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Oprah's book club revolutionized the publishing market

COMMENTARY

Sure, there was Kindle, but that wireless device didn't deliver what the talk show diva did: readers. Just ask Jonathan Franzen.

December 30, 2009|By Julia Keller

Gazing back at the decade soon to turn to ash in history's eternally busy hearth, determined to identify the entity most crucial to the era's unique literary character, my first inclination was to paraphrase Horace Greeley:

Go tech, young woman.

Introduced in 2007 by Amazon, Kindle is the first e-book wireless delivery device to catch on in a major way. Now it has been joined by Nook (e-books seem destined to be christened with names that sound like forest nymphs), with other competitors already present or on the way, but Kindle is the first electronic book device that readers seem to have really taken to heart -- and to the airport, the train station, the bus stop, the bedside table, the old swimmin' hole. That has initiated a huge tectonic shift within the publishing industry, one bound to shake up how authors get paid and how publishing companies and booksellers make money.

But technology, which seems to be the obvious choice, is almost always a cop-out for critics. As easy as it is to point to a new gizmo as the colossus in any field -- MP3 players in music, Blu-ray discs in movies, HDTV and TiVo in TV, the Internet in everything -- it's misleading. Because in the end, what matters is what's delivered by the doodads: the music, films, TV shows and books. The stories. The goods.

So forget Kindle. What transformed literary culture in 2000-09 was "The Corrections" (2001) by Jonathan Franzen -- not only the book, which is a big, gorgeous, strapping 19th century novel smuggled into the 21st, and a Midwestern novel to boot, but also the story behind the story. It was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

Franzen was less than thrilled about the honor -- previous Winfrey books struck him as dreadfully down-market and plebeian -- which led to a mini-dust-up with Winfrey and a sudden spotlight on a dirty little truth: Literature is the last refuge of the snob. Most of us thought, in our infinite ignorance, that readers are readers, and the more readers, the better. But not Franzen: He wanted only certain kinds of readers.

Winfrey's book club began in 1996, but it was the Franzen episode that put it on the map. Yes, her imprimatur made a huge difference in a book's sales from the get-go, but "The Corrections" -- the intricate, beautifully written story of the slow, tottering fall of a Midwestern family -- made her book club controversial, and in the United States, nothing is truly important until it has started a few arguments.

The first decade of the 21st century revealed two things to the literary world: the power of a TV talk-show host to shape our collective taste in books, and the rudeness of a self-important author when that taste happened to include his work. (Never mind that Winfrey also favored William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and John Steinbeck; she was still too lowbrow for Franzen.)

There were other interesting trends in the last 10 years: the fake memoir, the zombie craze, the rise of the graphic novel as a legitimate literary form. But to me, nothing quite matched the recognition that unfolded throughout the decade of the astonishing cultural force of Winfrey's book club -- when she ends her show, that will be the biggest loss by far -- and how some authors, no matter how sophisticated they think they are, lack the grace and good manners to say thank you for the most exquisite gift of all: readers.

Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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