The Lesson of Oprah's Book Club

The news of the Big O closing down her book club left me vaguely melancholy, like the death of someone famous you'd never heard of when they were alive. I remember when the book club began, a few highbrow versus middlebrow editorials and the big Franzen fracas of last fall. Other than that, Oprah's selections were to me a bit like the Grammys: a barometer of a what a wide swath of the culture bought but I wasn't much interested in myself.

For, you see, my province was contemporary literature, land of the "important book" and the MFA from Columbia. In this success-smells-bad-unless-its-mine world of "bold new voices," Oprah's choices were something we readers pushed against -- albeit with grudging respect. Liking an "Oprah Book" meant allying yourself with the most obvious, least cool demographic in publishing: over 30, female, someone who thinks "Friends" is a bit racy. Outwardly, we smirked and claimed we wanted our books supported by Guggenheim Fellowships, thank you, not commercials for Palmolive. Yet as the evidence mounted, it became harder to ignore how Oprah vigorously promoted literary mainstays like Toni Morrison and Ernest Gaines, and how demographic slam dunks like Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark were curiously absent from her list.

Moreover, how could we argue with the numbers Oprah put up on the board? Forty seven books have been chosen for the club, and each has become an instant bestseller. Bookstores -- chain and independent alike -- dedicated whole sections to her choices. No-profile authors like Wally Lamb became brand names. Publishers campaigned for titles to be chosen nearly as heavily as film studios do for Oscar nominations, and compared (too often) an Oprah nod to winning the lottery. And while mourning a cash cow put out to pasture is inherently self-serving, its influence on publishing has been unmistakable. When Oprah talks, the industry listens -- something you can't always even say about the New York Review of Books.

While the Industry and the Talk Show Host were in the first few years of their love affair, several grumbling critics claimed that the golden wave of Oprah's hand was actually leading us all like lambs to the literary slaughter. Since Oprah's audience slavishly tuned in each afternoon for another dose of comfort and self-affirmation, would they recoil at books that challenged them? Would publishers follow along, focusing even more intently on Oprah-friendly novels of Determined Mothers Overcoming Traumatic Childhoods, and leave "real literature" out in the cold? Or, as the counterpoint went, was it good news that the masses were excited by reading instead of just more television?

The "should read" versus "want to read" question that had danced just behind Oprah threw itself at her feet last fall when Jonathan Franzen declined to have his third novel, The Corrections, become a book club pick. In several interviews, he stated that the Big Golden O on the cover of his book would dissuade both readers looking for serious literature (instead of a good coddle) and men, who in his mind, would have no more use for an Oprah book than they would for a bra. Oprah retaliated quickly by uninviting Franzen from her show -- a "so there!" gesture that didn't make her look much better. Again, the question became whether literature had rightfully stood up to publishing's immovable force, or whether the rebellion was merely another marketing gesture.

The debate, as Michael Korda points out in his new book Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, is as old as American publishing itself, and in the case of Oprah, mostly misses the point. We can neither blame Oprah for sinking literary standards, nor exalt her for bringing a nation back to reading. Instead, the legacy of Oprah's book club seems almost counterintuitive: books build audiences when someone who feels like a close friend recommends them -- even when that "close friend" has a viewership of 22 million.

The success of Oprah's Book Club was predicated on the essential mystery of publishing -- how to successfully match books and readers? Oprah solved the riddle for anyone who trusted her, and there were lots of them. Me, I'm crazy enough about books to want several Oprahs on call at all times, from reviewers in my favorite publications and on NPR, to fellow bibliophiles at the online community I run, to, most importantly, my friends and family. Recommendations lined up at the door means I never have to stop reading.

It's going to be a long time before there's another force like Oprah in publishing. No other public figure has her kind of intimate connection with the audience. But that doesn't mean book marketers should sit around and wait. There's a mini-Oprah in every town in America, someone who is not only well read and loves books, but has an intuitive way of discerning who would enjoy what.

I say find those mini-Oprahs. They're out there, asking intelligent questions at author readings, weighing in at online forums, talking with strangers at bookstores. In their own lives, they've already answered the question "What do I read next?" and are doing so for others. Serve them well and they will do the same.

Kevin Smokler is one of many Oprahs at CentralBooking.com.

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