THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Oprah’s Book Snub

How Winfrey Elevates Lowbrow Tastes and Hurts Reading

Oprah’s Book Club, The New York Times wrote when the talk show queen revived it in 2005, is “a boon to authors and publishers.”

OBC has certainly been good for authors who lie and the greedy publishers who put out their books. Oprah’s first post-hiatus pick was James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a memoir of substance abuse and rehab whose muscular Hemingway-lite style screamed inauthenticity. It also contained numerous fabrications.

Oprah wasn’t alone; Frey’s lies fooled many stalwarts in America’s state-controlled media. “As Frey takes pains to make clear, he was a particularly hard case–an omnivorous drinker, crack smoker and occasional drug dealer who was wanted in three states on outstanding charges,” wrote a Times reviewer who recommended the book. Neither Oprah’s staff nor the Times bothered to check whether criminal records verified his “harrowing” account. (They didn’t.)

Thanks to its placement on Oprah’s Book Club “Pieces” spent 15 weeks as a number one bestseller and generated at least $2.3 million in sales. When Oprah invited Frey back on the show to dress him down for lying, people winced at Frey’s humiliation. I hope he thanked her; it generated more sales.

Oprah narrowly dodged a bullet with another of her picks, the maudlin 1997 Holocaust memoir “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” by Misha Defonseca. This purported tale of a young Jewish girl who travels through Europe in search of her parents before being adopted by a pack of wolves, à la Romulus and Remus (!), turned out to be less than authentic. Quelle surprise. For one thing, “Misha”‘s real name was Monique de Wael. For another, she was Catholic, not Jewish. And she never left home. As for the wolves…well, you can guess how truthful that part was. In March 2008 Defonseca (née de Wael) admitted “is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving.”
Fortunately for Oprah, the truth came out before the show she taped urging her audience to buy “Misha” was released.

“The single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air,” Oprah called a Holocaust-era romance (notice a trend?) between Herman Rosenblat and his wife Roma. The couple’s 1996 appearance on her show scored them deals for two books–leading to Oprah’s latest embarrassment. Herman’s story that his future wife had saved his life by tossing apples over a fence at Buchenwald were belied by historical accounts of the camp’s layout.

Before the truth caught up with them, the Rosenblats’ Oprah imprimatur also secured them a $25 million movie deal. The film is in production at this writing.
Oprah claims she was duped by greedy, lazy publishers. Yet her website still recommends the fake books by Frey and the Rosenblats. Even so, the problem isn’t Oprah’s credulousness. It’s that she has atrocious taste. That, and a platform for promoting her bad taste.

Books picked by Oprah’s Book Club sell in the millions. Once such title was Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,” a plodding and vacuous depiction of phony connectivity between father and son after something terrible–we never learn what–has happened. (“The Man” and “The Boy,” he calls them. This passes for clever.) Like many of Oprah’s picks, and like many of the titles promoted such influential mainstream venues as The New York Times Book Review, it’s a book written in the form of a good book–spare prose, brooding tone, and who doesn’t love a good post-whatever societal meltdown tale?–that is not actually good.

An excerpt:

“Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we’re still going south.
Yes.
So we’ll be warm.
Yes.
Okay.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
Okay.
I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?”

Sure, it’s okay. But only if you blow your brains out first. This tendentious crap won the friggin’ Pulitzer friggin’ Prize. It’s going to be a movie. McCarthy is gonna make millions. And he sucks.

To which one might ask: So what?

Los Angeles Times book editor David L. Ulin weighed in when the Frey scandal broke. “Whatever [Frey’s] intent, ‘A Million Little Pieces’ clearly moved many readers—Oprah included—or it wouldn’t have been as successful as it was,” he wrote. “Why did it elicit such an emotional response, and is that response rendered invalid if its source is revealed to be a lie?”

