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Who Gets to be the 'Great American Writer'? Toni Morrison and Oprah's Book Club
This essay began as teaching notes. --Amardeep Singh
Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club has been an extremely successful experiment. It’s disrupted traditional structures for assigning cultural capital to emerging authors, and proven to be a powerful engine for authors to gain publicity and influence. It’s also been good for Oprah Winfrey, as she transitioned, starting in the late 1990s, from someone essentially known as a feel-good talk-show host and talented interviewer to a person with a broad influence over a swath of American culture, through her magazine and TV network.
But Oprah’s Book Club been coded as specifically feminine -- her list has been dominated by authors who identify as women -- which means it’s sometimes been seen as not ‘literary’ enough for a certain kind of author. Below, we'll contrast Morrison's involvement with Oprah's Book Club with the approach taken by Jonathan Franzen, who indicated he was ambivalent about being selected for Oprah’s book club in 2001. It’s intriguing to compare the way Franzen’s career has been received to how Morrison’s has. Who gets to be called “The Great American Novelist”?
Oprah began her Book Club in in 1996, at the peak of Oprah Winfrey’s successful run as a daytime talk show host. Oprah’s website lists 86 total books in the book club over the years. Initially, she was picking a book every month. Later, the club went into hiatus & since its return it’s been on an “occasional” basis, with no set schedule. The "Book Club" effect on the publishing industry was pretty dramatic: a book selected for the book club could see its sales skyrocket, from ~10,000 to into the millions overnight. And while it's not the force it once was, Oprah's Book Club is still generating hits; a recent example might be the book American Dirt.
Some of Oprah’s selections align with ‘prestige’ choices (i.e., writers like Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and yes, Toni Morrison). But others were clearly chosen because, well, Oprah liked them. The breakthrough initially was the sense that these choices were authentically connected to Oprah -- chosen by a highly relatable human, not a publisher, editor, or academic.
Toni Morrison made four appearances on Oprah's Book Club:
- Song of Solomon (October 1996; book originally published in 1979! Became a National Bestseller for the first time after Oprah)
- Paradise (January 1998)
- The Bluest Eye (April 2000; originally published in 1970)
- Sula (April 2002; originally published in 1973)
Morrison of course appeared on Oprah's show on numerous other occasions as well. Below, for instance, is an excerpt of an appearance she made in 2011.
John K. Young, in Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, explores the intersection of gender, race, and prestige entailed in Morrison's presence in Oprah's Book Club:
Before her first Oprah appearance in December 1996, Morrison was a Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner, held an endowed chair at Princeton University, and was one of the most respected voices in contemporary American literature. While Pierre Bourdieu’s inverse equation between cultural and commercial capitals would make this aesthetic success dependent on a consequent lack of marketability, since aligning herself with Winfrey Morrison became the best-selling author of Song of Solomon, nineteen years after its first publication; of Paradise, probably the least accessible book she has yet written; of The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel; and, most recently, of Sula (2002) [... ] By constructing an audience built through popular, ostensibly low, culture for her serious novels, Morrison explodes the high-low divide that still holds for much of postmodern art. Morrison sells herself and her novels, like jazz, through popular media and thus constructs herself as a self-consciously commodified textual authority.
In effect, Young suggests that Morrison's presence on Oprah's Book Club contributed to a realignment of American publishing, away from a prestige hierarchy (which almost always had white male authors at the top), towards a new alignment in which serious literary fiction and commercial marketability could be linked, especially when supported by charismatic author figures like Morrison.
An example of the high-low divide in action might be the episode with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001). The Corrections is a book that had a high-prestige orientation -- it was widely and approvingly reviewed in prestigious venues like the New York Times Book Review, and it won prize after prize. had a ‘serious’ subject -- the transition from an industrial economy to an information based/tech economy -- and the sense that our lives are increasingly not grounded in concrete materialities but virtualize technological fads and fashion. Looked at another way, it’s about highly educated, middle-class white people and their complicated romantic and personal lives.
