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Oprah's Book Club: She spoke, we read

The talk-show maven's Book Club spawned literary stars and controversy.

May 22, 2011|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • The Launch: Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean" was the first book Oprah Winfrey chose for her club in 1996.
The Launch: Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean"… (Steve Green )

For some, a book club means Chardonnay, gossip and some bookish conversation. For Oprah Winfrey, it's meant making bestsellers and, as she said Monday, "the biggest controversy in our 25 years."

As her broadcast television show comes to a close, Winfrey welcomed the reason for that controversy — the not-truthful memoirist James Frey — onto two full shows of her final 10, putting her once-vital Book Club back at the center of the national discussion.

Oprah's Book Club launched quietly in 1996, and a nod soon became a sure shot to the bestseller list and a windfall for publishing as a whole.

"It's the ultimate book club; it's very broad and very deep," Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of the prestigious publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said in a telephone interview. "It's been a wonderful enhancement to publishing fiction."

In the club's heyday, Winfrey selected about 10 books a year — she's remembered for choosing family-focused novels but was equally supportive of challenging literary fiction. She would announce the much-anticipated next book on the air, give viewers a few months to buy and read it, then have the author appear on her show in a book-club-discussion setting.

No one in publishing had expected Winfrey's impact on their industry's bottom line after the media maven energized an enthusiastic and dedicated group of readers.

L.A.-based author Janet Fitch was a virtual unknown when her book "White Oleander" was selected for Winfrey's club in 1999; the selection helped sell 720,000 copies before the author even appeared on the show.

"I'd spent basically 20 years just living a writer's life," Fitch said recently in Los Angeles. She'd never considered that her book, which features a difficult mother and a daughter left to the foster-care system, might find a wide readership. "Oprah said it would go over a million by the time it was all over, and it was true."

Hollywood also jumped to attention — film rights to Fitch's novel were sold on the sidewalk outside of Book Soup in West Hollywood, and Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the movie version. Other books that made it to screen after being selected by Winfrey include Andre Dubus III's "The House of Sand and Fog," Jane Hamilton's "A Map of the World" and Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader."

The Book Club had the power not only to make literary stars but also to create a national furor, as it did in 2006 when it turned out that Winfrey's fall 2005 pick, Frey's addiction and recovery memoir "A Million Little Pieces," was more fiction than fact. At first, Frey protested his case on Larry King's CNN talk show, during which Winfrey expressed her support; later, a visibly upset Winfrey brought Frey back onto her show. "It is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped," she said.

"It was a difficult experience, but at this point, I'm happy with the way it has all worked out," Frey told The Times in an email. "It absolutely made me more of a public figure. And it exposed my work to much wider audiences than they would have had otherwise, for which I am deeply thankful."

Her televised lashing of Frey has weighed on Winfrey's conscience — she apologized to the author in 2009 — and by bringing him back on her show, she offered them both a chance for reconciliation and redemption. It was a very Oprah thing to do.

Although most authors' experiences with the talk-show queen were less fraught, they were equally life-changing.

Winfrey often championed challenging work from literary figures such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. She enticed the media-shy author Cormac McCarthy onto her show to talk about his dystopic novel "The Road," a 2007 selection.

Jonathan Franzen was one of those literary writers. When his book "The Corrections" was a 2001 pick, he expressed ambivalence about the selection — which was widely perceived to be a critique of Winfrey's dedicated army of readers.

His scheduled appearance on the show was cancelled. Winfrey suddenly dropped her selections to as few as two a year. She began to bypass contemporary fiction for classics by Steinbeck and Tolstoy — long-dead authors who couldn't make a fuss. Publishers realized that a vital literary force had left them, cold.

Franzen, like Frey, has been welcomed back into Winfrey's club fold. In September 2010, she announced with some fanfare that Franzen's new novel, "Freedom" — his first since "The Corrections" — would kick off the club of her final broadcast season. And Franzen — gingerly and apologetically — appeared on the show in December.

"I will say this: It's an honor to have you here — finally," Oprah said munificently.

But the sales that Oprah's Book Club once generated are not what they were. Publisher Penguin confirms that its reprint of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," a 2004 pick, sold in the 900,000 range, while a special edition of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" — the final club selection — sold 360,000.

"It was very brilliant invention; it worked beautifully," says FGS's Galassi. Yet now, "like any established institution, it doesn't have quite the same freshness, the excitement factor as when it first happened."

Maybe Winfrey will be able to rekindle that excitement at her new cable network, OWN — but the future of the book club is uncertain. According to a source on the Oprah Winfrey Network, there are no firm plans for a new club, but Winfrey has expressed interest in continuing it after her current series is over.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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