Yes. It is. Of course. Because the readers were fools to have fallen for such tripe in the first place. First of all, because it was obviously untrue and second, because the writing was so bad. The problem isn’t bad and dishonest writers. They can’t help themselves. The problem is that mainstream American culture is gullible, sentimental, and dumb.

No is more blameworthy for Americans’ stupidity than publishers and book reviewers who act as taste-makers. As in all creative pursuits, publishing exposure is a zero-sum game. Rising tides don’t lift all boats; anyway, they’re more like thrones than tides. A few titles suck the air out of the room as the rest wither and die due to lack of attention.

Each decision to review a bad book results in a better book going unreviewed, unnoticed, and its author unremunerated–and thus less likely to keep publishing. Each prize committee’s decision to grant an award to a bad book takes away praise that might otherwise have drawn acclaim and sales to a good one. When bad books do well, authors study what works in the marketplace and copy the formula–resulting in more bad books.

Readers who rely on popular hype to choose books often come away disappointed. A few may decide to deep deeper, but most won’t. Burned readers become non-readers.
A few years ago, I read Robert Fisk’s magesterial “The Great War for Civilisation–The Conquest of the Middle East,” in which the legendary war correspondent used a “Pulp Fiction”-like wrap-around structure to tie together personal and sweeping historical narratives of the West’s 20th century relationship with the Middle East to staggering effect. It’s a 1136-page monster, yet I savored every sentence.

Everyone I know who has read it came away with the same impression. Yet “The Great War” never made the bestsellers list. It languishes at #43,498 on Amazon, the victim of book reviewers and media mavens who chose to ignore it in favor of dull, sentimental crap, some of which isn’t even true. In case you were wondering, “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” is #2 on The New York Times bestsellers list (non-fiction category, natch).

Imagine what the book world would look like if books like Fisk’s tome or my current favorite, George C. Herring’s monumental “From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776,” were an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Of course, that will never happen. Which is why, if Oprah truly cares about books, she’ll stop trusting herself and her tastes, and shut down her stupid book club.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

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39 Responses to “THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Oprah’s Book Snub”

  1. Y_S Says:

    Haven’t made it on Oprah yet I see 😉

  2. Y_S Says:

    WTF???

    Ted; Did you and Tom Tomorrow PLAN to have the same topic on the Same Day???

    Look Here:
    http://www.salon.com/comics/tomo/2009/01/13/tomo/

    Are you getting together and conspiriong??? Cause that would be totally cool with me 😀

    Good Luck in Your Oprah hatred!

    Y_S
    Pakistan

  3. Don Says:

    Good show as usual, Ted! Your article underlies a truism- that no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of average Americans.

    Look at how the right-wing crap continues to hit ‘best-seller’ status…Coulter, Beck, Boortz, all selling in the millions. Even if much of these sales are bulk buys by right-wing think tanks, if nothing else, they energize the mouth-breather ‘base’ into thinking their ideas are ‘mainstream’, instead of ‘batshit-crazy’.

    In a country where beliefs are elevated to the same stature as realities, we can expect little else…and as you illustrate time and again, we will all be poorer for it.

  4. valmont Says:

    One of your more vapid efforts. Ted, having more serious interests than Oprah isn’t the same thing as having better taste.

  5. valmont Says:

    One of your more vapid efforts. Ted, having more serious interests than Oprah isn’t the same thing as having better taste.

  6. Jim Says:

    My personal favourite was when Wally Lamb grouched about his book being picked, saying he didn’t want that kind of publicity. Can’t blame him either, it was the weakest of his books.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    You might want to, you know, actually READ the books you’re bashing here.

    While not using the words, The Road, makes it very clear that what happened was nuclear war.

    Was it a great book? No, probably not. Was it better than a lot of stuff currently on the shelves- yeah,pretty much.

