a bigger problem with Oprah putting herself on the cover of her magazine each month than I do with the book club.

When you figure that fewer and fewer people are reading books these days, anyone who's got the kind of jack to say, "read this book," and gobs of people do it... they're okay by me.

The Home Office said...

More than anything, I'm just sick of Oprah, and her "I know what's best for you attitude." I think the Book Club entered this category when she temporarily discontinued it a few years ago, because there were no books being written worthy of her recommendation.

Oprah would be a lot easier to swallow if she'd get over herself a little.

Marcus Sakey said...

Libby: You got a point--I sure would be willing to undergo the "shame" of being an Oprah pick. ;)

But I'm surprised that people see it as condescending or domineering. Yeah, her pick is everywhere, but that's just the power of her voice. It doesn't diminish the books themselves. I mean, look at some of her choices:

THE BLUEST EYE
WE WERE THE MULVANEYS
THE BOOK OF RUTH
DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
WHITE OLEANDER

These are indisputably good books, some of them great books. Why does Oprah saying so irritate folks?

Maryann, you may have nailed it--that whole "oh, you'd love it" factor that tends to make anyone less interested in whatever "it" is. But I find that odd when we're talking about books, where recommendations are so valuable. Lots of books, not a lot of time.

Home Office, I could be mistaken, but I don't think Oprah shifted her focus to classics because she didn't feel anything good was being written; I think it had more to do with being repeatedly burned by the authors she chose, starting with Franzen.

THE CORRECTIONS is a brilliantly written but deeply flawed book. Franzen should have been quaking with gratitude to be included amidst so many other fine works. His reaction didn't make him the cool kid--it made him seem a petulant child, and it turned me off picking up another of his books.

Just my $0.02, of course.

Katie Bell Moore said...

From a librarian's perspective, I can tell you there has been an enormous backlash from patrons against Oprah's books. In the early days of her bookclub picks, patrons would grab ANYTHING she put her name on--even if it was the phonebook for Asscrack, TN ;) But now if we mention Oprah, we hear "Oh God, not another abusive childhood story" or "No thanks, they're way too depressing for me".

Jordan Marsh said...

Real things aren't linear or consistent -- isn't that what good writers deal in, complexity and awkwardness? Just as it's true that an Oprah endorsement is overwhelmingly lucrative, and that encouraging people to read books (and good ones at that) is a positive, there's something disconcerting about the enormous influence that Oprah has and uncritical obeisance she commands. Marvel Comics' Stan Lee was joking when he said "We don't care if you buy 'em for the staples," but when the Oprah's Club logo stuck to a book cover (and later incorporated as part of the cover itself) becomes the exclusive reason that millions of people buy a book, it's a little disturbing. We should care why people buy the books they do, and we should all be wary of the Oprah phenomenon, just as we would (or should) of anyone who commands the type of uncritical following she seems to. Don't forget what Limbaugh's fans are called -- Dittoheads. None of this is to say that people shouldn't read Oprah-endorsed books, only that the antipathy is understandable.

The Dark Scribe said...

I think my problem with Oprah is that so many of her followers aren't thinkers. Working in a bookstore, I see (and sell) all of Oprah's picks, and most of the people buying them are only doing so because 1) Oprah told them to, and 2) Mrs. Jones next door has a copy and can't stop raving about it. The problem is that more often than not, Mrs. Jones has no friggin' clue what the book's about, because she hasn't even read it. And the cycle continues.

A brief anecdote: Woman comes up to the register with our store's ten bajillionth copy of A Million Little Pieces (before Oprah told Frey he was a lying sack of quivering ape feces).

Woman: "Isn't this like, the greatest book? My friends all love it!"

Me: "Only read about twenty pages. It's all right."

Woman: "Oh. It's not, like, totally uplifting?"

I stare at her. "Everyone dies in the end."

Woman: "Really? You're joking. I thought it was about faith and happy thoughts."

"It's about rampant drug addiction. It's graphic. It's not 'happy.'" I scanned in her book, then said, "Did you even read the back?"

She gave me a look like I was something she'd just wiped off her shoe.

Ultimately, bubbly-lady didn't want to believe me, and she bought the book. This was a woman who only read Sophie Kinsella and Jane Green, etc. I share this example only because about 90% of our customers buy Oprah's books because Oprah said to do it, with virtually zero intention of actually reading it.

I suppose the sales are great, of course, for writers producing great work. Supporting them so they can produce more great work is essential. It's just unfortunate that so many consumers buy mindlessly, without realizing what they're missing.

Sorry for the long post...

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

I have my own aesthetic reasons for disliking Oprah's Book Club-- I feel that the cover copy and that damn logo deface the cover design, and thus pollute my enjoyment of the book. The cover ought to reflect something about the soul of the book inside, like the covers on Vintage paperbacks of Hammet or Chandler, or the paintings on the covers of Jim Harrison or Patrick O'Brien. If it must be done, couldn't the books be available with alternate covers, with and without?

Iggypopforyou said...

Directed to Marcus Slakey-
A thug and ex-felon, resident of Bridgeport and completely insane but also a writer - I guess - first novel finished, also a Chicago story, would love to know about a reliable writers group.
Mine is punk literary thriller - leCarre' endorsed from scattered communications through the last two years of writing "Elegant Gentleman"

Please someone get me to the next step of critique?

Love
Zeek

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