The last "Oprah Winfrey Show" aired on May 25, 2011. The fact that the highly-rated talk show is no longer on the air doesn't sadden me. I never watched a single program. It's not the kind of show I would ever have considered watching. Nor, avid reader that I am, would I ever read Oprah's "O" magazine. Although the end of Oprah's talk show did not cause me to shed a single tear, I feel this is a good time to pay homage to Oprah for something for which I admire her: her book club. The televised book club began as a segment of her talk show in 1996 with Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean." The club took a one-year hiatus in 2002, and resumed in 2003. The club underwent a few changes over the years as Oprah tweaked the frequency and types of selections. In total, her club discussed seventy books in fifteen years.
Throughout the years, Oprah has been a powerful force in many arenas, not the least of which is literature. When she selected a book for her club, it became an instant best-seller. Many critics have maligned Oprah for her selection of titles. I agree that her club featured too many novels about downtrodden women who eventually found the strength to overcome their adversities and arrive at happiness (I surmise that Oprah's own past prompted her to select those stories). But in spite of that flaw, Oprah has also chosen many fine titles for her club, including classic and literary novels that richly deserved some time in the limelight. She brought many fine authors out of obscurity and their books off of the backlist.
Oprah's book club also caused some controversies. The first involved author Jonathan Franzen, who publicly decried her selection of his book "The Corrections" in September of 2001. He did not want to have his literary efforts thrown into the same category as some of the "schmaltzy, one-dimensional books" featured on her show. He also felt his books were too difficult for the average reader, and I found this snobby attitude a bit off-putting. Although he later apologized to Oprah for his comments, he was uninvited from his scheduled appearance on her show. Eventually, though, Oprah let bygones be bygones. In 2011, she selected yet another of Franzen's books, "Freedom," for her book club. That time, Franzen was smart enough to realize that if it were not for Oprah, he never would have achieved the readership (and the big bucks) that are every writer's dream. He gratefully accepted the honor.
The second controversy occurred when James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was selected for her club in September 2005. Although the original book club discussion went smoothly, critics began to question the truth of some elements of his life story. Frey admitted that he had embellished some of the facts in the book, and eventually he and Oprah went head-to-head in a televised interview. Oprah got Frey to admit to the lies he told. She then preceded to take Frey's publisher, Nan Talese, to task for not verifying the facts before publishing the book as a memoir. Not only did this make for a juicy literary controversy, but it brought to the forefront the issue of what it means to call a story a "memoir." To what extent can the truth be embroidered before a memoir becomes a work of fiction?
In recognition for her efforts at promoting books and reading, Oprah has won numerous awards from the publishing industry and the book world. She received the National Book Foundation's 50th Anniversary Gold Medal in 1999. She was presented with the Association of American Publishers AAP Honors Award in 2003 for her impact on book publishing. She was given the New York Public Library's "Library Lion" award in 2006, which placed her in the same league as Jonathan Franzen (ironically enough), Salman Rushdie, Elie Wiesel, former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, literary critic Harold Bloom, and many other literary stars.
There's no doubt about it. Oprah got America reading. Who but Oprah could have gotten books by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, and Pearl Buck (even Charles Dickens, to a lesser extent) onto the bestseller list? Who but Oprah could induce bookstores to order a half a million copies of a book, title unknown, merely because it was to be the next club selection? Who but Oprah could generate sales of over 55 million for her own branded edition of books? Although "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and its famous book club are now off the air, Oprah has pledged that she will produce a program about books and authors for her new OWN cable network. For all this, I thank her.