  8. klempitter Says:

    Sorry, Ted, but yanking a single context-dependent passage from one of McCarthy’s lesser works as the sole piece of evidence that “he sucks” isn’t the most convincing critical strategy. (I could pull a random dialogue snippet from the middle of, say, “The Dead” and do the same thing with it.) And your “This passes for clever” aside supposes that McCarthy aspires to “cleverness” in the first place, which I kinda doubt (unlike, say, someone who uses a “Pulp Fiction”-like wrap-around structure).

    This reminds me of your Chris Ware rant from a few years back; it sounds like bitchy “Why doesn’t everybody like what I like?” foot-stamping, forcibly inflated into a statement about America the Nation of Fools, and frankly it’s not what you’re good at; I can get the same thing more succinctly from any random Onion AV Club commenter, not that I’d want to. (I don’t like Chris Ware either, by the way; if it’s any consolation the vast majority of Americans still have no idea who he is.)

    Maybe I “shouldn’t” like Cormac McCarthy, but if I happen to have a powerful gut-level reaction to something like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or BLOOD MERIDIAN, should I pretend I don’t? Should I take a good long look at myself and try to figure out what deficit of character caused me to have such a reaction, and try to do “better” next time? Or is my reaction permissible because I was first exposed to McCarthy in a college English course and had never heard of him before, as opposed to someone who bought THE ROAD because Oprah told them to? (That last question isn’t facetious; I’m curious if it makes a difference to you.)

    I agree that mainstream American culture is gullible, sentimental, and dumb; that’s a given. But shoehorning a novelist you happen to dislike in with profiteers of blatantly phony and pandering “autobiographies,” just because he appeared alongside them in Oprah’s book club, feels both petty and irrelevant to the topic you’re discussing. There may be a way to frame it so that’s not the case, but you haven’t even begun to do that here. I think Bob Dylan’s near-universally praised “Modern Times” is a boring, tuneless slog, but I’m not about to make the case that the reception of “Modern Times” and the popularity of “American Idol” are somehow symptomatic of the same problem.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    You’re so bitter Ted. There’s no other word for it. You need to let it go.

  10. Incitatus Says:

    What, Ted? Next you’re going to say you didn’t think “Marley and me” was touching and relevant. I’m shocked, shocked!

  11. Maura Says:

    Ted, you can mock the book about the library cat, but do not mock the cat himself. Just a warning. 🙂

    Here’s the thing about Oprah. I like Oprah, mostly when she does shows about fashion and home decorating. When people start crying, I change the channel.

    She is, like it or not, the most powerful woman in this country. I think most of the time, she’s very responsible with that power. Her desire to get people to read is admirable, and I’m sure her original idea was that if she put a book in the hands of a non-reader, that person will be inspired to read other books Oprah didn’t recommend. It’s not her fault that many of her fans are too dumb to expand their reading material and make their own choices.

    After the James Frey debacle, she should be fully investigating every book she considers recommending. She has about 1000 producers working for her, so it’s not like it can’t be done. As for her taste, well, I’ve read a few of the books she’s recommended. One was very good, and the others were OK. I don’t think it’s fair to say across the board that every book and movie Oprah recommends sucks, unless you’ve read every book and watched every movie. Although I’ll never forgive her for making me think “Beaches” was worthing watching.

  12. Maura Says:

    Ted, you can mock the book about the library cat, but do not mock the cat himself. Just a warning. 🙂

    Here’s the thing about Oprah. I like Oprah, mostly when she does shows about fashion and home decorating. When people start crying, I change the channel.

    She is, like it or not, the most powerful woman in this country. I think most of the time, she’s very responsible with that power. Her desire to get people to read is admirable, and I’m sure her original idea was that if she put a book in the hands of a non-reader, that person will be inspired to read other books Oprah didn’t recommend. It’s not her fault that many of her fans are too dumb to expand their reading material and make their own choices.

