Monday, April 25, 2005

Oprah- the most sought-after and hated book critic

When it comes to the world of literature, Oprah Winfrey is both loved and hated. It doesn't have anything to do with anything that the daytime host has written herself but the recommendations that she's made through her book club. A Rocky Mountain News article (Author covers prose, cons of Oprah's club) explains how titles that OW gives props to then manage to ratchet up huge sales advances not to mention how it's coincided with a growth spurt of other book clubs. And yet, not everyone's happy about her doing this. I'm willing to put aside suspicions of race or sex prejudice here.

There's a prejudice going on here but it's about something else: I agree with author Kathleen Rooney that "the question goes to the core of our perceptions about culture and art. Oprah... found herself caught in an ongoing unease in America between high-brow and low-brow culture." Along with Jonathan Frazen's snub of being picked as a club choice, how uneasy do you think book critics might feel that their years of devoted service is upended by a talk show host? And how about the authors? Wouldn't you think that they'd feel the same way about such an upstart making such waves in their industry?

Actually, some of the response is just the opposite. A Daily News article (Writers to Oprah: We need your help) has info about a women's' writer group called Word of Mouth who has an open letter to OW: "The American literary landscape is in distress... Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you."

Is it really that bad? You can judge for your from a New York Times article about the benefits and realities of self-publishing (How To Be Your Own Publisher): many bookstores and publications (including the Times) won't give these books the time of day and the major publishers see them as 'farm teams' where they can cherry pick the break-out successes. There's also a wonderful Poet and Writer's article about the benefits and realities of indie publishing (An Argument for Writers' Taking Charge), told by a veteran of the indie rock game who sees a lot of relevant connections between the two entertainment industries. In music and books, A&R in the big leagues is almost always reserved for the heavy hitters. Indies can promise more control over product though extended and creative self-promotion are part of the dues paying. As the P&W article points out, book sales of 5,000 for a title is considered good- many titles that are put out never even reach that level.

You can vilify Oprah all you want for not pushing say The Naked Lunch or Mona Lisa Overdrive or more recent edgy material to the masses but 1) they'd be instantly lose their cool cache because of the association and 2) that's not realistic anyway. After the NEA complained that less and less people are reading fiction, we should be grateful that there's any sustained interest in the form being generated. If a daytime talk show host wants to lead the way, more power to her.


Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

I think I was wrong about how dire the state of fiction publishing is nowadays. It's probably even worse than I suspected. Some sobering quotes from a NY Times article from yesterday:

"'s gotten tougher than ever to sell writers in hardcover. There are a handful of books that sell and sell, but the others suffer."

"If you speak to publishers about the sales of literary fiction... we're in real trouble in this country... Sales are shocking these days, even compared to 10 years ago. And publishers are seriously cutting back."

10:11 AM  

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