A Moment of Jen
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
posted by Jen at 3/28/2007 03:37:00 PM

Oprah Winfrey has tapped Cormac McCarthy has her latest book-club pick.

My first reaction: Isn’t she done with the dead white males?

I know, I know: technically, Cormac McCarthy is not dead.

But if Toni Morrison can call Bill Clinton our first black president, and Kate Michelman can say that John Edwards is our first female presidential candidate, I can call Cormac McCarthy our first living dead white male author. It’s my birthday. I can do whatever I want.

Think about it: McCarthy’s got all the credentials. The prizes. The big-deal reviews. The critics calling him the heir to William Faulkner.

McCarthy is a very big deal. THE ROAD has already sold more than 130,000 copies, a very respectable number for literary fiction.

That number will increase exponentially as a new group of readers, the ones who don’t take their book-buying cues from the Times or the New Republic, take Oprah’s advice and discover McCarthy’s bleak, spare, stripped-down story, set in a postapocalyptic future, about a man, his boy and their shopping cart.

Now, what I’m about to say is nothing against McCarthy. It’s nothing against bleak, spare, stripped-down stories. Or boys. Or men. Or shopping carts.

But couldn’t Oprah show some love to the ladies?

Seriously, the McCarthy pick is almost enough to make me throw my lot in with that gang of important lady writers who banded together a few years back to beg Oprah on bended knee to please please please revive her book club.

I thought back then, and I think now, that the important lady writers, by pleading with Oprah to pick their books, or at least one that they approved of, fell into the old feed-a-man-a-fish trap.

You know: feed a man a fish, and he’s content for a meal; teach a man to fish and he’s set for life.

Getting Oprah’s blessing was the publishing equivalent of having the most sumptuous piscine feast you could ever imagine laid at your table. Your book would shoot to the top of the best-seller lists. You’d appear on her show. You’d be the toast of the town.

Until the next month, when Oprah would pick another book, and you’d be left with nothing but a dining room in disarray and a whole mess of leftovers…and, in the long run, your career wouldn’t benefit much.

“You’re wrong!” said Oprah’s defenders. “Oprah turned people into readers!”

But if that were true, would literary fiction be in the dire straits it finds itself today? Wouldn’t the subsequent efforts of the Oprah-blessed be best sellers, too? I think Christina Schwartz and Jacquelyn Mitchard and A. Manette Ansay and Tawni O’Dell and Elizabeth Berg could tell you that’s generally not what happens. Was Oprah good for specific titles? Absolutely. For publishing houses' bottom lines? Indubitably? For writers' long-term careers? Maybe not so much.

Oprah did not turn a disaffected generation of non-readers into fans of important works of fiction. Oprah turned a disaffected generation of non-readers into consumers of all things Oprah.

Anything or anyone she branded, anything or anyone she bestowed her seal of approval on, anything or anyone from addiction memoirs to Dr. Phil to Suze Ormond to the HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU guy would profit.

But, in book world, that profit didn’t have much of a ripple effect. It extended only to the particular book Oprah had settled on. As the spouse of one of O’s anointed told me, “When Oprah picks your book, you’re not building an audience…you’re borrowing hers.”

Better for literary fiction and the men and women who write it to make their own way, build their connections with readers and booksellers, find smart, sustainable ways of surviving in a competitive marketplace, rather than hanging their hopes on a talk-show queen’s favors.

By choosing The Road, Oprah demonstrates the folly of believing that she'd revive the book club and emerge as the savior of literary fiction in general, and lady-penned lit fic, specifically.

She picked a book that’s already reaped a lion’s share of acclaim and critical attention…and, in the time since she’s revived the club, Oprah hasn’t picked anything written by a woman (yes, there’s THE SECRET, which is another animal altogether).

Not that there should be gender-based quotas, or affirmative action, at the Book Club. Not that Oprah has to answer to anything except her own taste. But maybe it’s time for the Big O to look to the ladies again.

After all, it wasn’t a girlie author who held her nose and complained about the low-brow, stay-at-home, soap-opera-loving nature of Oprah’s audience, a la Jonathan Franzen.

It wasn’t a girlie author who made up outlandish tall tales in her memoir of addiction, like James Frey.

Surely, in the wide, wide world of books, there’s something that would appeal to the big O that was written by someone with ladyparts.

As for me, I’m celebrating my birthday with THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD. So far, it’s wonderful.
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