“I saw you blush!” Oprah Winfrey said to Cormac McCarthy and grinned, looking happy for the first time during an interview that appeared to be supremely awkward the moment it began. It was the summer of 2007. “The Road,” McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, and Winfrey had travelled to Santa Fe to meet the author on his turf. The conversation began inauspiciously enough, with a taciturn McCarthy explaining why this on-camera exchange was a first for him (“I don’t think it’s good for your head”) to an incredulous Winfrey (“Oh, really?”). But then she seized on the novel’s dedication page and, leaning forward, asked gently, “Is this a love story to your son?”
It was the quintessential Oprah moment, the kind that made the Book Club thrive and her critics cringe. She was taking a novel about the end of the world, one that includes an image of a baby roasted on a spit, and making it palatable for talk-show television. I remember watching the interview in the conference room of the monthly magazine where I was working at the time. The staff had made a point to gather and see how a Winfrey-McCarthy interview would play out. One of my colleagues, the one with the most mordant sense of humor, had a phrase at the ready for moments when literature came into direct contact with the demands of TV. “Game over,” he would say, laughing.
Then again, there are those who would say just the opposite: at a time when literature no longer has a monopoly on cultural relevance, Winfrey has been the reason why literature has any game left in it at all. She started the Book Club in 1996 as a segment on the nationally syndicated “Oprah Winfrey Show,” and the twenty-two books she picked in the first three years sold an average of one million four hundred thousand copies each. In 2002, she announced that the Club would be going on hiatus, and when she revived it, a year later, and included only classics by dead authors, a group of a hundred and fifty writers signed a petition imploring her to revert her influence back to the land of the living. She did eventually return to contemporary books, in 2005 (beginning with the ill-fated “memoir” by James Frey), though the petition’s signatories, most of whom were women, might be surprised to learn that every Book Club pick from then until the end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 2011, was written by a man.
Yet in her interviews with these men, she asked them what she wanted to ask, often pursuing questions her subjects would prefer not to answer, and her interview with McCarthy was a case in point. McCarthy might have declined to travel to Winfrey’s couch, but there he was, talking to her on camera, and talking to Winfrey about the subjects that most interested her. She clearly wanted to turn the conversation to his biography, to the world outside “The Road.” And so she did. “When I called you first, I said, ‘People want to know where this came from,’ and you said, ‘It’s obvious. It came because my son practically co-wrote this book,’ ” she offered, animated and at ease. “Had you not had this son at this time, this book wouldn’t have been written.” She looked at him with serene expectation, her eyes shining as they caught the light.
The idea of the solitary reader and the solitary writer, connected only by the marks on the page, still holds considerable power, even if reading habits have never in reality been so simple and pristine. The social dimension of reading has always seemed suspect to some, though at different times for different reasons. In “Book Clubs” (2003), the sociologist Elizabeth Long describes how nineteenth-century “literary clubs” served a double function for women (and they were usually for women): first, they offered the possibility of “self-culture”—cultivating one’s own mind—which was revolutionary at a time when most women had barely any formal education to speak of; second, many of these clubs encouraged a measure of social organization and political engagement long before women had the right to vote.
Book clubs nowadays don’t have this public function—which makes sense, considering that women have other ways to educate themselves and get politically involved. But whereas the book clubs of the past were threatening for their radical potential, book clubs are now thought of as self-involved and staid. They revolve around shared interests rather than shared concerns. They don’t do anything to challenge the status quo. As the most visible and popular example, Oprah’s Book Club has been criticized along similar lines. The typical complaint has to do with how she talks about the books. “The Book Club has carved its niche among readers by telling them that the novel is a chance to learn more about themselves,” went one salvo, in The New Republic a couple of years ago, taking particular issue with her reading of the classics. “It’s not about literature or writing; it’s about looking into a mirror and deciding what type of person you are, and how you can be better.” And even in an article that was ultimately complimentary of the Book Club, Scott Stossel, of The Atlantic, sneaked in some reservations: “There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving, about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussion of serious literature.”
Stossel was writing in the fall of 2001, after Jonathan Franzen expressed ambivalence about Winfrey’s selection of “The Corrections” for the Book Club. Franzen told a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer that he thought his novel “is a hard book for that audience,” and in another interview he said that Winfrey had “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself.” His comments elicited mild reprimands—Harold Bloom, for one, found it “a little invidious of him to want to have it both ways, to want the benefits of it and not jeopardize his high aesthetic standing”—and eventually a dishonorable disinvitation from “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” “It was never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” Winfrey said in a statement. But what if that discomfort reflected something other than mere petulance on the part of an author who considered himself part of “the high-art literary tradition” (an unfortunate phrase if there ever was one, as Franzen himself would later admit)? What if it reflected an attempt, however clumsy, to come to terms with what it means to find an audience and connect to readers?
