BOOKS MAY 25, 2011
What does the future hold for Oprah’s Book Club? While the mogul’s final TV episodes—the last of which airs Wednesday—have brimmed with A-list celebrities, and her June magazine cover proclaims (in approximately size 48 font) a fond farewell to “25 years [of] ... the joy, the laughs, the lessons” on-air, the book club has received little attention from Oprah as the clock winds down on her daily talk show. The last selection for the club (Charles Dickens for the holidays) was a relative bust, and there is no reading-based show or segment currently scheduled on the OWN network. Yet Oprah has vowed to continue the book club in some capacity—earlier this week, she said that she will “try to develop a show for books and authors.” Certainly, those looking to make money in the book business will be heartened by this news—but there’s reason to hope the club doesn’t get a second act.
From its inception in 1996, the addition of a novel to Oprah’s Book Club radiated more power than 100 positive reviews, and was a social and financial boon to publishers and relatively unknown authors. Janet Fitch, Uwem Akpam, and David Wroblewski all became household names after their novels were included on the book club’s reading list. Sue Miller, Maeve Binchy, and Anita Shreve also found larger audiences thanks to their inclusion. What’s more, the little round “O” sticker on a book cover guaranteed it prime placement on bookstore tables and even reinvigorated the sales of long-beloved classics such as Anna Karenina and As I Lay Dying. But Oprah’s Book Club also instigated the rise and domination of a very particular, and divisive, reading goal: self-therapy.
Oprah’s fame has grown up alongside the self-help movement, and “talk it out” shows like hers emphasize emotional catharsis and soul-baring as integral steps to “achieve” happiness. Via diets, meditations, and tell-alls, Oprah’s popularity has thrived on the emotional release promised to interactive, invested viewers. Oprah has continually asked the same of her followers when it comes to books, promoting a reading style that focuses on therapeutic rather than intellectual methods. At first, she did so primarily by selecting a type of book that one could call the modern tale of redemption. Similar story arcs (beleaguered youngster overcomes all odds, the downtrodden are emotionally uplifted, etc.) abounded from novel to novel, and female-centric motifs and talking points were the bread and butter of the club. To call a novel an “Oprah Book” was enough of a descriptor for many readers to know what they were in for. Eventually, it seemed as though even Oprah grew tired of these redemption tales, and she moved on to tried and true classics in the book club’s later years. Yet, even while promoting literary fiction and novels from the canon, the motives of the book club remained character- and wellness-focused.
To be sure, Oprah has done much good with the book club. She has raised the profile of contemporary fiction and some classics, and she has promoted reading itself, an institution that most people see as worth reinvigorating by any means necessary. But, while her motives may be pure, Oprah has, more than anything, endorsed a methodology of reading that firmly traps readers in a cycle of self-reflection, without equally encouraging the idea that reading can be about much more—namely, the life of the mind.
In his new book Reading as Therapy, Timothy Aubry argues that Oprah’s book club “is only the latest installment in a history of middlebrow institutions … [with] the democratic belief that anyone can read and enjoy great works of literature.” Oprah’s Book Club “treats fictional characters …as if they were real, thus equating them with the nonfictional scenarios that Winfrey’s show generally presents to its viewers. … Winfrey treats novels as valuable insofar as they offer models for how to confront problems experienced by readers.” In other words, the Oprah method of reading is not based on language, or pattern, or narrative, or even sheer emotion, all of which are admirable approaches to reading. It is based on the premise of novel-as-self-help-book, a one-dimensional scheme.
More potently, Aubry reminds his readers of some little-regarded facts: that it was Oprah’s staff who chose the books (not Oprah herself) through an “elaborate process,” that the book club audience as presented on television was screened and selectively winnowed down to reflect Oprah’s “ideal reader,” and that creative editing allowed Harpo Studios to pack each episode full of “aha moments” and revelatory insights. In short, each episode was an exaggeration of those truths that Oprah’s readers hold as self-evident. Winfrey was not a passive guide, allowing readers to reach catharsis or realization through a series of genuine insights while reading; she was an image-maker, bottling an experience and selling it on daytime television.
So there’s reason to hope Oprah’s Book Club doesn’t find make its way to OWN, or elsewhere in Oprah’s empire. At a moment when reading trends are changing vastly, novels are finding their homes on various digital platforms, and communities like Goodreads are flourishing, the process of novel selection and enjoyment is becoming more authentically democratized. In this environment, readers (particularly Oprah’s readers) should decide what meaning, or meanings, a book holds for them. They don’t need Winfrey as their therapeutic guide.
Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.
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