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The End of Oprah-Lit 

by Kathy M. Newman


In 1999, Robert Morgan had never written a bestseller. A writing professor at Cornell University and native of North Carolina from a Welsh background, Morgan had published The Hinterlands (1994), The Truest Pleasure (1995), Gap Creek (1999) and nine volumes of poetry. He had won some impressive awards, including a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. But most Americans had never heard of him, let alone read one of his novels.


All of that changed in 2000, when Morgan's 1999 novel, Gap Creek, was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection. The sales of Gap Creek rocketed from 12,000 to 638,000, making it a bestseller and allowing the novel to debut at No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list. With only a few weeks' advance notice, the publisher of Gap Creek, Algonquin Press, had "two different printers and binderies working three-shift days for a period of six days" to meet the explosive demand for Morgan's novel.


Morgan is one of the many authors who has been interviewed in the wake of last week's news that the Oprah Book Club is over. Morgan, for his part, recognized his Oprah exposure as a "wonderful paradox"; he was struck by the fact that television, "which has done so much to damage reading," exponentially increased the number of readers for his work.


Is this a paradox? Is it odd for a mass medium, like television, to influence an activity that we think of as private, individualized and intellectual?


The quick answer is yes. While publishers are now weeping (some literally), others are reveling in the book club's demise. Since Oprah started her book club in 1996, critics have argued that mass culture and reading do not go together, and that readers should think for themselves rather than slavishly follow the lead of a self-help impresario like Winfrey. One particularly vociferous critic, Norah Vincent, writing in The L.A. Times, has bid "good riddance" to Winfrey's club: "Books are not commodities," Vincent writes, "but the gilded age of treadmill publishing -- to which Winfrey has contributed her demeaning sensibility -- has made them so."


At the same time, it could be argued that it is not paradoxical for television to influence the reading habits of the nation. Books are commodities, and, in fact, were among the very first commodities. The birth of mass culture, as well as the birth of capitalism, can both be linked to the cultural and technological developments that allowed for the reproduction of the book. Moreover, reading was long ago -- though not all that long ago -- thought to have the same harmful effects that we now imagine for television (especially for women and children). And, finally, the rise of the novel, as Benedict Anderson has argued, coincided with the rise of nationalism; the novel, with its diversity of characters, geographical range and new representations of time, allowed readers to see themselves as citizens of a nation.


In other words, reading has long been a part of mass culture. Reading, it could be argued, invented mass culture as we know it. So why the all the fuss? Why do intellectuals love to loathe Oprah's influence?


Ultimately, the ironic answer to this question is that during the 20th century it was the development of electronic forms of mass culture, such as film, radio and, ultimately, television, that made reading appear to be an antidote to massification. At the same time, intellectuals and educators have long been calling for more "cultural literacy" -- for more Americans to have the common experience of reading good literature. Oprah has achieved what virtually no other American culture figure ever has: she has gotten millions of Americans to read -- and talk to each other about -- the same great (or at least pretty damn good) books.


The Oprah backlash is powerful. It has many sources. She is the most successful black woman in American history. She is overexposed. Many of her chosen authors have been women who write novels about racism and domestic abuse.


But the backlash is also belligerently ahistorical. As USA Today (the newspaper) and the NBC Today Show step into fill the gap with their own plans for book clubs, let us remember, before we club them, too, that reading, like television, brings us together. It is reading, along with other forms of mass culture, that make possible our collective identity as Americans.


Oprah reminded us how to read. The least we can do in the wake of her efforts is understand the history that has made television and book publishing a decidedly unparadoxical combination.

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