Why We Love and Hate Oprah’s Book Club

25 May

I was checking out my twitter feed this morning, and one of the folks I follow retweeted John Hodgman (best known for his work as a Daily Show correspondent, and he’s also the PC in all of those Mac commercials with Justin Long).  In his tweets, Hodgman uses the end of Oprah’s long-running talk show to make dark predictions about the publishing industry:

It is too bad that all those Oprah viewers will never read or buy a book again after today.  NOW what are poor book publishers going to do?


It just seems so unfair!  Without Oprah, how are publishers going to continue their cross-fingers/hope-to-win-the-lottery business plan?

Of course, I could use this as an opportunity to talk about why the publishing industry needs to keep up, and perhaps that’s a post I’ll work up at a later date.  However, I find it more interesting to note the assumed impact Oprah has had on reading in the past decade or so, and the debate surrounding her (in)famous book club.

I worked in a chain bookstore while I was in college.  In fact, I worked there during the whole A Million Little Pieces debacle.  This is not a joke – we got all kinds of irate customers, bringing in their beaten and battered copies of this book and demanding a refund because James Frey was a big liar – Oprah said so!  And you know what we did?  We took the book back.  We gave them a refund.  That’s the power of Oprah.

Working in one of those chain bookstores gave me a lot of insight into the Oprah’s Book Club phenomenon.  At the same time that I had customers falling all over themselves to buy a Faulkner box set with the big “O” sticker on the front, I had others quietly asking me if we had a copy of Middlesex without the sticker.

And yet, as I watched copies of Anna Kerenina fly off the shelves, I couldn’t help but think to myself, what’s so bad about this?  I mean, when was the last time Tolstoy had a bestseller (I’ll hazard a guess: never)?  How remarkable that vast amounts of people actually want to read The Sound and the Fury – not that it isn’t a good book, but I can’t think of anything besides Oprah that would get so many people so excited about reading a stream of consciousness novel written a century ago.  And more than that – she took complicated novels by Faulkner and Tolstoy – books that many people are intimidated by – and empowered her viewers to read them and understand them.  That’s fairly groundbreaking, in my humble opinion.  I’ve got no problem with encouraging people to read books that they might have considered too dense or difficult or time-consuming.

And yet, there are so many people who spend a great deal of energy disliking Oprah and her book club – not only people asking for copies of Middlesex sans the “O” sticker, but people who take to the internet and fucking rage! about how awful she is.  Now, why do you think so many people have such a serious problem with a woman who gets people to read?

I think there are a couple of reasons for why there exists such a sharp distaste for Oprah’s Book Club.  The first of these is snobbery.  According to Joseph Epstein in his book (appropriately titled), Snobbery:

… a snob is someone who practices, lives by, exults in the system of distinctions, discriminations, and social distractions that make up the field of play for snobbery.  “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.”  So wrote Virginia Woolf, who allowed that she was herself a snob.  But that definition is not only too slack but much too generous…  The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.  Which is a different, really a much more wicked, little proposition.  (pp. 13-14)

Before Oprah came along and told millions of women that they could read and like William Faulkner, dense novels were hallowed grounds tread upon by those with access to intellectual and/or educational privilege, and that privilege has typically been used to make snobs feel better about themselves.  I would posit that it’s not that book snobs delight in the idea that others are not capable of reading the things they read – instead, book snobs delight in the fact that their tastes are refined enough to read good books.  And good taste is perhaps most easily established by putting it in juxtaposition with other tastes, which are inevitably not as good.

In a New York Times piece examining the hipster, Mark Grief explains, however, that it’s not only about taste, but about authenticity (H/T Sociological Images):

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

So in circumstances where one derives personal pride from reading “good” books, part of that pride can sometimes be rooted in authenticity, novelty, and uniqueness.  It’s not only that you like James Joyce, for example (a notoriously difficult author to read), but that not many other people like Joyce, nobody told you to like Joyce, and your passion for him grew out of your own superior taste, intellectual fortitude, and straight-up awesomeness.  But if everyone started reading Portrait of the Artist, your taste suddenly isn’t all that unique.  Even worse, maybe people will start assuming that you like Joyce because everyone else likes Joyce.

So Oprah’s Book Club made “good” books – books that had been formerly chosen by smaller groups of intellectual elitists and bibliophiles – bestsellers.  And she did pick legitimately excellent books, so suddenly, carrying around a good book wasn’t a sign of taste – it was potentially a sign of your inability to think for yourself.  No one likes to be accused of following the crowd – especially in the U.S., where individualism has always been an ideal held in high regard.

The popularization of “good” books as an assault on the authenticity of taste is part of the problem, but it would be short-sighted if we were to ignore the woman behind it.  It ought to be no secret that powerful women often draw a lot of criticism – arguably more than powerful men.  To be honest, I’m still at a loss for why so many people positively loathe Hillary Clinton – I’ve met many people who don’t like her, and I still have yet to hear a reason why that I can understand.  While millions love her, Oprah is still disparaged again and again.  Not only is she powerful, it’s women who like her – and as we all know, everything that girls like sucks: chick flicks, chick lit, the Volkswagen bug (the “new” one – not the “new new” version), the color pink, and purse dogs.  Even feminists don’t like Oprah.  In a rather mystifying piece featured on the Bitch blogs, Oprah was lampooned for, of all things, being too egotistical.  In response to Oprah receiving a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010, JDTress writes:

It’s not that Oprah’s accomplishments don’t astound. It’s that she seems to get everything, and now in turn seems to believe she deserves it.  “This feels like an official American citizenship in a very exclusive club of artists and contributors to the nation in a very special way,” Oprah said. “It feels like an elevated kind of award and there aren’t many in this category. They look at your work, your life work, who you are as a human being and the spirit of who you are as a human being. Not many honors look at that depth.”