Franzen’s comments were revealing for how they equivocated between throwing shade (“I cringe”) and showing respect (“I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight”). Winfrey and Franzen eventually reached a détente, in 2010, when she picked his next novel, “Freedom,” and he appeared on her show, but the flap over “The Corrections” should go down as a moment when certain assumptions about writers and readers were rendered not only explicit but ultimately incoherent. The presumptive divvying up of cultural artifacts into high and low, the notion that there exists a province of high art that happens to be both inviolable and vulnerable—such ideas can harden into certitude, no matter how contradictory and inconsistent they are. Even if “uncomfortable” and cut short, the Winfrey-Franzen exchanges were therefore refreshing, insofar as such exchanges rarely take place at all. It’s easy now to talk about culture with other people who think about it in the same ways that you do, who share your likes and dislikes, and the assumptions and expectations that animate them. Whether you enjoy reading erotic thrillers about vampires or prose poems from Estonia, you can find other like-minded aficionados ready to corroborate your tastes. This kind of self-sorting has always existed, but the Internet has made it easier and infinitely more efficient. The fragmentation of media has also meant that there’s no longer a well-defined central authority to rail against. “The establishment” gets cast as both hopelessly pretentious and hopelessly philistine, depending on who’s feeling ignored.
“That Franzen discussion was excellent,” Cecilia Konchar Farr, the author of “Reading Oprah,” told me. What made it especially remarkable was “that it played out in popular culture, that it highlighted certain issues.” For Farr, a professor of English and women’s studies at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, one of those issues was the weird politics of gender and reading. Franzen himself worried aloud in an interview on NPR over his prospects of “reaching a male audience” that might be put off by an Oprah seal on the cover: “I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in bookstores that said, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.” Farr was fascinated by the situation. “Here’s a man, who sees himself as a literary writer, and he gets a huge influx of women readers,” she said. His anxiety pointed to “the really strict categories we have, where we marginalize certain kinds of readers and celebrate others.”
Besides, it’s not clear that Oprah’s Book Club itself fits neatly into any of the categories to which it’s usually assigned. “She did a lot of tough books,” Farr said, including Faulkner and several novels by Toni Morrison. “She would go back and forth,” alternating challenging books with uncomplicated melodrama like Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone,” “so she would capture different readers.” Where naysayers see pandering, Farr sees an effective strategy. What Winfrey was doing wasn’t so far removed from what Farr does when she teaches literature to her students. “My job is to make the tougher stuff accessible to them—to take them to a place where they feel more confident.” Even the Book Club discussions themselves were not necessarily as simplistic as her critics have made them out to be. Yes, they included much talk about authors’ biographies and readers’ lives, but they also included close readings of sentences, and consideration of possible themes. (Those who fixate on the biographical stuff, Farr said, just “haven’t watched enough episodes of Oprah’s Book Club.”) When, in early 1998, Winfrey picked Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” and heard from more than a few readers who either didn’t finish the book or else “felt a little confused” by it, she decided to make the discussion a class, taught by Morrison herself in her office at Princeton. Along with Winfrey and her sidekick, Gayle King, twenty viewers were in attendance. “I really wanted to read the book and love it and learn some life lessons,” one of the women said, “and when I got into it, it was so confusing I questioned the value of a book that is that hard to understand.” So Winfrey steered the discussion toward estrangement and nonlinear narratives, comparing them to real-life experiences in a way that was both precise and easy to apprehend (for instance: “You are a new person in town and you’re getting to know the people in the town, do you know everything all at once?”). The woman finally agreed that submitting to the strangeness of the text “makes sense” and seemed primed to try again.
“It would be hard to imagine a discussion in that format that would do justice to ‘Paradise,’ ” Timothy Aubry, a professor of English at Baruch College and the author of “Reading As Therapy,” told me. “But over all, they did a pretty good job. Everyone said, ‘I need to reread this book.’ It’s what every professor wants: ‘Oh, there’s more to this.’ ” In the episode with Cormac McCarthy, too, Winfrey asked not only about his son but also about his style, which led him to discuss punctuation in the work of MacKinlay Kantor and James Joyce. Just as the Book Club alternated between challenging fiction and lighter reads (during the “Paradise” episode, Winfrey promised the next book would be “a lot easier, and a love story, too”), the discussions themselves mimicked that kind of oscillation—which is what many readers tend to do anyway, without any prompting from Winfrey. “We jump from one kind of reading to another,” Aubry said, sometimes reading analytically and other times looking for characters and experiences to relate to. “There can be complicated ways of reading therapeutically.”
