A Moment of Jen
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Sunday, April 24, 2005
posted by Jen at 4/24/2005 10:51:00 AM

One of the benefits of being home for the holidays is that you don't even have to read the news: your mother reads it for you.

"Jenny, did you see this?" she asked, pointing at a story in the Times. Then she read it out loud:

“Well-regarded authors, including Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri, are among more than 150 writers who have petitioned Oprah Winfrey to return to choosing new novels for members of her influential book club. In an open letter, Word of Mouth, a loose alliance of female writers, said fiction sales plummeted when Oprah’s Book Club when off the air in 2002.”

I was forced to admit that, not only had I was not one of the "eminent" authors asked to sign the Word of Mouth letter, I'd never heard of the group (which means now I've got to worry about a clique of lady writers holding invitation-only slumber parties, painting each other's fingernails and giggling about which boy writers are cute while I sit home in my sweatpants reading SHEEP IN A JEEP.)

Nor did I see the signatures of any of my quote-unquote chick lit contemporaries -- no Sophie Kinsella or Marian Keyes, no Helen Fielding or Melissa Bank.

With a few exceptions, the W.O.M. signatories are writers I personally read and admire whose books are better reviewed than bought, and aren't likely to make the best-seller list without some kind of divine intervention (act of God, film adaptation, Oprah). And so they've come to petition the court of last resort with the hysterical fervency of Princess Leia genuflecting in front of a hologram Jedi master: Help us, Oprah-wan Kenobi, you're our only hope!

I agree that Oprah's used her powers for good in the world of words, sharing her passion for reading with hundreds of thousands of readers who wouldn't otherwise pick up Toni Morrison or Edwidge Danicat. It would surely be a short-term victory if Oprah once again turned her attention from the dead to the living; that it would boost publishers' bottom line and shine a spotlight on work that would otherwise go neglected. I'd be as thrilled as any of the W.O.M. members if that were to happen.

But petitioning Oprah as the shot in the arm that could revitalize sales of literary fiction seems a little short-sighted.

The W.O.M. letter credits Oprah with turning a nation of viewers into readers, intrepid souls who'd head to bookstores in the hundreds of thousands to "tackle difficult contemporary novels, like The Reader, and Song of Solomon and... to talk about books, thus finding their way into the long and distinguished tradition of literary discussion."

The truth is, Oprah's book club members might have dipped a toe into the long and distinguished tradition of literary discussion, but they didn't stay to swim. She wasn't able to turn her viewers into readers as much as she turned them into consumers, happy to pull out their wallets and buy whatever she endorsed, whether it was diet tips, dating advice, or a novel.

As wonderful as the book club was on a book-to-book, month-to-month basis, it didn't have much of long-term effect. If it had, literary fiction sales wouldn't be in such a sorry state. Theoretically, everyone who eagerly read Oprah's picks would have continued reading on his or her own, and the follow-up efforts by writers who'd earned Oprah's blessing would have earned favor with a similar throng of eager readers.

Worse, the W.O.M. authors imagine readers as a group of gullible, tractable, desperate pinheads, wandering like little children in the big, bad aisles of their local bookshop without Oprah to guide them.

Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you.


Even without Oprah's imprimatur, there have been breakout best sellers: genuine word-of-mouth success stories that didn't need a TV book club's blessing or a front-page New York Times review in order to get readers, and talking, and pressing copies of the books on their friends.

Even if W.O.M. succeeds in convincing Oprah to change her course, it would be nothing more than a quick fix. What would happen on that dark day when Oprah goes off the air? Or when another Jonathan Franzen snubs her, complaining that he doesn't want to be read solely on Oprah's say-so? Or -- heaven forfend -- if Oprah brings back the club and decides to only pick male authors? It's like basing your future on the chance of buying a winning lottery ticket instead of going out and getting a job.

Rather than praying for a successful, much-beloved talk show host to once again sprinkle their books with fairy dust, the literary authors would be better served figuring out how to make the connection themselves.

Maybe it's a matter of publishers and booksellers working in concert to choose Oprah-esque titles and promote them well. Perhaps it's a question of coming up with some kind of national consortium of book clubs which would welcome monthly recommendations.

Or maybe it's just a question of writing more accessible books, the kind that mothers pass on to daughters and sisters swap with sisters and best friends give to each other, saying, I loved this and I know you will, too.
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