    After the James Frey debacle, she should be fully investigating every book she considers recommending. She has about 1000 producers working for her, so it’s not like it can’t be done. As for her taste, well, I’ve read a few of the books she’s recommended. One was very good, and the others were OK. I don’t think it’s fair to say across the board that every book and movie Oprah recommends sucks, unless you’ve read every book and watched every movie. Although I’ll never forgive her for making me think “Beaches” was worthing watching.

  13. Anders Says:

    I’ll give Fisk and Herring a shot, if my local library has them.
    In return, I recommend Michael Parenti’s “The Assassination of Julius Caesar”.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Ted, I share your bewilderment with the appeal of a lot of popular culture. I can’t tell you how many times people rave about some best-selling book or hit movie that I check out and find disappointingly mediocre (“Benjamin Button”, anyone?). I’m always curious to know if people rave about these things because they’re popular/have good reviews and they feel they should or if they really connect with it in some way that I can’t seem to. Though I’d hestitate to call them stupid because of it (unless we’re talking about Ann Coulter books or something…)

  15. Jon D Says:

    As usual your spot on Ted, but I disagree with you on your review of “The Road”. Just because YOU didn’t enjoy it doesn’t mean it was a bad book. You took a conversation out of context and at face value.

    I can understand wanting to know more details to what/who caused the bombs to drop but in the books setting its not like there is a TV or internet to look up what happened after the matter of the fact.

    When I read “The Road” it didn’t have that purple Oprah sticker on it so when I found our she put it in her “Club” it took a lot away from the book for me.

    I suppose one should be happy the American’s still are buying books instead of just watching TV.

  16. Rob Lacey Says:

    Your extract from McCarthy was hilarious, especially because you can find exactly the same brand of short vacuous dialogue in Marguerite Duras’ novels. We find it so hilarious, here in France, even though she is revered as the quintessential left-bank writer, that there are a lot of pastiches (not pastis) of her style going around . I see Cormac McCarthy picked it up.

  17. Dirk Says:

    Oh good God am I glad someone called McCarthy out on his sentence fragment-spewing, crappy book writing way.

  18. Dirk Says:

    Oh good God am I glad someone called McCarthy out on his sentence fragment-spewing, crappy book writing way.

  19. The Reverend Mr. Smith Says:

    Thank you. The promotion of mediocrity to the detriment of the culture is a legitimate topic and it was a nice break from politics. While Ofra might not be a world-class charlatan, she certainly has unleashed them on the world (see Dr. Phil).

    I’m taking bets on how long it takes her to start a feud with Uh-bama. She loves to tear them down after she’s built them up (see Dr. Phil).

  20. marley and me Says:

    The movie sounds awesome! Maybe they’ll get Tom Cruise to play “The Man,” and they can have Kanye West produce the soundtrack. It’ll be a three-peat of mediocrity!

    This isn’t just entertainment- it’s adequate!

  21. marley and me Says:

    The movie sounds awesome! Maybe they’ll get Tom Cruise to play “The Man,” and they can have Kanye West produce the soundtrack. It’ll be a three-peat of mediocrity!

    This isn’t just entertainment- it’s adequate!

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Someone’s upset that is political cartoon compilation didn’t make the Oprah coffee table book club.

  23. Ken Says:

    Ted, have you read “Three Cups Of Tea”? This book helps to form some of the basis of Oprah’s hypocrisy. In it, Mortenson had tried to raise funds for the Korphe school by writing letters to famous people. One of them was Oprah. Now, the story itself (building schools in Karakoram mountains where there previously were none – especially for girls) is the type of material that would normally be welcomed by Oprah with open arms. Yet, because one of her “people” who read and suggest the letters that come into her office decided that it would not be a good idea, she is humiliated in print. To me, this would be a fantastic opportunity for her to heal the wounds, have Mortenson on her show, promote the book, and donate a large sum of money to his cause. I guess she just has too much pride.

  24. Susan Stark Says:

    For those of you looking for a good criticism of the Oprah Winfrey phenomenon, there is “The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era”.