This hasn’t stopped those determined to find something not just annoying but outright menacing in Oprah’s Book Club. After Craig Garthwaite, an economist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, showed last year that sales of adult fiction actually dropped 2.5 per cent in the weeks following a pick, some journalists pounced on his research as evidence of Winfrey’s outsized and insidious influence on reading habits. Because the drop was most pronounced in the genres of romance, action, and mystery, Garthwaite guessed that a Winfrey pick tended to require greater investments of time on the part of readers, who would otherwise have been consuming, say, three James Patterson units for every “As I Lay Dying.” Timothy Noah of The New Republicextrapolated from Garthwaite’s findings, writing that, because Winfrey diverted readers away from buying the “crap” whose profits “help support publication of less lucrative, more high-minded books,” “these same publishers were correspondingly less able to publish literary fiction.” Winfrey, he decided, had “made it ever so slightly more difficult, during the life of her book club, to publish latter-day Tolstoys and Faulkners and Dickenses.”
I asked Garthwaite about this dismal interpretation of his findings, and he was circumspect. Perhaps the Book Club wasn’t “sucking large numbers of readers into the publishing arena,” but “the actual decline in over-all book sales is pretty small,” he said. “If anything, people were willing to purchase a second book by the authors” of Book Club picks. Garthwaite himself was hesitant to make any pronouncement about Winfrey’s effect on literature (he’s a business school professor, he said, and such assessments are the province of literature scholars). I will say that the literary scholarship about Oprah’s Book Club tends to skew neutral-to-positive, whereas the literary journalism tends to skew neutral-to-negative, sometimes even verging on panic. Which makes me wonder how much this journalistic suspicion has had to do with good old-fashioned skepticism versus good old-fashioned anxiety, and perhaps a bit of envy: those of us who lack the Ph.D.s and the tenured appointments and the peer-reviewed publications are operating in a cultural free-for-all—a free-for-all in which Winfrey has been a more of a tastemaker than any book critic I can name.
When Winfrey ended her syndicated talk show in 2011 to start her network, OWN, she also ended the Book Club, though she had a new book-related project in store. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 was launched last year, with the “2.0” signifying digital savvy, enhancing the Book Club through social media. Many people questioned whether in this new incarnation she could continue to exert such a huge influence on reading habits; as the New York Times reported, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” drew a whopping six to eight million viewers each week, whereas Winfrey’s Sunday-evening show on OWN reached half a million to two million viewers, “a relatively paltry number.”
The numbers may be smaller, but the dire assessments have turned out to be overblown, at least for now. The 2.0 version has had two picks: “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” a first novel by Ayana Mathis. Strayed’s memoir, which was already selling briskly at the time it was anointed, still received a more than threefold bump in average weekly sales following its selection; Mathis’s novel, whose publication date was moved up to coincide with Winfrey’s announcement, landed immediately on the best-seller lists—a rare achievement for a début, which would seem to have something to do with the Book Club endorsement. “Even a less popular Oprah intervention is still really popular,” Cecilia Konchar Farr told me.
For literary purists, everything that Winfrey brings—the sales bump, the best-seller status, anything having to do with the word “popular”—no doubt signifies trouble rather than salvation, further proof of the irreconcilable gulf between mass culture and genuine art. This is not to say that such suspicions are necessarily unfounded, but don’t they also treat art as some fragile, defenseless object, prone to contamination from simply having too many people experience it, people who might appreciate it (or not) in their own way? When Jonathan Franzen voiced his worry over losing male readers who “would never touch” a book that was “meant for women,” wasn’t the interesting question why men should feel so threatened by what women were up to? I ask these not rhetorically but as real questions, questions in search not so much of answers but of getting asked in the first place. And if they make us uncomfortable, if they make us blush, so much the better.
Jennifer Szalai is a New York-based writer and editor.
Photograph by George Burns/Harpo Productions/AP.
Even some defenders of that high-art literary tradition took Mr. Franzen to task. The critic Harold Bloom said he would be ''honored'' to be invited by Ms. Winfrey. ''It does seem a little invidious of him to want to have it both ways, to want the benefits of it and not jeopardize his high aesthetic standing,'' he said.
