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Monday, October 20, 2008

From the Pop Culture Trenches: Oprah's Big Opinion

From the Pop Culture Trenches of the Literary world, it's time to address one rather influential figure--the Pope of Pop Culture Lit if you will--OPRAH. The publishing industry is in debt to books made ridiculously popular (or made popular again) by way of this talk show host's seemingly infallible opinion. One wave of her hand and suddenly an unsuspecting author has just received the pop-culture version of a Pulitzer Prize. Like there is no higher honor, or better business advantage. But what influences Oprah's pick? And more importantly, what makes Oprah this grand authority?

I have to admit, reading a bit about the woman's life and accomplishments makes it difficult to knock her on anything. But a BA in Speech and Performing Arts doesn't exactly make her a literary expert. So, what are Oprah's reasons for the book club? "When I was growing up, books were my friends. When I didn't have friends, I had books. And one of the greatest pleasures I have right now in life is to be reading a really good book and to know I have a really, really good book after that book to read," she told her audience after introducing her first book in '96. Knowing all of us have probably felt a little bit of that before, it's essentially impossible to criticize her motives.

So let’s consider her effort. The newest pick, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, entered the bestseller list at number fourteen, and immediately climbed to number one after Oprah's book club blessing. This story about a mute boy and his dog received RAVE reviews as Oprah gushed endlessly and paid her highest praises. For a first-time novelist, like Wroblewski, this seems to be a ridiculously lucky break.

But not all authors are as thrilled about her praise as one might expect. Jonathan Franzen, author of 2001 pick The Corrections, cringed at the talk show host's decision to include his novel, disappointed that it would be among a list of one-dimensional predecessors. After his initial, unflattering reaction, he did make a point to thank her in his National Book Award acceptance speech--perhaps a smarter political move.

Such reactions from contemporary authors drove Oprah to expand the club beyond modern works. In 2003 John Steinbeck's East of Eden made the list, 2004 had Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, and three Faulkner novels were added in 2005. When she returned to the contemporary authors in 2005, she had the unfortunate experience with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. (If you didn't hear about that hoopla, the low-down is Frey took more liberty with the truth of his "memoir" than Oprah liked, and the pissed off megastar tore him to a million little pieces for it.)

Most recent Oprah books include:
Night by Elie Wiesel

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez--now a movie
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

What makes Oprah an authority on literature? Popularity. Is she worth trusting as far as good writing goes? That's up to you to decide. (One of the advantages to being a member of her book club--a huge advantage as the author too--is the amazon discount she offers. Automatically the books she recommends have a 10% discount on the price, providing even more incentive to buy.) Whether she really knows what she's talking about or not, it seems pretty advantageous to be in her good graces. Ironically, I think this may be best achieved by making her cry... go figure.

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