Oprah's Middlebrow Book Club
It's the 26th anniversary of Oprah Winfrey's creating controversy by getting people to read.
In 1996, Oprah Winfrey started recommending books on her daytime talk show, rocketing the novel The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard up the bestseller lists. In college at the time, the Middlebrow worked in a book shop that was part of a southwestern chain of movie, music and book stores and whenever Oprah anointed a book, we received huge shipments and instructions for how and where to display the stacks that would generally sell briskly. The Oprah picks were sales magic. Only new releases by Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, or Danielle Steele could keep up. Many a mildest writer found themselves suddenly able to write full time.
To the justifiably sophomoric Middlebrow, the Oprah books were all obvious schlock. I certainly could never have been caught reading one of them. Which is too bad, because, as you look at the list compiled last year by LitHub for the 25th anniversary, she and her staff picked a lot of good books. Judging a book by the “O” stamped on the cover was an obvious mistake.
Hey, it’s a mistake Jonathan Franzen made, too. He didn’t want The Corrections to be lumped in with some titles she had chosen that he considered “schmaltzy.” The controversy hasn’t aged well for him. From the vantage of 2022, turning down any endorsement for literary fiction seems about as out-of-time as worrying that Barnes & Noble is going to kill all of the independent bookstores.
One of the issues for the Oprah Book Club, in its early years, is it that it was devised around the time of the rise of “chick lit.” Since Oprah’s primary audience has always been women, folks lumped her picks into the chick lit genre, which was never taken as seriously as mainstream literary fiction. Again, 26 years on, it seems silly that we lovers of fiction ever gave anybody grief for reading novels of any sort. Still, once we got over chick lit hate, we moved on to criticizing adults reading books with young adult labels. Oh, and adults reading graphic novels. This never, ever ends well.
I bet you’d subscribe if Oprah said to do it.
Since at least the early 2000s, women in the United States had overtaken men as readers of almost all types of books. For some male writers who grew up wanting to be Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer, this may have come as something of a shock. It’s been suggested that Franzen’s negative reaction to being an Oprah club author had to do with his wanting to be trace his literary heritage to the male Jazz Age modernists or to James Joyce.
Of course, Joyce found his American audience because a woman, Sylvia Beach, published a private edition of Ulysses, which was smuggled into the U.S. in defiance of censorship laws. Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation, were championed by Gertrude Stein. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and later J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth were popularized through book of the month clubs that were more commercial than Oprah’s as they were sponsored by publishers.
And, when it comes to subject matter, fiction is rarely as masculine as its marketing suggests. While Hemingway’s men may have fought wars, bulls, lions and each other, they were all extremely sensitive and as emotionally fragile as anybody you’d find in The Great Gatsby. Meanwhile, so many “masculine” novels of the 1980s and 1990s like American Psycho or Fight Club were written by gay or sexually fluid men who were in part brutally satirizing the contemporary heteronormative American male. Franzen’s Corrections is all about family drama and prescription psych meds. The hypersensitive American guy has been a staple of male novelists for a very long time, to the point where The Catcher in the Rye is an archetype behind a vast number of stories.
Funny, but when I talk to women readers about some of these books, you get the sense that they would like the men to grow up, pull it together and shoot a lion or something. Because even in Hemingway it’s usually the inability to put some issues aside and drive the sword through the shoulders of the bull that is the cause of all the drama.
Well, Oprah’s put good books into the hands of good readers for more than two-and-a-half decades now and nobody really argues about it anymore. Maybe in the 1990s it seemed she was a middlebrow invader into a world of book-choosing best left to the book review sections of major newspapers. Maybe back then it seemed like the arbiter of literary taste should be Harold Bloom or nobody. But now we have to ask a more important question — if Oprah ever stops, who will pick up the mission?