To reiterate, the argument that JDTress makes here is that Oprah has achieved astounding things, has gotten “everything” (whatever that means), but the problem is that she believes she “deserves” it all.  I mean, how dare this successful woman not act humble, modest, and as if she doesn’t deserve any recognition for her admittedly astounding accomplishments.  The nerve!

So, to rehash: people hate Oprah’s Book Club because a) it made reading “good” literature mainstream (an assault on the taste and authenticity of people who care about such things), b) Oprah is a girl thing – walking around with “O” sticker on the cover of your book is akin to carrying around an iPhone in a sparkly case – EWWWWW! and c) it bears the name of a really powerful women – a woman who is disliked often because she is powerful (how dare she act like she deserved a Kennedy Center Honor??!!  I mean REALLY!!!).

But, as Hodgman said in his tweets, it’s hard to deny the impact Oprah has had on reading, and on publishing.  While it’s certainly a little offensive to claim that the only reason people read is because Oprah told them to, it’s no stretch to claim that publishers who managed to get that “O” slapped on the cover of one of their books made a lot of money.  During the tenure of Oprah’s Book Club, the consumption of literature saw a vast change, and it stands to reason that reading culture will change again now that it’s been retired.

I will say this, though: I certainly think it’s pretty fucking cool that millions of people stormed their local bookstores to get their hands on a copy of a book – and that so many people bought and read things like Faulkner and Tolstoy and weren’t afraid to read them.  I, for one, will miss the culture of Oprah’s Book Club, even if I never did care for the stickers.

5 Responses to “Why We Love and Hate Oprah’s Book Club”

  1. mx.nightwalker May 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    So, I’m not sure how I feel about Oprah’s bookclub. Oprah, while I definitely know her name, was not a household name in my family. They can be kind of a stereotypical white Southern family with stuff like that (which I think you’ll get my meaning of). And since I haven’t owned a TV in much of my adult life, I never really watched her show.

    I will say, from the little I know, I agree that there is never anything wrong with getting people to read. I don’t even care if it is “good” literature, as long as folks are reading and engaging their minds. Though some of the selections were not my taste in literature /at all/ I still think overall it was a pretty amazing thing.

    Plus? Fuck people for hating on Oprah. Good on any woman for building an amazing life for herself in this hellhole we call society (one that is not hedged on hate anyway). And I am totally side-eyeing Mr. Hodgman for his comments. Up yours dude!

    • meganeking May 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

      What I found most amazing, and I hope I expressed it, was the fact that people were willingly picking up “hard” stuff – I thought that was pretty cool that Oprah was able to demystify tough books and make them accessible to everyone. Not only did she get people to read, but she empowered them to read – I love empowerment and stuff.

      I never watched Oprah either – but working in a bookstore during the heyday of her book club, I feel I got probably more than your average exposure to her. Plus, I live in Chicago, and she’s a darling here. :)

      And right? That post on Bitch has been confusing me for months! I mean, it was published a while ago, and it’s still usually at the forefront of my mind. Bitch is a feminist publication, and they’re hating on a woman for being egotistical? I mean, REALLY???

      Thanks for following me over to my new blog. I love you for it… and for most things you do <3

  2. Jenna May 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    I randomly stumbled upon your blog, and I am so happy I did. Great post! Last semester I took a GWSS course on women writers and we spent a lot of time discussing the merits of chick lit, writing by women, and women’s literature. As you might guess Oprah’s Book Club was a topic that came up often. I find the elitism within literature not only confusing (how can it be seen as a negative thing that our nation is reading?) but disheartening. As a feminist, I find it quite counter-intuitive to take such an elitist/exclusionary attitude towards literature.

    • meganeking May 25, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

      Aw, I’m happy you stumbled here, too! I don’t necessarily believe that the problem is that people are upset that other people are reading – I think they’re upset that they’re reading the same types of books book snobs are reading. If everyone likes the same things you like, then your taste is rendered pedestrian.

      I’m actually a book snob in recovery, so I catch myself often classifying my preferences for literature as “better.” I hope that most people can empathize with the snob a little – if only so that I don’t feel like such a horrible person for sometimes being one myself on occasion! The reflex is always there for me, and I constantly have to fight it.

      • Jenna May 26, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

        I would completely agree. I would imagine most people reading Joyce do not want to be found in the same literary circle as people who are reading Nora Roberts. If the masses join the literary elite, it is no longer elite. I guess my issue is that we don’t want the high literature to become too accessible, yet the most accessible literature (e.g. chick lit) is often the most criticized. It might be more aptly put that people are in general upset by what is being read.

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