Thursday, April 21, 2005

Why Can't People Figure Out Books To Read on Their Own?

A group of female authors, including Jennifer Egan, Beth Gutcheon, Mary Gordon, Ruth Ozeki, Amy Tan, Lily Tuck and Meg Wolitzer has written an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking her to reinstate her book club.

The authors argue that fiction book sales have plummeted ever since Oprah started recommending classics, rather than contemporary fiction.

"A country in which ordinary people flock to bookstores to buy the latest talked-about work of fiction is a vibrantly literate country. Every month your show sent hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women, who are the largest group of literary fiction readers) into bookstores. The contemporary books you chose sold between 650,000 and 1,200,000 copies apiece. Each Oprah selection gave readers a title to investigate and a subject to explore. Importantly, your Book Club also gave readers a chance to see these authors on the air and to hear their words. Not only books but the writers themselves became accessible to everyone, inviting all readers into the community of literature.

Few people have taken advantage of the extravagant scope and power of television to do good. But you have. From the start, you used your role in the media to encourage literacy, thought and intellectual curiosity. You made yourself a champion of contemporary fiction. You tempted publishers to take chances on new writers, for whom you became a beacon of hope. First novelists and literary authors felt emboldened to write because of the outside chance that an editor would see their work as potential Book Club material. You dared to take contemporary literary fiction seriously, and your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear.

We'd also like to make a request: We'd like to ask that you consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers in your Book Club.

The American literary landscape is in distress. Sales of contemporary fiction are still falling, and so are the numbers of people who are reading. Readers complain that, although daunting numbers of new books are published, too few of them are brought to the public's attention in a meaningful way. Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you. America needs a strong voice that addresses everyone who can read, a voice that will say, "Let's explore the books that are coming out today. Let's see what moves us, what delights us, what speaks to us in a way that only fiction does."

Oprah Winfrey, we wish you'd come back."

But maybe the book club would conflict with Oprah’s newest, sure-to-be-a-hit project: publishing content from her magazine in book form. Would that be considered contemporary fiction?

It’s amazing that one woman has this much power over American reading tastes. It’s depressing that people who clearly like to read – Oprah inspired hundreds of thousands of women to buy her recommended books – can’t find good ones on their own. (via Publisher's Lunch)

1 comment:

A. Rivera said...

It is amazing, and to an extent depressing. The letter sounds more like the desperate plea of some "literate" authors who likely need to boost their sales. That Oprah likely got a few more people to read cannot be denied, but there is also the fact a lot of those people bought the books because Oprah said so, and they would have likely bought whatever else she might have endorsed. I saw in another blog a fine argument on this that included the idea that maybe these authors are not connecting with readers. The blog's name is Snarkspot (, and I found it reading through Slate Online on their section about bloggers. But as I type this comment, I cannot help but wonder if ,like you mention, people can't figure out what to read on their own. I think for the most part they can, but now and then they may need a little help, usually in the form of suggestions or word of mouth (and no, I do not mean the collective letter writers here). I do know as a librarian who does a share of reader's advisory that once in a while readers want a bit of help, or a friendly suggestion. But very often, those seeking reader's advisory are already very informed; they just want a new direction or to try something different. At any rate, I just went on, and all I wanted to do was agree. Best.