Ms. Winfrey's selection helped prompt Mr. Franzen's publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to print an additional 500,000 copies. Authors typically earn more than $3 a copy toward their advance and royalties, so Ms. Winfrey's selection may have been worth more than $1.5 million to Mr. Franzen.
The high-profile spat also adds new stakes to the upcoming National Book Awards, to be announced on Nov. 14. ''The Corrections'' is the most high-profile literary novel of the year and a favorite among the fiction nominees. But just two years ago the National Book Awards honored Ms. Winfrey for her contribution to reading and literature, and an award for Mr. Franzen may now seem inconsistent. What's more, one of Mr. Franzen's qualms about Ms. Winfrey's book club was his publisher's edition of a special seal printed on the cover of his books proclaiming her endorsement, which he saw as an advertisement for her program and a compromise of his independence. Publishers customarily add a similar seal for winners of the National Book Award, as well.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr. Franzen said he drew a distinction between the logo for Ms. Winfrey's book club and others that might be added to the jacket of later editions. ''When a book is first published in hardcover in America the tradition is no advertising on the front of the dust jacket -- that is the one moment to have your name and the title of your book on the cover,'' he said. He said he had no problem with any number of alterations -- including logos and pictures of actors on paperbacks editions reissued after the book becomes a movie.
During the interview, Mr. Franzen was full of abashed apologies. ''You can't talk to reporters you don't know the same way you talk to family and friends -- you really only learn by burning your hand on the stove,'' he said. He especially regretted appearing to draw a distinction between high and low literary culture. ''Mistake, mistake, mistake to use the word 'high,' '' Mr. Franzen said. ''Both Oprah and I want the same thing and believe the same thing, that the distinction between high and low is meaningless.''
Backing away from that distinction has been difficult partly because of Mr. Franzen's 1996 essay. He not only disparaged television's baleful influence, but also went on to put down book clubs for ''treating literature like a cruciferous vegetable that could be choked down only with a spoonful of socializing.'' He criticized the idea of judging books by their sales and said his work was ''simply better'' than Michael Crichton's. Last week, however, Mr. Franzen said the essay's conclusion reflected his embrace of the idea that literature could be entertaining.
Still, he added, the notion that he might be selling out by crossing over to the more popular mainstream seemed common with some people outside the book industry. At readings at bookstores, people in his audience saw selection for Ms. Winfrey's book club as a hallmark of the mainstream and even something to avoid. ''I was bombarded with questions, mostly from the anti-Oprah camp,'' Mr. Franzen said.
Other writers and editors, however, were unsympathetic. ''It is so elitist it offends me deeply,'' said Andre Dubus III, himself a former selection of Oprah's book club and a National Book Award winner. ''The assumption that high art is not for the masses, that they won't understand it and they don't deserve it -- I find that reprehensible. Is that a judgment on the audience? Or on the books in whose company his would be?'' Ms. Winfey's selections have included serious writers like Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Bernard Schlinck and Joyce Carol Oates.
Robert Gottlieb, the former editor of Knopf and The New Yorker, said, ''They all seem to me to be very solid, honorable books, with feeling and some kind of substance.''
Of course, some novelists categorically refuse to appear on television, including Don DeLillo, one of the writers Mr. Franzen most admires. David Foster Wallace, a friend and contemporary of Mr. Franzen, has done television appearances only reluctantly, once insisting that Mr. Franzen appear by his side for an interview with the television host Charlie Rose.
The novelist Rick Moody, another writer often grouped with Mr. Wallace and Mr. Franzen as acolytes of Mr. DeLillo, said many writers are ambivalent about television. ''Literature wants what television has,'' he said. ''But if you could say what you needed to say in that medium, you wouldn't need to write a book.'' Still, he added, ''it's contradictory to say I would do Charlie Rose but I am uncomfortable with Oprah.''
Mr. Moody said he would happily appear on her show, if asked. ''If you want to sell 700,000 copies,'' he said, ''then you have to play ball with the 700,000-copy vehicles, and then you are in Oprah-land.'' He said it was hypocritical to object to Ms. Winfrey's logo. ''I am published by the AOL Time Warner empire,'' he said. ''If you are being published by one of the big houses, you can't object that you are not commercial in some way: what book doesn't have the publisher's logo on the spine?''
Jonathan Galassi, Mr. Franzen's editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, concurred. ''The logo never bothered me, but it is not my book,'' he said. ''The jacket itself is advertising.''
Mr. Galassi said he welcomed Ms. Winfrey's endorsement. He also noted a silver lining to her cancellation of the guest appearance on television. '' 'The Corrections' is selling like crazy,'' and publicity over the spat is helping, he saidContinue reading the main story