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Jewish World Review April 6, 2002/ 5 Iyar, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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Consumer Reports

Will folding Oprah's Book Club reverse the damage done to literature? | Oprah Winfrey is shelving her book club.

Publishers and grubbing authors everywhere already are bemoaning the diminished sales they anticipate--somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 per selection.

A mountain of profit lost, to be sure, but there is a larger question at stake, one that arose not long ago when the daytime talk show impresario bestowed her coveted imprimatur on Jonathan Franzen's book "The Corrections," and the author snubbed the honor. What was wrong with Oprah's Book Club? Or perhaps, what relationship should the masses have with literature and vice versa?

It's a particularly American question, given our nation's egalitarian bent. We're uncomfortable with those little words "highbrow" and "lowbrow."

We abhor snobs, mostly because we live in the bravest of new worlds, where class, race and sex form an odious triad of historical oppression, which the enlightened among us are supposed to have long since dispensed. Accordingly, Franzen was widely pilloried for declining to have his opus besmirched by the thumbprints of the great unwashed, or at least by their queen bee arbiter, Winfrey.

But there is more than petit bourgeois snobbery in a dislike for Oprah's Book Club.

First, there's the celebrity issue. Because she is famous, Winfrey, who will continue sporadically to feature books she feels strongly about, exercises more than her share of influence on public debate.

Her opinion in matters of literary taste is amateurish to say the least, but it carries considerable weight solely because she is a household name.

Similarly, a movie star's offhand remarks about politics always seem to make the news.

Because someone famous said it, suddenly it matters, even though the famous person in question often knows little or nothing about the matter at hand.


Winfrey presumed where she should not have, and while her presumption may have led millions who might not otherwise have done so to read some good books, one can understand why someone like Franzen would disdain her haphazard tap on the head.

I wouldn't want her sticker on my book either.

Then there's the question of effort.

In our fast-food nation, we tend to think that the intellectual life, like everything else, can be had pre-chewed and in bulk just for the asking.

But that attitude is a grievous insult to the people who spend their lives earning the respect of their literary peers and versing themselves in the arduous ways of their trade.

What Yeats wrote of love applies equally to literature: "Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned by those that are not entirely beautiful."

Finally, there's the question of quality. People who dislike Oprah's Book Club dislike it for the same reason that they dislike Barnes & Noble. The fact that the two do a brisk business isn't accidental.

Winfrey and B&N represent the same pernicious homogenization of American life that makes existential despair all but unavoidable.

They are the generic market force that always pushes the charming, singular neighborhood bookstore cafe out of business or the quirky black comic novel into the remainder bin; the bland cultural juggernaut that makes every corner of America look the same and, more frightening, think the same.

Books are not commodities, but the gilded age of treadmill publishing--to which Winfrey has contributed her demeaning sensibility--has made them so, thereby spawning harried plagiarists such as Stephen Ambrose and yellow journalists like David Brock.

If Oprah's Book Club is gone, good riddance. Now if only B&N would go with it.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Norah Vincent