Oprah apparently read The Corrections and liked it in 2001. She selected it for her Book club, only to discover that Franzen was unhappy about the selection choice. Here’s a Salon.com article dealing with Franzen's comments on Oprah's Book Club and his subsequent attempt to take it back:
"She's picked some good books," Franzen said in an interview posted on Powells.com, "but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself ..." Although the rest of the quote read "even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight," damage was done.
Franzen has apologized and clarified, blamed his own inexperience in handling the media and attributed his reservations to not wanting to see a "corporate logo" on the cover of his book -- but it will be difficult for him to erase the impression that snobbishness caused him to diss Winfrey. And so, alas. Alas because "The Corrections" is a very fine book, one of the best I've read in several years, and Franzen is a well-intentioned, hardworking, serious and very talented writer whose work I've long admired (full disclosure: I know Franzen socially). "Oprah Winfrey is bent on demonstrating that estimates of the size of the audience for good books is too small," Franzen told the New York Times Wednesday, "and that is why it is so unfortunate that this is being cast as arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey." (Salon.com)
When Franzen published another novel in 2010 (Freedom), he was only too happy to have it selected for Oprah's Book Club -- and she was ahppy to invite him back -- water under the bridge.
Still, one has to wonder: Which books exactly did Franzen find “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional”? How many of those “schmaltzy” books were written by women or people of color?
To answer that, I looked at the list of writers and started to collect some demographic data about them:
Oprah’s Book Club’s first five years up until The Corrections
Women writers (1996-2001)
Jacquelyn Mitchard, Toni Morrison (X3), Jane Hamilton, Ursula Hegi, Sheri Reynolds, Maya Angelou, Mary McGarry Morris, Kaye Gibbons, Anna Quindlen, Alice Hoffman, Edwidge Danticat, Pearl Cleage, Billie Letts, Anita Shreve, Maeve Binchy, Melinda Haynes, Breena Clarke, Jane Hamilton, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Miller, Elizabeth Berg, Joyce Carol Oates, Malika Oufkir, Lalita Tademy, Gwyn Hyman Rubio, A. Manette Ansay, Tawni O’Dell, Christina Schwarz
29 total names
Men writers (1996-2001)
Wally Lamb (x2), Bill Cosby (x3), Ernest J. Gaines, Chris Bohjalian, Brett Lott, Bernhard Schlink, Robert Morgan, Andre Dubus III
8 total names
(Writers in bold are people of color, mostly Black)
Who Gets to Be the "Great American Novellist"?
In short, 78% of authors in the first five years of Oprah’s Book Club were women. 33% of the total titles (42) were by people of color. (And yes, alongside the three titles by Morrison there are three titles by Bill Cosby… That might be a conversation for a different day.)
In short, while the link between gender and prestige status is overdetermined, it seems hard to avoid thinking that Franzen’s distaste for Oprah was at least in part distaste about being associated with a feminized and therefore low-prestige list of authors, even though many of the writers were in fact award-winning authors.
One other thing we could note. Despite Morrison’s interest in being recognized by high prestige venues (i.e., the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the National Book Award, the Nobel Prize, etc.), she never once expressed any reservations about being included in Oprah’s Book Club!
Given their differential responses to Oprah's book club, it might be interesting to compare how the mainstream media responded to a writer like Franzen vis a vis their response to Morrison. Below are two Time Magazine covers:
Notice the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences! There is of course a difference in how the two authors are photographed, with Franzen shown in shadow, mostly in gray tones, and a look of contemplation. Morrison, by contrast, is presented with an inviting smile and a vibrant color photo. Franzen is every bit the 'serious author'; Morrison is an attractive personality. The more subtle distinction is in the choice of caption. Franzen is described as a "Great American novelist," while Morrison is (in the smaller print), a "Great American storyteller." The difference in the choice of phrase is significant: a "novelist" conveys institutional authority and official recognition. Being a "storyteller" is important too, but in a slightly different way -- it suggests a more informal sense of status and a connection to oral tradition and folk culture. In Morrison's case, this turns out to be accurate -- her works are connected to oral and folks culture in the Black tradition! But the difference in cultural capital between the two phrases is unfortunate. Why isn't it Morrison who is the "Great American Novelist"?