    Basically the book chronicles how group action and activism has been suppressed in favor of individual attainment, and that Oprah is both the symbol and main disciple of this philosophy, pre-digested for the masses. In a sense, Winfrey has become the polar opposite of Martin Luther King Jr. You can say that she’s the anti-King.

  25. Steve B. Says:

    Jon D.:

    Are you serious? You enjoyed “The Road,” and then your opinion was diminished after-the-fact when Oprah chose it for her book club? Jesus, that is fucking pathetic. If you’re going to turn your back on every book with an Oprah sticker on it, then you’ll be throwing away Anna Karenina and East of Eden, among plenty of other legitimately great novels.

    Rall, you might not agree with the woman’s taste, but the people I’ve met who follow Oprah’s book club religiously would probably be reading frigging Danielle Steele novels otherwise. If Oprah has them reading novels that are actually ABOUT something once in a while, then that is a clear step forward in my book.

    People who enjoy reading novels that aren’t psuedo-historical, polemical epics are not all ignorant, amoral slobs. Get over yourself.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    I love that the title plays up Dewey’s status as a “small-town” library cat. As opposed to all those godless latte-drinking big-city library cats.

  27. nietzchuck Says:

    I’m with Ted on this one. If you like a book because it makes you feel warm and fuzzy, fine. Enjoy it. You’re entitled to it. But if we think it’s crap, we’re going to skewer it.

    I’ll agree with the ‘Danielle Steele’ argument; it is certainly a step forward. But, there are far better books she could be recommending. Which I think was Ted’s point.

    As long as we celebrate mediocrity and banality, that’s what we’re going to get. Meanwhile, more talented authors are left behind. (Case in point: the orgy of bile that was Left Behind.) We should demand the best in our entertainment just as we should demand the best of our public officials. It could be argued that at least the people who supported Palin voted, and she wasn’t all bad, and just because you don’t like her doesn’t someone else shouldn’t like her. Fine, she’s not all bad, and you can like her if you want; but there are better people in this country, and they should be in office.

    And there are better books in publication. They should be read.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    Hey, speaking of psuedo-historical epics, how about “The Pillars of the Earth”? Oh wait its on Oprah’s list so it must suck too. But I read it before it was on her list, so maybe it didn’t suck then.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    If you liked Fisk, his late 1980s book “Pity the Nation” on the civil war in Lebanon was just as good, if not better, because Fisk wrote about the capture and hostage of Terry Anderson, who was a fellow journalist and friend. What is a slightly impersonal memoir of a man living in a war zone from the mid-1970s becomes more gripping after Anderson is captured in 1985 and Fisk tries to get him back or find out how he was doing.

    – Strelnikov

  30. Anonymous Says:

    I’ve gotta agree with the earlier comment that lumping in “The Road” with books by liars and conmen simply because it was featured on Oprah’s show is unfair.

    A friend sent me the book and I did like it. It was not great writing in the sense that the prose was beautiful. Yeah, it was gimmicky. But as a dad, I found I just got sucked in to the desolation/desparation of the setting. I think there’s some spiritual symbolism that was fun to puzzle out too (is the boy the man’s soul?) Schmalzy? Maybe. But really, what harm was done by my reading and enjoying the book?

  31. Anonymous Says:

    I’ve gotta agree with the earlier comment that lumping in “The Road” with books by liars and conmen simply because it was featured on Oprah’s show is unfair.

    A friend sent me the book and I did like it. It was not great writing in the sense that the prose was beautiful. Yeah, it was gimmicky. But as a dad, I found I just got sucked in to the desolation/desparation of the setting. I think there’s some spiritual symbolism that was fun to puzzle out too (is the boy the man’s soul?) Schmalzy? Maybe. But really, what harm was done by my reading and enjoying the book?

  32. Ted Rall Says:

    “What harm was done?”

    There is obviously no harm in reading any book. The trouble with Oprah is that she uses her publicity machine to promote lame books at the expense of books that are much, much more deserving of broader exposure. In so doing, she discourages good work and encourages bad work.

