by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 18, 2002
OPRAH'S TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I was happy when Oprah Winfrey ended her book club last week, because I believe she is using literature as part of a campaign to push a Big Lie on her followers (and the Dalai Lama may have fewer and less passionate followers.) The lie is that if you worship at the shrine of her, you can become her, or just like her.
The crux of the worship is the eagerly sought, transformative moment, when the (mostly female) followers transcend their dull, dreary, painful lives and become Oprah-esque: successful and in charge of their own destinies.
This may be a successful formula for daytime television, and it's certainly one step up from soap opera, but what does it have to do with literature?
Oprah Book Club sales numbers are staggering. She picked 48 books (35 by women, 13 by men) and all 48 jumped onto the best-seller list, selling between 500,000 and one million copies each.
Oprah's reason for quitting was lame. "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," she said.
This is just not true, considering that she has the entire publishing world's back list to choose from, and publishers were beating the bushes looking for more books she might like. They were encouraging their own authors to write just for her, and most other books didn't have a chance.
Oprah turned her book club into an endgame for Second Wave feminism.
Second Wave feminism started with Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." It said, basically, that if you were a young woman who was frustrated and unhappy with your life, you might have been conned by a conformist culture into believing that the only role to choose was being a faithful helpmate to your husband and a nurturing mother to your 2.5 children.
Friedan offered the possibility of liberation, of becoming a full person in your own right, of owning your own life. It really was transformative. It freed up a certain elite segment of society: young, white, middle- or upper-middle-class women, many with a creative bent.
It also created a new literary narrative.
Up to then, the memoir was the end-of-life entitlement of famous and/or accomplished people who wanted to tell the world how they had became famous and/or accomplished.
The new narrative was any woman's game. It generally followed the format of "How I was: badly raised/misunderstood/sexually molested/driven crazy/abandoned/whatever - and still found some happiness, or at least some success."
Transcendence was the point. Something always happened to make the writer understand that she was better or different or more capable than her early upbringing might have indicated. She then changed and entered a new world of light and opportunity. Many of these books were fascinating, although so many specialized in childhood horror stories that some critics railed against them for perpetuating a myth of female victimhood. This kind of memoir became so popular that men started writing them, too. For example, Frank McCourt pleased millions of readers with his "Angela's Ashes."
Oprah's books took this narrative to a level that can only be called banal (excluding writers like Toni Morrison, who already had a Nobel Prize and a quite a few readers of her own when Oprah "discovered her.") Constant comments about Oprah books were: "It touched me," "I saw myself in it," "It spoke to me," and "It changed my life."
A life-changing or paradigm-changing book is a rare thing. Friedan's book was one, but there haven't been 48 of them in the years that Oprah has been running her book club.
And who said it was literature's job to change your life? Literature can reveal a world with language, insight, wisdom, observation, and intelligence. It can deepen a reader's understanding of life. It's not therapy. You don't read "War and Peace" or "Middlemarch" tohave a life-changing experience.
Serious people know that life does not always offer a transcendent, reformative movement. They know that for most people, no matter how hard they try, the reality they're born into is the reality they end up with. Tragedy does not always lead to transformation; in life it often leads to more tragedy. Literature can help us cope with a hard and ugly world; it is fantasy to think it should offer a way out of it.
When the gifted (and already best-selling) author Jonathan Franzen withdrew his book from Oprah's club, he was called a snob. But the Franzen incident might be the reason Oprah is ending her club. With her now-enormous ego - her books, her authors, her show, her magazine with her picture on every page (and count them, six pictures of her on the cover this month) - Oprah was probably deeply wounded when her intellectual authority was challenged.
Maybe it was her own transformative moment - not all of them, after all, are as positive as Oprah would have you believe. Oprah's book club was not entirely without merit.
A friend of mine, a generous and powerful woman of 45 who raises millions of dollars for worthwhile feminist causes, has this to say about it:
"I am grateful for that club. I didn't have any of those books to read when I was in school or in college - and I was an English major! Any books by women were usually relegated to some obscure women's studies class, and so my models were Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Salinger. I grew up being them. I went to Spain thinking I was going to lead that Hemingway life, that male archetypal quest for something that leaves you working for a feminist organization trying to change all of that.
"Oprah put 48 more books on the map, and only 13 were written by men. So wow, she improved the balance. We may have a chance now to read more than just George Eliot - the only female whose books were required reading in my high school - and she was masquerading as a man."
Perhaps Oprah's books do help in the on-going balancing out of the"dead white male" construct of Western Civilization. It is also true that many people started reading because of Oprah, and she made literary discussion accessible to people outside the academic world.
But we should not forget that there are as many kinds of books as there are minds who write and read them. There are books written and read for enjoyment and entertainment, as well as for teaching and learning and maybe even changing your life.
Oprah's heavy-handed control of book content is now ended, and maybe publishers will allow new ideas, paradigms and narratives to flower.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writesabout culture, politics, economics and travel.