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The Oprah Effect 

The TV star has transformed the publishing world

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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An author friend confides his fondest career wishes: scoring a film deal for his first book, publishing a second by summer - and "getting my book on the Oprah Book Club. That would be . . ."

The ellipsis is appropriate. It's hard to exaggerate the impact that Oprah's Book Club, launched just over a year and a half ago by the grande dame of daytime talk, has had on the book world. Each month, when she recommends a favorite work to her viewers worldwide, they buy and, presumably, read in staggering numbers. All 15 Oprah picks, which range from the quirky (Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone) to the highbrow (Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and, earlier this year, Paradise), have rocketed onto best-seller lists; books that might otherwise not have cracked 100,000 in sales easily sell in the millions. Oprah's Book Club has transformed the publishing monde so quickly and profoundly that the industry has given it a name, as scientists give those celestial phenomena they can predict but can't quite explain: the Oprah effect.

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Watching the reader roundtables with authors on Oprah makes it abundantly clear that the Book Club's largest purpose is to humanize books, to pluck them out of the cloistered circles of letters and make them as fundamental to good, lusty living as the crab cakes and biscuits Oprah and company chow down on. At the roundtables with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, dissection of the books wasn't the point: The gatherings functioned as a kind of jury duty, where people of various ethnic backgrounds and stations who would otherwise never give each other a glance were not only talking, but freely sharing long-held secrets, tears, tales of how reading the book shifted their lives monumentally. One woman who described herself in her letter as "Little Miss White Woman" and had resisted reading Angelou had, in the end, the greatest catharsis of anyone.

Oprah's power resides in the intimacy with her audience that she established in her earliest days on television. What is a book club, after all, but a latter-day sewing circle, a reason for a bunch of people to get together and talk? Her unflagging sincerity has taken the notoriously fickle beast of public opinion and focused it on books. More remarkably, she has convinced her cozy circle of millions not simply that books are cool, but literary books are cool, which in a national climate hostile to deep thinking is like convincing a kid to eat peas.

Perhaps the secret of Oprah's success lies in her ability to align worthy ideals with canny marketing. There are those who balk at the fact that she is the world's most influential book critic, that Toni Morrison landed on the mass-culture map not because of her Nobel Prize but because Oprah coronated two of her books. That Morrison might be, at least for a moment, as hot a commodity as a Beanie Baby is an irony, but even the mustiest academic has to admit it's a sweet one. Perhaps because pop-icon status is so often accorded to people of slight or dubious achievement, we become suspicious when achievers like Morrison get what they deserve from us. If a rhapsodic review from Oprah can help to untie that Gordian knot of reasoning, so much the better.

Some would say that Oprah's effusions occasionally border on a kind of intellectual genuflection that pumps up the writers plenty, but doesn't always serve viewers looking to engage in serious literary discussions of the works. When Oprah and a group of readers gathered with Maya Angelou for dinner and chat about club pick The Heart of a Woman, English teacher Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, who watched the show, was put off by the pajama-party atmosphere, in which enraptured guests listened at the feet of the author as she read. Oprah was similarly wide-eyed in her discussion with Morrison. "It wasn't about the book," says Hutchinson, who teaches honors courses at Markham Middle School in Watts. "It was more about adulation than about works of fiction. It was a little syrupy. With Toni, Oprah confessed to a lot of ignorance about the complexity of Paradise, to the point where Toni seemed a bit impatient. Oprah was identifying with the masses who may not have understood, but whether she was playing that up or whether she really didn't understand, I don't know."

There may be some "just folks" orchestration on Oprah's part, but the star has never really been about asking hard questions, at least not on the air. Precisely because she knows hardship - she survived a harrowing childhood, and her defining TV moment came when she admitted to the world in 1985 that she had been sexually abused at the age of 9 - she is primarily a validator, an affirmer of good. It's no surprise, then, that Oprah's Book Club choices tend toward the confessional, the crucible-of-the-female-experience revelational - not sop, but tough, ambitious narratives like those of Morrison, Ursula Hegi or Wally Lamb. Oprah does encourage redemption, though she doesn't pretend that it comes easy. She often cautions her audience against expecting a quick read. Stick with the 500-page Stones From the River, she told them, and the rewards will be many.

All in all, I'd rather have Oprah than, say, Howard Stern or Jerry Springer gush and play tastemaker. Her Book Club may not advance the cause of literary analysis, but it may do something greater in advancing her conviction that people ought to read more. Oprah has never been brazenly liberal, but neither has she been afraid to be moral, to let her social conscience show. She refused to have Bob Dole or Dennis Rodman (after the publication of his instantly infamous As Bad as I Wanna Be) as a guest. And there's a reason why Starbucks Coffee, eager to be a good corporate citizen, now sells Book Club picks in stores and donates the net proceeds to literacy programs. "With Oprah, there's a purity of intention there," says Starbucks marketing director John Williams. "Her titles reflect a real appreciation for great literary work. It was important for her to hear what our commitment would be."

Some say that Oprah's Book Club doesn't do enough to promote black authors, which someone as powerful as she should feel charged to do. Yet she has showcased a good number of them - Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Angelou, Bill Cosby - and claims them as her touchstones. (She has said that Morrison is her heroine, and that Angelou saved her life.) Those who still question her soul-sister credentials might consider that her television and film projects have been taken largely from black literature, from Gloria Naylor to Walter Mosley to Harlem Renaissance survivor Dorothy West. "Whatever else we think of her, she's affiliated with projects that are related to black literature, and that's an important pattern," says Richard Yarborough, English professor and acting director of UCLA's Center for African American Studies. "Oprah's doing what we always wish empowered people, especially empowered black people, would do more of."

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Baldwin Hills, says that the boost Oprah has provided to sales more than qualifies as social responsibility. "We sold 27 copies of Paradise the first weekend it was out, then 70 the weekend after Oprah made it a Book Club pick," says Fugate, who carries all of Oprah's picks in his store, including those by nonblack authors. "Since Oprah, we've sold over 200. She revitalized books."

Race may be a prevailing force in the Oprah Club books, but it is incidental to the stories that move her most - those that chronicle the often tortured search for the geography of one's own soul. As remarkable as the book renaissance is, what's more remarkable is the fact that it is fostered by a black woman who is also an individualist, whose eclectic tastes embrace hardscrabble Southern roots but aren't bound by them, who is as easily transported to a contemporary suburb or life in Nazi Germany as she is to a plantation. Oprah says that the vision fueled by books helped her survive, and I believe her, because I, too, have been saved by books, and by writers wholly unlike myself. The best books renew a belief in self and possibility by realigning the outlook of the reader. With its clamor of voices that sound different to every ear, fiction inspires a kind of wonder that the group activities of television and movies never can. Oprah, by the way, says she never watches TV.

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