Oprah's book fatigue.

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April 10 2002 5:19 PM

Oprah's Book Fatigue

How fiction's best friend ran out of stuff to read.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Where's the outrage? Just six or so months ago, it seemed that almost all of America had embraced Oprah Winfrey as the good and great tribune of its reading preferences. She had duly trounced the perfidious, elitist fop Jonathan Franzen in the court of public opinion, and scores of commentators, publicity managers at major publishing concerns, and novelists eager to endear themselves to her marketing clout all marveled at her democratic grandeur.

Now, however, our Book Queen has announced her abdication. "It has been harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," Oprah declared somewhat wearily last week in the surprise announcement that she would be discontinuing the Book Club, which has efficiently minted 46 national best sellers in its run of five-plus years. (Though she still may highlight the odd title when she's moved to.) As though to underline her point, Winfrey announced that the club's April selection was to be Toni Morrison's Sula, originally published in 1974. Sula, moreover, is the fourth Morrison title to be graced with the Book Club imprimatur. (Truly devoted Oprah watchers might further surmise that the sequence of titles she selected in the immediate wake of The Corrections dust-up was in fact a coded cry for help: A Fine Balance, then Fall on Your Knees.)

There seems something churlish and—dare I say it?—elitist about this majestic dismissal. True, trendy academics have been issuing gnomic declarations about the death of the novel for the last 30 years or so. But Oprah? How could she and her staff have exhausted the range of existing share-worthy fiction (including backlists!) in a mere five years?

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One answer, of course, is that Oprah was selecting a very special kind of fiction. To be sure, she had occasionally selected works by writers who fell outside the established club profile, such as Bernard Schlink, Rohinton Mistry, and (half the time, anyway) Joyce Carol Oates. But the club's principal mission has been to champion recovery, loudly and often. From the first year's Oprah picks, The Deep End of the Ocean and the Book of Ruth, through 1997's triumvirate of Bill Cosby titles, to your Wally Lambs and Billie Lettses and Anna Quindlens, Oprah selections have purveyed much the same message that O herself (in both televisual and periodical guises) continues to hammer away at: Bad things happen, women suffer, and one day, further along, once you undertake that perilous journey from bitterness to forgiveness, you will be vouchsafed the reason for your tenure on earth.

Small wonder that Oprah should find these works of didactic uplift to be of finite interest, if not, strictly speaking, in limited supply. But another, more suggestive answer is that the Book Club was never really a taste-making enterprise in the first place. Its potential for launching enterprising readers anywhere outside the immediate orbit of Oprah and her pet obsessions was always extremely limited.

As such, Oprah's outfit brought the history of American book clubs to its logical, if unfortunate, conclusion. The earliest big-name reader consortiums—the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, both founded in the late '20s—as well as later congeries such as the Quality Paperback and History clubs were market-enabled gatherings of self-selected readers, whom they placed in contact with books they might not otherwise find or even think of looking for. While these clubs usually employed judges to review and nominate selections and alternates, their personalities and professional standing were decidedly beside the point. Of much greater import was the clubs' innovative use of direct-mail marketing, which competed with reigning bookstore distribution—and which publishers vigorously battled in the courts through the 1950s. The success of the Guild and the BOMC signaled that readers could determine the viability of published work in ways that were formerly unthinkable. Indeed, the clubs would tap so much pent-up reader demand that they would on occasion double as publishing houses (as the Literary Guild had) or morph entirely into publishers (as did Basic Books, which began life as the psychoanalytic book club).

Later clubs, like the Mid-Century and Readers' Subscription clubs, abjured the big-ticket marketing strategies and pursued a vigorous critical sensibility across a dizzying range of genres, new titles, disciplines, and intellectual movements. These two clubs were energetically staffed by Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and W.H. Auden, three of the least Winfrey-esque literary eminences you could imagine, but they nevertheless managed to be more than modestly successful with their own high-culture-to-the-masses business model.

Today the largest segment of the book club market is owned outright by a single publisher—Doubleday Books, which oversees a vast range of specialty clubs from the Mystery Guild to the Venus Book Club ("sophisticated erotic books, relationship building, self-help and more!"). Where book clubs had formerly been loose posses of general readers trekking across new literary frontiers, most clubs are now the means by which publishing conglomerates can direct content to groups of niche-marketed readers: mystery and sci-fi buffs, natural history enthusiasts, art fanciers, etc. General interest clubs still exist, but in attenuated form.

Most commentators have confidently placed Oprah's club in the great tradition of middlebrow uplift pioneered by the BOMC and Mid-Century Club, but it actually represents this later stage of bundling readers into pre-existing niche demographics. The Oprah club is now its own recognizable market brand—and its very titles serve as shorthand for commonly recognized genre conventions: tales of lurid family abuse, tales of the individual struggle of redemption, and—God help us all—tale upon tale of three generations of women absorbing life's hard knocks in a small town.

Oprah certainly lorded over the largest marketing niche that American publishing has yet seen—but curiously it never became anything more than a niche. One informal but telling measure of her club's studied insularity is the "Customers who bought this book also bought ..." feature on Amazon.com. Consult these cross-purchasing entries for any given Oprah pick, and they will be almost entirely of other Oprah picks. (This is even true for the Book Club's great seduced-and-abandoned orphan pick, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.)

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