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By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

All Things Literary

Oprah Tolls the Bell for Her Book Club
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

The news  reverberated not only through the literary book community but throughout the entire book world.  The first message I read was cryptic: Oprah would no longer recommend book titles on a monthly basis.  I was devastated.  I wanted to know more.

I turned to the New York Times.

Oprah was quoted: “It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share…”  Now, I was just plain confused.

Did Oprah mean it was harder because there are none out there to choose from?

I can’t believe that.  If rumors are true, her slush pile makes Mt. McKinley look puny.  I visualize two floors of readers in a building the size Grand Central Station.  They are young lit majors all, feverishly combing through what they “think” might impress Oprah enough for them to submit a recommendation.  I see them as incredibly eager to please and not too keen on making mistakes; they naturally turn more and more to the recommendations of the time-honored publishing houses and reviewers and everyone knows those guys haven’t taken any risks on new authors for at least a couple of decades.

This of course, is opinion, but I think if readers go back over her selections for the last few months they might smell the same stagnant book-breath that I have:  Jonathan Franzen of New Yorker and “most ungrateful artist of the year” fame is among those chosen.  So are at least three titles by Toni Morrison, at least two by Bill Cosby.  Others include the totally “unknown names” of Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, Maeve Binchy, Elizabeth Berg and Barbara Kingsolver. 

At first Oprah’s picks were authors of little renown. She chose novelists with important things to say and a unique way of saying them and didn’t give a T-tinkers darn who published the book or if the author’s name was known by anybody.  It is said that her well-intentioned program became inundated with hopefuls.

I’m sorry. I get diverted. I was saying that I am confused.  Is finding a good book with a literary slant harder because books that fit Oprah’s priorities are becoming rarer?  I certainly hope that is not what she is saying.  I prefer to believe---after all, she has done for readin’ and writin’---that she is saying that her book selection program got out of hand. It was too expensive, too unwieldy, too fraught with personalities and personal agendas ---to put up with it any more.  That is what I hope she is saying.

The reason I long for that interpretation is that I think she is doing the right thing and I would like the literary world to focus on that, not on the idea that she has no confidence in America’s pool of young talent.  I would like the publishers and reviewers and readers to consider what she may very have well seen for herself--that the club had, in the last few months, lost the discovery quality it once had.  It certainly wasn’t only the Franzen snafu. Each time a new selection was announced, I rather absently wondered where all the new blood, the new themes, the special warmth had gone. Her choices seemed to throw up the by-lines of those we had already seen, those who needed no more  exposure than they already had (see the list above). It has been a long time since an obscure press or name appeared on her list and I don’t think it is because none of them have not published worthy books.

 In other words, Oprah was selecting books that her audience needed no “help” in finding.  These were books that would have made it to the New York Times List on the momentum of their authors’ names and their publishers’ names alone—no help was needed from Oprah, thank you. 

So if the expense and red tape of Oprah’s program got out of hand, and the service she was providing was deteriorating to more of the same provided by every other top 10 list in the country, then she exercised the same savvy  aptitude for decision making that has propelled her to the top of her field. If she is saying, “This is enough.  It isn’t doing what it is supposed to do,” then I applaud her .

Trouble is, the industry will miss Oprah and so will those few outstanding authors out there twisting in the wind—the ones who, without the Book Club’s support (as it was originally conceived)--will never, ever be discovered.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn plans to list a writing tidbit or promotion tip that will help those authors (who now will never be found by Oprah) to make themselves known and to help readers to find a treasure long-neglected or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Sign up for a FREE service for writers and poets: This list of contests and calls-for-submissions is compiled by A. E. Joseph and may be sent directly to your e-mail box. To subscribe, send a blank e-mail to:

Readers' Tip: Read "the wedding" by Dorothy West. Published by Doubleday in 1995. It has been rather forgotten; it has a lot to say about love and prejudice, my two favorite subjects.