Tuesday, April 26, 2005

In Defense of Oprah

Ed Champion, who writes the frequently funny blog Return of the Reluctant, has concluded that it is better that Oprah not resurrect her book club. In responding to the Open Letter put out by 150 mostly female writers, Ed writes:

"But with nearly every selection you picked, your book club championed safe middlebrow titles that avoided the realities of life and were largely devoid of literary experimentation. They soothed rather than provoked. They spoon-fed readers instead of challenging them. While that might go down well over coffee and pastries in a New Hampshire suburban home, if people are going to throw down their hard-earned money for a book they'll never read, certainly their money should be siphoned off to people like David Markson, Kazuo Ishiguro, William T. Vollman, Stephen Dixon, Jeanette Winterson, A.L. Kennedy or Gilbert Sorrentino.
So I beg you, if you have any sense of decency at all, not to revive your book club."

He also points out that most of the signatories to the letter were “midlisters hoping for a big break.”

Now, I am not a New Hampshire suburban resident, pondering the complexities of an Oprah book over coffee and pastries. But enough of those characterizations, if tweaked a bit, could fit me. (I live in Berkeley, which is sort of a suburb, I have two children, so I am sort of the type that will watch Oprah on occasion, and I do like coffee and pastries) But the implication is that Oprah only selected books that comforted, not challenged, so they didn’t contribute much to the literary canon.

I went back and looked at Oprah’s list of recommended books. It turns out I have read 15 of the 49 she recommended before she turned to the classics. And while I didn’t like all of them, there were plenty of books on that list that made me think, and cry, and didn’t comfort me at all. I thought Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, besides being a page-turner, was a heartbreaking story of abuse and betrayal through the generations. I thought Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, the story of a young, struggling pioneer family, was one of the best books I had ever read. Ditto for The Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton.

Many of the books on the list weren’t experimental or important. But THEY WERE GOOD READS.

Maybe this is a male/female thing. Ed likes William Vollman. I have never read him, but I have the impression he’s a testosterone-laden writer who lives on the edge. It’s obvious Oprah is wildly popular with women, even if they all don’t agree with her. Maybe people like Ed, and Jonathan Franzen, just don’t get what Oprah was doing. They just hear her platitudes, and miss the fact that she's inspiring millions to read.

Another thing I must take issue with: there is nothing wrong with being a midlist writer. We all know how the publishing business works these days – there are a handful of big writers and many handfuls of small writers. Ed understands this. He is part of a new cooperative of literary blogs that have banded together to promote 4 books a year – SMALLISH books that might otherwise not get the attention they deserve. So don’t dis midlist writers. They are the backbone of our country’s literary canon – and among my favorite authors.

1 comment:

gwenda said...

Fantastic post. Couldn't agree more. I am really bothered by the undertones in some of the judgmental criticism I've seen of the book club.