A Message for Oprah

Dear Oprah:

Some writers have kneeled down in front of you and asked you to kiss their rings. They have implored you to revive the Oprah Book Club that many book lovers grew to tolerate in much the same way that a seven year old contends with lima beans. That is to say with obscene crying, childish temper tantrums, and an order from flatmates to go to their rooms without supper. Clearly, a woman of your intelligence can understand that this is not how grown adults should react to books.

A cursory examination of the signatures reveals that nearly all of these writers are midlisters hoping for a big break.

That’s certainly their right. The publishing industry is often a ruthless and backbreaking milieu. And many of these talented writers should be granted ample compensation and greater sales for the work they put out.

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.

While your intentions were certainly noble, let’s face the facts. You gave idiot novelists like Wally Lamb careers. You gave exposure to the likes of Jonathan Franzen. While I don’t hate Franzen’s novels as strenuously as some, it is now impossible for any eager reader to open up an issue of the New Yorker without stumbling upon one of Franzen’s whiny male menopause essays. Likewise, Barbara Kingsolver might never have been allowed to put out a book of essays laden with generalizations, had not The Poisonwood Bible been named an OBC book choice. In fact, it might just be possible that you’ve turned more novelists into essayists because of your book club. Which seems a contrary notion to the purpose of promoting fiction.

Without your imprimatur, I think it’s safe to say that White Oleander wouldn’t have been turned into a silly movie. And Toni Morrison, Oprah? Morrison won a Nobel in 1993. She didn’t need your help. Where were you for Octavia Butler? Or Sheneska Jackson? Or Ann Petry? Or Dorothy West, who was the last surviving Harlem Renaissance writer?

While I realize that you have a lovable and tightly controlled image to promulgate to your viewers, has it ever occurred to you to shake things up by suggesting a book that might challenge them? I think we can both agree that not even you, Oprah, would go that far.

So please stick with these cute little classics (Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, et al.) that anyone even remotely familiar with literature has read already. If Americans want to have their books, their life choices and their day-to-day life programmed by you and that smug Dr. Phil guy, then clearly they need you to help them grope along the hard passageway of life.

Besides, dull Oprah-style books like The Kite Runner and The Red Tent seem to be selling like hotcakes and being selected for book clubs regardless of your input. Is it possible, Oprah, that your services are no longer requried?

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

[UPDATE: More responses from Alex Good, Scott Esposito, Frances Dinkelspiel, Bud Parr, M.J. Rose, and Wendi Kaufman.]

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  1. I feel like Jonathan Franzen.

    The other day, during an early morning writing spree at 3 a.m., I signed my name to the WOM letter to Oprah. Normally, I read everything before signing it. My attorney said I was the only person to ever sit down in his office and read every single word of a mortgage agreement. (Hey! It was still my money!) And when offered my first publishing contract, I read 700 pages of publishing law, negotiating 17 points to my satisfation before signing it. (Hey! It was going to be my money!) But I did not read every word of the Oprah letter before signing it. And now I wish I had. What was I thinking of? I know what I was thinking of. Maybe. At least, I know what I was feeling. I was feeling sorry for the desperate tone of the letter writers. So I signed my name in sympathy and now I regret it, now that I remember how much Oprah annoys me personally and while I wouldn’t say no to being on her show – heh – I have no desire to grovel to her or anybody. And that letter is, most definitely, groveling.

  2. Just as a mild corrective, Oprah was the executive producer of the TV-miniseries made out of Dorothy West’s THE WEDDING.

  3. Jesus Christ Ed. Great response to the Oprah letter.

    BTW, my personal most disfavored part of that letter has to be the following:

    “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.”

  4. Scott,

    You know, it’s not like I don’t understand the impulse to want to be successful at writing. I’ve worked as hard to get here, still work as hard as anyone I know. And because of that hard work, I suppose a part of me feels that I deserve to be able to make a living at my chosen profession. I’m fortunate in that I can say, I do make a living at it. But it seems to me that there is a certain kind of writer for whom it is never enough, who walks around with an air of wounded entitlement that says, “My career should be bigger and there must be someone to blame – other than me, of course – for this sorry state of affairs.” Honestly said, I find that attitude enervating. When I see first-time novelists, before their book even comes out, kvetching about “What will Kirkus say?” “My publicist isn’t doing enough!” it makes me want to spit nails. Or maybe just cry. Of course there’s a lot wrong with publishing and unfair things happen in this business every day. But my job, as a novelist, is to write the best books I can, to fill in the publicity/promotion blanks as well as time and inclination allow, and then sit back and enjoy the sweet ride. If I wanted the right to complain about what I do for a living, I would have hired on paving roads in Texas in August. Instead I chose to be a writer and it is the greatest of good fortune for me that the universe allows me to do this thing I love so well and even pays me for it.

  5. Wah wah.

    Christ almighty, the condescension. Whatever happened to any publicity is good publicity? Whatever happened to babysteps? I didn’t cut my teeth on Borges, and I’m betting you didn’t, either.

    Good God, man.

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