    Anyone who cares about professional standards, or is just a shopper, should abhor publicity that promotes inferior products at the expense of superior ones.

  33. cemmcs Says:

    I liked Frey’s book. It seemed like a fantastic story but I thought it was a good read.

  34. cemmcs Says:

    I liked Frey’s book. It seemed like a fantastic story but I thought it was a good read.

  35. Cantabridgienne Says:

    Ted,
    I agree about Oprah and Americans lousy taste in books in general. As someone who actually liked reading before Oprah and Harry Potter made it cool, I’ve been trying to explain my feelings about Oprah’s Book Club for years. (Yes it’s a good thing that she’s getting more people to read books, but when someone mentions the grapes of wrath or the Road they should have to add “you know–Oprah’s book club book”)

    What is to be done about this?
    1)Start your own book club (Eric Alterman did this for a while on his web site.) I’ve already ordered the Fisk book from my local book store. If you recommended other books that didn’t get the media attention they deserved I (and other readers I’m sure)would look them up.

    2) Visit your local independent bookstore and ask someone there for a recommendation. These people read enough books to get beyond the NY Times best seller list.

  36. Cantabridgienne Says:

    Ted,
    I agree about Oprah and Americans lousy taste in books in general. As someone who actually liked reading before Oprah and Harry Potter made it cool, I’ve been trying to explain my feelings about Oprah’s Book Club for years. (Yes it’s a good thing that she’s getting more people to read books, but when someone mentions the grapes of wrath or the Road they should have to add “you know–Oprah’s book club book”)

    What is to be done about this?
    1)Start your own book club (Eric Alterman did this for a while on his web site.) I’ve already ordered the Fisk book from my local book store. If you recommended other books that didn’t get the media attention they deserved I (and other readers I’m sure)would look them up.

    2) Visit your local independent bookstore and ask someone there for a recommendation. These people read enough books to get beyond the NY Times best seller list.

  37. Jon D Says:

    Too true Ted, but do you expect her to plug books along the line of “War and Peace” which is considered to be the greatest novel ever? I doubt it.

    You have to “sell” what your consumer/audience wants and something tells me most of house wives (or who ever watches Oprah) wouldn’t give a crap about it.

    I mean either most people who watch her show are either dopes that she exploits (and lowers the bar) or Oprah is intentionally assualting our minds with garbage so it will be easier to sell her next shiny turd (ooooh…. shiny, me likey shiny things).

  38. Anonymous Says:

    Headline: RALL URGES AMERICA TO LIKE GOOD BOOKS, DISLIKE BAD BOOKS

    While you’re at it, what restaurants should I be eating at?

  39. Maura Says:

    I mean either most people who watch her show are either dopes that she exploits (and lowers the bar) or Oprah is intentionally assualting our minds with garbage so it will be easier to sell her next shiny turd (ooooh…. shiny, me likey shiny things).

    I wouldn’t say everything she sells is crap. I think that, underneath all the psychobabble, her real message is that there’s a bigger world out there than just your family and it’s everyone’s responsibility to make our society better, so get off your butts and do something. But she says it in that southern-bred way that makes you think you’ve just received a compliment.

    What I find fascinating is that a wealthy, childless, never-married woman can become the heroine, even the spokesperson, for so many middle-class, married women with kids.

    I won’t deny that some of her ideas are half-assed. She probably did more harm than good when she talked endlessly about following your bliss. I imagine that for every fan who found a way to make a living doing something she was passionate about, there were at least 100 who ended up frustrated and feeling like failures. And she gave “The Secret” her support. (Whether she has since disavowed that crackpot idea, I don’t know. I hope so, because WTF?) But, no one had to listen to her. It’s not hard to recognize such garbage for exactly what it is. Her rabid, unquestioning, not-at-all curious fans are as culpable as she is.

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